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The art of code-switching

Code SwitchingThe modifying of one’s behavior, appearance, etc., to adapt to different sociocultural norms

By Darius J. Beckham

Formerly conceptualized as double consciousness by W.E.B Du Bois in his classical work, The Souls of Black Folk, code-switching has proven to be an integral and significant practice among black Americans. According to the 2018 U.S. Census Bureau, blacks constitute 13.4% of the nation’s total population. As of 2016, blacks constituted 23.3% of the nation’s total college educated population. As a result, blacks often find themselves feeling professionally and academically isolated. Code-switching is the only defense. Despite popular belief, it is not conformation. However, it is the temporary adaptation of black customs to white spaces. It is the conscious act of forcing oneself to ban the use of the n-word, to say “bro” instead of “bruh”, to give a firm handshake instead of a casual one, to overlook countless microagressions, to become an expert at explaining the issues of black America, and so on.

Just as there are white students who enter college without ever having spent much time in black spaces, there are black students who enter college with no previous experience in predominantly white spaces. Furthermore, the probability of a white student going to a Historically Black College or University is unlikely. A black student, on the other hand, usually must choose between an HBCU and a PWI. In cases where this student chooses the latter of the two, they will likely resort to code-switching. If code-switching is to be distinguished as an art, then it must be learned. It is a mistake to believe that this is a natural behavior. Those who do not care or have not learned to do so, seemingly reinforce their own isolation within white spaces.

Consider Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s Letter from Birmingham Jail, a thorough yet patient and reasonable response to eight white clergymen who claimed that his efforts of non-violent resistance in Birmingham, Alabama were “unwise and untimely.” In their rebuke of civil disobedience, the clergy seemed to suggest they would rather the black citizens of Birmingham obey unjust laws, than break the statues that confined them to a system of segregation and oppression. It is important to understand that King would have been justified in writing an enraged, degrading response. After all, he had been arrested and sentenced to solitary confinement for protesting without a permit. However, King understood the art of code-switching. He was aware that if blacks were going to rise to their rightful place in American society, they would need to speak their demands in the language of the white majority. Had he produced an antagonistic letter, it surely would not have been received by those to whom it was intended, nor would it be revered 50 years later as a centerpiece of american literature. Most importantly, it would not have been effective.

Also, consider a humorous and more contemporary example, in the show Key & Peele’s highly esteemed sketch of Luther, Obama’s anger translator. Luther’s character, played by Keegan-Michael Key, became known for his unfiltered, fiery interpretations of President Obama’s calm remarks, played by Jordan Peele.

The sketch illustrated code switching to an extreme degree. It allowed viewers to imagine what Obama would say if he momentarily could behave as an angry black man. Luther’s role was precisely to say what Obama could not. This is a decision that black students and professionals must consistently make; what to say, how much to say, and when to say it. Code-switching does not employ an inauthentic version of self, rather, it calls upon certain aspects of one’s identity in place of others, depending on the space or circumstance. The multiple ways in which a person may code-switch are simply different facets of their personality. Although fictional, Luther was necessary and some variation of his character lives inside us all. Whether this presence comes to be known by many or few must be decided by you.

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