Words matter: Thoughts on code-switching
As a brown-skinned girl, and often the only one in some of my classes, I hardly raise my hand to offer my thoughts in class. I am the “quiet kid” who is always listening to the lectures and my peers discussing literature we were supposed to have need. Am I an introvert? Yes, I am. Yet for me, the reason behind not speaking up is because of a fear of not fitting into the standards that seemed to be placed on students like me: students of color.
While everyone around me can eloquently articulate arguments and ideas in class and exude confidence, I question my ability to do the same. I did not have the amazing private, or at least quality public school, experience that most white students had, nor have I been the best at expressing ideas clearly and concisely.
With my background, I am already at a disadvantage compared to my peers, and due to that lack of a sense of belonging, the idea of talking seems, in my mind, as if it would only exacerbate others’ opinions of me.
I have been researching code-switching, which if you don’t know is the “process of shifting from one linguistic code to another, depending on the social context or conversational settings,” per the Encyclopedia Britannica. This can be within a particular language; for example, switching from English to Spanish, or between styles of one language, from African-American Vernacular to Standardized English. As one gazes across the educational landscape, one can see how code-switching is normalized for students of color.
Often, for communities of color at a young age, children are taught to leave behind their colloquial ways of talking and writing, especially for the children who are the minority in their school. Children are taught to assimilate into their environment, — in essence, code-switch. I thought about this complex feeling of isolation that can come with being a person of color who has assimilated for survival.
I just saw a TEDx talk about the negative effects of code-switching by Chandra Arthur, and it was quite powerful. She begins her talk with a particularly harrowing anecdote. She talks about a time when a neighbor called law enforcement on her because of “suspicious activity.” Multiple police officers surrounded her front door with guns drawn. “Hands in the air! Hands in the air now!” they yelled.
Arthur, who froze in the moment, talks about how she was eventually able to compose herself and talk with the police calmly, expressing that she is the owner. In the talk, she rhetorically questions her audience, asking, “What if I had not spoken like me? What if the person who opened the door had not been able to compose themselves in the face of grave danger, confusion, and potentially even death to prove that they have the right to be on that property?”
She uses the entire story to be able to illustrate the roles behavior plays in particular situations and how code-switching can be a survival tool. She talks about how she moved from her neighborhood school to a suburban school with mostly white students, and the process of eventually assimilating to her peers occurred gradually.
She goes on to explain how when choosing to be authentically yourself, there can be some consequences, from not getting a particular job to being made fun of for wearing a hijab or dismissed because you are talking with an accent.
There is an inherent hierarchy within language, and the most respected and well-considered is Standardized English. Often for communities of color, the need to self-regulate can become quite draining and exhausting. As stated by Arthur, to “exist almost simultaneously in two or three different worlds, constantly presenting a slightly edited version of self” is a burden that can create harm to one’s physical and mental well-being.
Arthur brings to light the brand of diversity only supporting the idea of inclusion of minorities if they act and behave in specific ways. She wants to move her audience past a generic definition of diversity and recognize the importance of celebrating differences. She concludes her talk by asking the audience to imagine one world where everyone is accepted as they are, and she challenges everyone to give others the space to be themselves.
When thinking about a solution, I come across a new word, one I like much more, which is code-meshing. According to Vershawn Ashanti Young, a scholar, writer, and professor, code-meshing is defined as “combining two or more dialects, language systems, and/or communication modes to effectively write and speak within the multiple domains of society.”
While learning words and ideologies like code-switching and code-meshing, or even fully breaking down the meaning of words like diversity and equity, there needs to be more than just words, there needs to be action. Simply raising awareness of this issue is the first step because many people remain unaware of the struggles and barriers marginalized communities face.
Only then we can focus on working together to create spaces where everyone is respected no matter how they talk — because our voices matter and so do our words.
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