Volodymyr hryshchenko V5vq WC9gy EU unsplash

Pliable Vernacular: The Art of Code-Switching


What the hell is Code-Switching?

What the hell is code-Switching? Code-Switching, in appropriate terms, is the practice of alternating between two or more languages, or varieties of language in conversation. In Black terms, code-switching is used to describe how some Black women communicate with their home-girls, performing pliable vernacular, depending on our environment. Black women vacillate between what is considered appropriate English, a language foreign to my ancestors. The art of code-switching is nuanced in the ability to read the room.

Code-Switching and Power Dynamics

To say it is challenging to be a Black woman in America, is an understatement. Racial stratification places Black women amongst the lowest in terms of race, gender, wealth, and class, exempt from social and cultural capital. Not only are we worth less in terms of salaries of white men, and women, but we dare not bring our authenticity, or culture into white spaces; work or social. Sociologist, Pierre Bourdieu, who was concerned with dynamics of power in society, and examined how our experiences determine the way we navigate power dynamics in patterned ways. Black women code-switch to feel welcomed in unwelcomed, dominant spaces.

Markus spiske Qozz Jp FZ2lg unsplash

Code-Switching and White Privilege

Peggy McIntosh’s essay, White Privilege :Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack, demonstrates the assumed. McIntosh states, “White privilege is like an invisible weightless knapsack of special provisions, maps, passports, codebooks, visas, clothes, tools , and blank checks.” (McIntosh, 1990), but let me add to that, authenticity. McIntosh doesn’t use the term code-switching under section Daily Effects of White Privilege, instead in the list of 50 privileges, “50. I will feel welcomed and “normal” in the usual walks of public life, institutional and social.” (McIntosh, 1990). Code-switching is used by Black women to mirror their White colleagues, professionals, and friends, to feel welcomed in their spaces. Higher Education is the most important equalizer of social stratification for economic inequality in the U.S., yet Black women are still code-switching for social mobility, acceptance, and equity. Having the ability to code-switch back to Black, connects us to our language, culture, ethnicity, familiarity, sisterhood, and a way to let newcomers know that you speak the same language, belong to the same sisterhood, and understand the struggle.

How do you learn Code-Switching?

I noticed the way my parents spoke to different ethnic groups as a young child. My mother performed code-switching to her Black friends in the majority Black neighborhood, however, my mother did not code-switch when speaking to our teachers, family physician, white neighbors, and, not in our home. My mother used “appropriate English,” in the home, and scolded us if we did not. Instantaneously, I could pick up the ethnicity of the person she was speaking to on the phone. Conversations with her Black friends started like this, “Sweet Pea, what you say?” followed by sisterhood laughter. Alternately, I noticed doctor visit conversations were never led by the same language I overheard with her Black friends. Racial schemas influence us whether we are aware of it or not. White conversations were more stoic, and went like this, “Hello Dr. Armbruster, how are you today?” Those visits never ended with laughter, there were no nicknames involved, reason being, our doctor was a White male, the very top of the social class hierarchy in the U.S. My mother’s lifestyle did not require much code-switching, because she worked in the home, or the term I never heard used in the home, was a housewife. My mother could be her middle-class, authentic self, most of the time. However, she code-switched to fit in with the most oppressed racial group in America, the poorer Black women in the neighborhood. My mother is fair skinned, and if there were no “one drop rule,” she would be considered an “Honorary White,” according to Bonilla-Silva’s tri-racial system; her friends were brown skinned, placing them in the ‘Collective Black,” category. Recognizing the intersectionality, a term coined by Kimberle` Crenshaw, of race, gender, class, and language, is how my mother learned to read the room.

Code-Switching and the Classroom

Julia Daniels analyses data from a study done with a group of White teachers to learn consequences of racialized language in the classroom. White teachers, taught code-switching to students of color in high school. Paper, “There’s No Way This Isn’t Racist”: White Women Teachers and the Raciolinguistic Ideologies of Teaching Code-Switching.” White women make up the majority of teachers in the U.S., most are not culturally proficient to meet the needs of students of color. (Daniels, 2018). The study looks at teacher relationships, beliefs and how language pedagogy separates race from language, by enforcing “standard language.” There is an unspoken understanding that Whiteness is the advantage in America, and the “standard” by which we should all live up to. Teaching code-switching to “standard English” is commonly taught and enforced in public schools in the U.S. Comparisons were made between “nonstandard language,” and “standard language,” to teach students of color how to use appropriate language. Some of the teachers opposed the study, and felt that it could hurt students, and some argued that they needed to learn “appropriate,” writing and language, for college entrance essays, and social mobility. Some of the teachers continued teaching code-switching after the study. The outcome was that teaching students of color that the “standard language” pedagogy by White teachers, is the acceptable language in the U.S., and the only way to eliminate racial hierarchies (Daniels, 2018). Black women understand language and social mobility are connected, and therefore, code-switch, but we also understand that code-switching does not eliminate racial hierarchies, and infrastructure of oppression.

Do all Black Women Code-Switch?

Code-switching is not a skill all Black women have the ability to perform, as Black women are not a monolith. There are some Black women fortunate enough to enjoy the benefits of bourgeoisie social class status, and some that have not learned in the home, therefore, have not acquired the skill. As Black women navigate White male dominant spaces, we begin our journey in primary school, participating in extracurricular activities, workspaces, serving in our communities, and speaking in public forums. We learn to interact with a spectrum of White social classes, spanning from low to upper class. Black women know that we are expected to assimilate, hide who we are at our core, without any regard to our ancestral history, ethnicity, income, social capital, or level of education. Sociologist theorist, Patricia Hill Collins, whose focus is Black Feminist Thought, states, “Oppressed peoples may maintain hidden consciousness, and may not reveal their true selves for reasons of self-protection.” (Collins, 1986). The colonization of our ancestor’s decided the language we shall speak; therefore, we code-switch.

Katelynn Duggins explains why and how she learned to code-switch, while keeping her values in-tact, in her TEDx Talk, “To Code-Switch or Not to Code-Switch? That is the Question.

What if you have not learned to code-switch? Chandra Arthur talks about code-switching potentially saving her life in TEDx Talk, “The Cost of Code Switching.” Arthur speaks about what could be the cost to a person if we do not have the skillset to code-switch when confronted by White male supremacy dressed in a police uniform.

What’s the worst that can happen if you cannot code-switch from “Black English” to proper English? Renee Blake, Associate Professor in the Department of Linguistics at New York University, The Department of Social and Cultural Analysis, and the Director of Africana Studies, discusses why we must code-switch as Black people to survive in America, in the video, “What is Code-Switching? | Between the Lines. ( Huff Post, July 13, 2018).

Jessica felicio kgv0t4p I1 T4 unsplash

Code-Switching with my “Girl”

Unlike my mother, I work outside the home, which means my time for authenticity is limited. I “code-switch” with my closest friends. Karla Scott, author of, Crossing cultural borders: ‘girl’ and ‘look’ as markers of identity in Black women’s language use. (2000). Scott examines how issues of race and class has been exempt from women’s communication. Scott notes, “the study of Black women’s language is important since Black women usually raise the children, and ultimately, the community as a whole” (Scott, 2000). Historically, Black women were outsiders-within, they have amassed a more complex communicative repertoire than most White women. Why? Because as domestic workers, they listened to White women in their homes, and Black women at home. Scott notes, the word “girl” is used to show solidarity between Black women (Scott, 2000).

My best friend and I use “girl” to greet each other. We cannot remember a time, when we called each other by our formal names, since we met 20 years ago. I code-switch depending on the friend I receive a phone call from, while in the midst of White colleagues or friends. I abbreviate for ease; White friend (WF) vs. Black friend (BF).

WF: “Hi Temple how are you doing?“ “What have you been up to? “Let’s get together?”

Me: “Hi Ashley, I am well, thank you for asking.” “How are you doing?” “Just busy with work stuff.” “Sure, let’s get together soon!”

BF: “Girrllllllll, how YOU doin’?” “What it be like?” “We need to get together!” (unstoppable laughter).

Me: “Girrrlllllll I’m good, how YOU doin’?” “You know it do what it do!” “Miss you girl!” When we gettin’ together?” (more unstoppable laughter).

Black women explain the arenas in which we code-switch in this video, “How Black Women Really Speak To Each Other |Go Off Sis |Refinery29.” (October 10, 2018).

Code-Switching, Racism and Sexism in the Workplace

Hall, Everett, & Hamilton-Mason, conduct an analysis of transcripts about five basic themes focused on racism and sexism in the workplace, titled, Black Women Talk About Workplace Stress and How They Cope, “a) being hired in the workplace, b) developing relationships with coworkers and mentors, c) dealing with racism and discrimination d) being isolated and/or excluded, and e) code-switching to overcome barriers to employment.” (2012).

Conscious or unconscious views see Black women as a risk, resulting in unfavorable treatment or exclusion. This article examines Black women trying to explain themselves, and the entire race of people, while White women do not, and are judged individually. One question asked, “You speak the King’s English, don’t you? You are not using colloquialisms and slang terms.” (Hall, et. al, 2012).

Code-switching is an internal, and external process, which chips away at the Black woman’s sense of self, and security. This lends itself to Patricia Hill Collins’ outsider-within theory, Black women have a unique perspective of how racism, and sexism works in professional settings, therefore, they understand how people of color should conduct themselves in the presence of White men, and women (Collins, 1986).

Black women occupy a unique position in White society. As Black women, they cannot afford to express authenticity at work, and give reason to prove Black female stereotypes of unintelligence, and gaudy behavior, known to threaten White patriarchy (Collins, 1986). Black women’s culture, and experiences suggest we “overtly conform to the society roles laid out for us, yet we covertly oppose those roles.” (Collins, 1986).

Black women code-switch by altering their outer appearance as well. They shift for work each morning, then another direction at home each night. They adjust the way they act in one context after another, depending on the setting, we are always reading the room. Black women cover up their intelligence by code-switching with one group of friends, less educated, and do everything possible to cover up their ethnic cultural identity in professional settings, in the presence of White men and women. Code-switching is exhausting!

About the Author

Temple Patton, M.A.

Ms. Temple D. Patton is the Associate Director of Diversity and Inclusion, Co-chair of the Diversity Committee, and Coordinator for the Regional Business Management Program, Fisher College of Business at The Ohio State University at Lima. Ms. Patton has been an advocate for diversity, inclusion, and equity in higher education since beginning 2002.

For a full bio, click here.

Arthur, Chandra. (2017, June) TEDx Talk: The Cost of Code Switching. YouTube. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Bo3hRq2RnNI

Blake, Renee. (2018, July 13). What is Code Switching | Between the Lines? YouTube. Huff Post. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=QNbdn0yuUw8

Bonilla-Silva, Eduardo, 1962 - . (2014). Racism Without Racists: Color-Blind and the Persistence of Racial Inequality in America. Lanham: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, Inc. 2014. The Central Frames of Color-Blind Racism. Chapter 2, p. 25-52.

Collins, H., Patricia. (October – December 1986). Learning from the Outsider Within: The Sociological Significance of Black Feminist Thought. Source: Social Problems, Vol. 33. No. 6. Published by: Oxford University Press on behalf of the Society for the Study of School Problems. Accessed: 08-04-2020.

Duggins, Katelynn. (2018, February 9). TEDx MAYS High School: To Code-Switch or Not to Code-Switch? That is the Question. YouTube. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=sncGGjaYJ5I

Daniels, R. Julia. (2018). There’s No Way This Isn’t Racist”: White Women Teachers and the Raciolinguistic Ideologies of Teaching Code-Switching. Journal of Linguistic Anthropology. Vol. 28, Issue 2, pp. 155-174. Copyright, American Anthropological Association.

Hall, J., Everett, J., & Hamilton-Mason, J. (2012). Black Women Talk About Workplace Stress and How They Cope. Journal of Black Studies, 43(2), 207-226. Retrieved July 6, 2020, from www.jstor.org/stable/23215207

McIntosh, Peggy. (1990). Excerpt, White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack. Essay is excerpted from Working Paper 189. “White Privilege and Male Privilege: A Personal Account of Coming to See Correspondences through Work in Women’s Studies” (1988).

SCOTT, K. (2000). Crossing cultural borders: 'girl' and 'look' as markers of identity in Black women's language use. Discourse & Society, 11(2), 237-248. Retrieved July 6, 2020, from www.jstor.org/stable/42888309

Unknown author. (2018, October 10). How Black Women Really Speak To Each Other |Go Off Sis | Refinery29. YouTube. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Gsl23KDYJls