Code-switching to thrive
Jacqueline Roebuck Sakho
Tami Winfrey Harris in an article on the Psychology Today website discusses code-switching broadly and specifically, how various subgroups within the African-American community engage in this survival mechanism. The author provides an excerpt about code-switching and African-American women and how we utilize the social mechanism to survive. I reflected on my own experiences with code-switching and discovered that in reframing it as both a supportive and empowerment tool shifts the mechanism from survival to thriving.
Find Winfrey Harris’s article here “What’s so wrong with sounding black?” in her series “Exploring race bias in our everyday lives” at Psychology Today online.
I have engaged in code-switching to survive in the dominant culture and now, I engage because I’ve grown and fallen in love with the creative complexity of Black folk speech. I love to speak the eloquence of the streets, here in using “streets” I am expressing that I most often encounter the verbal dance in black neighborhoods or in areas where black folks are heavily populated.
I love to speak with the poetic rhythm that rolls of my hood tongue turned scholar speech with much the same romanticism as Zora, and them. Simple phrases cause the intellect to activate like when folks inquire, “What’s good?” I feel the joy through their smile and discern that my kindred would like to know how I might be feeling in the present and long-term or wondering what’s new in my world. Coming from a different inquirer, this call can suggest that I engage in a rousing bout of flirtation. When spoken from those lips, my response, tone and disposition are inviting and now alluring because to participate in code-switching requires the entire being. So when he calls, “What’s good?” I respond, “You.” Before I can complete the period and quotation mark, I can feel a roaring thunder rumbling up to respond, “That’s what’s up!” as a way to acknowledge approval of what is heard, or spoken.
Code-switching to thrive can resuscitate the whimsical challenge, the dance of courtship. Recently while traveling I encountered a fellow traveler, a Brother that commented, “I like your luggage.” My response, “I like you…now what?” He smiled with delight, I smiled with approval and we set off to destinations unknown but I would suspect stronger and better able to navigate our struggles in the world.
Reverse code-switching, not sure if this language even exists but is reflective of how I take African American Vernacular English (AAVE) to the dominant culture. I was in a meeting advocating for a parent and her daughter around Special Education services for Epilepsy. In a prior meeting the team agreed to invite a representative from the local Epilepsy Foundation to provide training for school personnel. The training had not taken place since the prior meeting and a team member shared that the representative did come to the school but only provided flyers and did not make any further inquiries. I know the representatives politics as it relates to Epilepsy along with their work ethic. I named the representative and said, “doesn’t get down like that.” I then proceeded to engage the team in the structure of formal register, the language that regulates formal processes. The family is African American, the majority of the team and the Epilepsy Foundation representative not in attendance, are White folks. So not so much that I move between cultures only speaking formal register in structured settings and AAVE or causal register in safe and familiar settings, but more so incorporating AAVE in settings that are designed for formal register hence, the interruption.
The above narrative demonstrates how I understand reverse Code-switching. Reverse code-switching interrupts the space that language holds within inequitable dimensions of power, creating a place which values AAVE as a cultural difference with capital.