In my own life, I’ve been trained to quickly make the jump from Black English (formerly known as Ebonics) to Standard English without batting an eye. It happens when I’m on the phone with my mom telling her about some cable company that has me all the way messed up if they think I’m going to be overcharged for this bill and hang up with her to ask them to please explain all of the charges. It happens when one of my girlfriends calls me to spill some tea and then I walk into a classroom and must be ready to engage in critical discourse seconds later. It happens when I’m with my brother flailing my hands while discussing the world’s problems in our kitchen and then I am forced to write about the same problems in some academic jargon using terms that people who are affected by the problem may or may not understand.
I’ve become a master at code switching. A boss, if you will.
Where did I learn this skill? From my parents, of course (don’t act like y’all don’t remember your mother goin’ from her “do you have McDonald’s money” voice to her “professional white lady” voice). They understood that they had to use the same tactics to progress in their careers.
And while I am proud of my linguistic heritage and my ability to switch between two dialects almost instinctually, I often struggle with the idea of why we even have to. In her book Talkin’ That Talk Geneva Smitherman (linguistic goddess) explained that Standard English is the language of power and that it would “behoove” those invested in the American dream to master its tongue. That’s heartbreaking. It’s also another reminder that these spaces weren’t made for us.
Rather than spaces (I would like you to know I started to list some spaces where we code switch and then sadly realized I just wouldn’t have enough space in this post) making room and seeking to understand the language of the people who occupy them, folks from historically impoverished communities are once again either left to conform or be left behind.
If we conform, we run the risk of losing our cultural heritage and perhaps even no longer being able to communicate with those we love most; with those for whom we started the work. However, if we make the choice not to code switch, we run the risk of being misunderstood. We could do the whole protest and take a stance thing, but honestly if the people in power around us don’t understand what we’re saying and choose to disengage because of that, we’re not being productive at all.
In my own academic career, I’ve chosen to deal with this dilemma in the following ways:
- My research focuses on the ways teachers value their students’ cultural practices. It helps me understand how teachers strive to get to know their students and how they work to affirm the language practices their kids bring with them. In this way, my research has become a form of therapy.
- I have a circle of Black professors and peers that I can code switch with. I’m comfortable with them. I let my hair down when I’m with them. They understand the struggles I face, the jargon I have to use, and the game I play on a daily basis. Often, they’re better at playing the game than I am and can offer me insight on rules I haven’t even thought of.
- I talk to my family. Often. And in my dialect. Sometimes it’s about what I’m learning in school, but most times it’s not. I don’t have to put on airs with them. That’s the point.
- Finally, I write. Between this blog and my journal, I have plenty of space to talk candidly and using whatever vernacular I want without fear that my ideas will be dismissed for lack of understanding.
As with all things that have racial implications, I think those in power have to be willing to address their own biases and think about why language variations other than Standard English are not seen as legitimate. I think they have to be willing to ask themselves what is it about dialects like Black English and Spanglish that they can’t get with (Is it that for once, they feel left out?). Until some serious soul searching takes place for those people, I’m not sure we’ll begin to see those changes at all.