“You talk so white.”
“She thinks she’s white.”
“You’re the whitest Black person I know.”
When I was a kid — and if I’m honest, well past that — nothing could fill me with more shame than someone leveling these accusations. They’ve come from both Black people (accusingly) and white people (“jokingly”), but the sting is the same. So is the implication: that by being me — dressing the way I do, talking the way I do, having the interests I have, etc. — I’m aspiring to be white and/or don’t want to be Black. Neither of which are true (or possible for that matter!).
When I look in the mirror, I see a Black woman. I walk in the world and have all the fears and burdens of a Black woman. I feel proud to be a Black woman. Which means these comments should roll off my back, and yet the feelings these comments conjure are still there. Even writing this now makes me embarrassed, like I’m admitting to the world that I’m somehow doing “being Black” wrong.
Part of the problem is, I’ve always been terrible at “code-switching.” Broadly speaking, this is the practice of adopting different styles of speech, affects and mannerisms, depending on the group of people you’re with. We all code-switch to a degree. How you act around your mom is different from how you act around your supervisor. How you present for a birthday trip to Mardi Gras is different from how you show up for a presentation at work. And we all read these cues from others, as well; it’s human nature to size someone up based on how they dress, speak, act, etc. and classify them within a certain group.
Some people code-switch so seamlessly they aren’t even aware they’re doing it. While I was writing this piece, I asked a (bi-racial Black/white) friend if he code-switched and his answer was no. Then I observed him talking on the phone with a colleague, a college friend, and his mother, in three completely distinctive voices. (Where did that Southern drawl come from?)
You could argue that code-switching is harmless. After all, there’s a lot to be said for social adaptability — being comfortable with different people, in different settings, in different places. But the origins of the concept refer to minorities and/or non-native English speakers feeling pressure to adhere to a set of dominant cultural (white-centered) “norms” in order to achieve social or professional success or avoid judgments and stereotypes. For example, someone with a limited command of English may be considered less smart than a proficient English speaker. Someone who wears cornrows might be labeled as “inappropriate” in the office. Someone who uses slang may be deemed “unprofessional.”
In these scenarios, a person might be compelled to code-switch away from language and norms they find familiar and comfortable. As described in The Cost of Code Switching in the Harvard Business Review, code-switching has “long been a strategy for Black people to successfully navigate interracial interactions and has large implications for their well-being, economic advancement, and even physical survival.” That some people may feel they must deviate from their true selves in order to counteract stereotypes or access opportunities — or even for the sake of their very well-being is a huge and unfair burden. There’s a fine line between fitting in and forced conformity. And a cost.
Part of the reason I, personally, have trouble code-switching is that I’m only able to be one me. For better or worse, that same person is going to show up to my parent’s couch, the cookout, or a meeting with the Pope with shockingly little deviation. I don’t say that to sound smug — as I mentioned, I sometimes wish I were better at code-switching. But I wonder if this is something we should be doing at all? Who feels they need to code-switch, and why? Does it compromise authenticity?
To dig in, I spoke to four people: Caryn, a 50-something Black woman in Florida; Gaylord, a Jamaican American man; Fatima, a Pakistani immigrant in her late 20s; and Daphne, a Latina college professor. Of course, their experiences aren’t representative of anything beyond their own personal perspectives, but it was fascinating to hear their takes.
Caryn learned to code-switch from a young age: “In an educational environment, I realized there was an ‘acceptable’ way that I needed to speak and write: using proper, proper English. No one ever told me, you do this here versus you do this there. It was more intuitive. It’s funny now because my daughter will say, ‘Oh, you have your work voice on.’ And it’s not just about language. Overall, it’s like, here’s how you need to be around white people.”
We talked about the judgments people make about folks who aren’t speaking “properly,” and the surprise people feel when you, as a Black person, do speak “properly” (the whole “you’re so articulate” thing [NYTimes]). Too often people are dismissed solely because of their tone and vernacular.
Caryn will sometimes challenge these biases by going above and beyond with formal diction and word choice. “You can sense when people have certain expectations,” she says. “So, it’s like, all right, in this particular conversation, it’s gonna be ‘with whom’ because I want to say, listen, I don’t play this.”
The reverse is also true. Caryn uses slang and a more relaxed style when she wants to connect with certain audiences, particularly Black audiences. “It could be a casual expression — ‘Ain’t nobody got time for that’ — or a reference to a show that was watched by a Black audience — ‘Whatchu talkin’ ’bout Willis.’ I connect with people through a shared experience or interest that’s a slice of Black Americana.”
For Gaylord, who grew up in one of only three Black families in his neighborhood outside Philadelphia, code-switching hit in an even bigger way when he went to college. He made friends with both Black and white kids, even though those worlds were segregated. “I had to learn how to act in each of the groups. For example, at white frat parties, I wore classic fit jeans, so I didn’t look ‘thuggish,’ but at Black frat parties, I wore boot-cut jeans, so I looked ‘cool.’ I also had to know the right music references to fit into each group — e.g., Robert Palmer versus Run-DMC — though there were the genius artists, like Prince and Madonna, who appealed to both crowds. All of this thespianism, however, got me to about 85%. Basically, I tried to fit into both groups, but I never felt like I was a true member of either.”
This is what upsets me about the idea of code-switching — that we’re contorting ourselves to fit in while sacrificing an authenticity that might foster deeper belonging. We can compromise so much of ourselves and still struggle with acceptance.
But Gaylord saw a benefit: the experience helped him feel comfortable moving between cultures while traveling around the world. “It enables people like myself to participate in different cultures,” he said. “We’re never going to be fully accepted, but we will be allowed to visit freely.”
After immigrating to the United States from Pakistan when she was nine, Fatima consciously began code-switching in order to fit in at school. “We moved into an upper middle class neighborhood, but my family was struggling financially. I didn’t have the ‘right’ clothes, and I looked and sounded different. I didn’t want to stand out.”
So, Fatima spoke one way with her American friends — losing her accent and picking up slang — and spoke completely differently at home and the mosque. As she grew up, her religious views and cultural references diverged further and further from her parents’ until there were two separate versions of herself: an independent liberal American woman, and a faithful daughter holding onto customs of her conservative Muslim community. She asked a haunting and profound question: “Sometimes I wonder which of them is the real me?”
But while this might sound heartbreaking, Daphne, a bilingual Latina whose roots stretch from the Dominican Republic to Mexico to Texas, not only embraces code-switching but also writes and teaches about it. She describes it not as a stark switch back and forth, but more of a fluid blending of cultures and language.
“Code-switching is beautiful because it allows you to hold onto two things, versus letting go of one or the other,” she told me. “I recognize there’s oppression in that I’m expected to act or speak in a different way from who I really am. But, in a way, I’m taking language and quilting with it. I’m bringing strands together into something even more meaningful. Code-switching is a way of claiming your identities, of putting a stake in the ground and saying, I’m not this one thing.”
Given how wary I’ve been, as a Black woman, of the darker side of code-switching, and the costs, I admit that Daphne’s viewpoint offers another way of looking at things. These conversations gave me a lot to think about — and that’s the whole point. We could all stand to be more mindful of how we are presenting ourselves and why. What judgments we’re making of other people and why. Who sets the expectations for how we can be and why. And, of course, how can we create a world expansive enough that we’re all allowed to be authentic? Is it possible that one day our cultural melting pot will obliterate the need for code-switching? I certainly wish that for all the little girls teased for being “oreos” and for anyone who’s felt they had to warp part of themselves for acceptance.
To end on a lighter note, here’s a sketch about a code-switching from one of my favorite shows, Key and Peele. Of course, as always, I would love to hear your experiences and thoughts about this topic. See you in the comments!
Christine Pride is a writer, book editor and content consultant. Her debut novel, We Are Not Like Them, written with Jo Piazza came out in 2021. She lives in Harlem, New York. Find her on Instagram @cpride.