High schooler Aaminah Babatunde-bey claims that she has been subject to code-switching as a result of her race.
Granada Hills Charter High School

You sound so white: How code-switching is symptomatic of racial prejudice in America

Imagine some of the individuals you see at school on a daily basis, whether they be the ones you bump into during passing period, the members of your English class, or even those that you call your best friends.

Latino, white, Asian, and black kids all make up part of the most basic mental image we have of our peers. As a result, we often take the great diversity of our school for granted, sometimes forgetting that regardless of how diverse our student body is, students of different racial backgrounds are still subject to vastly different experiences.

One of the major factors that shapes the experiences of minorities today is the way that they speak.

We’ve all heard a friend of color pull out his or her “white voice,” while speaking to a stranger on the phone. A casual tone of voice and everyday utterances, such as “ay,” “nah,” or “wussup” might be traded in for their more proper-sounding counterparts in front of certain people.

This behavior is called code-switching, which in its broadest sense, occurs when people change the way they express themselves.

Race reporter Gene Demby explained that, “We’re hop-scotching between different cultural and linguistic spaces and different parts of our own identities,” in an interview with National Public Radio.

In this sense, every individual code-switches, but according to many students and professionals alike, the behavior carries much more pressing implications on the way minorities are perceived and thus treated by those around them.   Although this definition steps away from its traditional meaning, the act of switching between multiple languages within a single conversation reflects the same cultural shape-shifting that minorities or people of any disadvantaged background may face today.

“At my job, I usually speak to the customer in a whiter tone of voice rather than in my casual tone of voice, which can be considered more ‘urban’ or even obnoxious. When I do speak in a more white tone it’s in situations where I’m trying to give off a good impression or speaking to someone much older than me,” Mexican-American junior Michelle Villalobos said.

Villalobos is one of many who often feel pressured to alter the way they speak in order to appear more refined to or be better accepted by others. According to PhD of Philology and author Delfin Carbonell, language discrimination is a widespread and serious issue which often subconsciously devalues certain people and their abilities based on the way they speak.

In this sense, code-switching can be seen as a method of avoiding language discrimination. By altering the way the way they speak, and in turn changing part of their identity, many people of color escape the negative views associated with their cultures and the languages that accompany them.

Whether or not this behavior should be considered acceptable is still up for debate. Black junior Aaminah Babatunde-Bey believes that in regards to the lives of disadvantaged minorities, code-switching is not only unfair, but symptomatic of a widespread distaste for people of colored communities.

“I think it says a lot about how we view minorities and the way they speak in this country. Code-switching in it of itself doesn’t imply cultural shame and it’s totally normal for people to switch back and forth. But sometimes, the reasons why we do it can come from a place of feeling like you don’t belong, and that’s not acceptable,” Babatunde-Bey said.

2 Comments

  • Reply Douglas Campbell March 18, 2017 at 3:46 pm

    What you call code switching is elsewhere called Formal American English. We all have ways in which we speak at home, and then there are the ways of speaking in commerce or in school. It’s why your teachers (or at least the good ones) emphasized correctly spoken formal English in class. Ms Bey may think that it’s unfair, but that kind of unfairness has always been present; to communicate with people outside her small neighborhood, she needs to use the language and inflections everyone knows in common.

    In my chosen field, software engineering, we have one way and one way only of speaking, which is a subset of Formal American English. If someone cannot describe their algorithms in our common language, we have no idea whether they are on track to implement what the team needs implemented. And if they do not implement it as needed, the whole team is in jeopardy. Commonality of language is essential for proper communication.

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    • Reply Tyler Kwon March 20, 2017 at 3:23 pm

      I’d just like to clarify that code-switching is not the same thing as Standard American English. It can certainly occur between this form of English and other dialects/languages, but it’s not isolated to it.

      I completely understand the necessity for the precision of language in fields as highly technical as software engineering, but this type of setting was not the focus of my article. My goal was to emphasize that effective communication in other spheres of life and the maintenance of nontraditional forms of English are not mutually exclusive, and that considering otherwise could be a sign of racial/classist prejudice more than an actual desire for clarity.

      Code-switching implies some degree of proficiency in both languages, meaning that if you couldn’t understand what someone was trying to say in one language, they could switch to the other. But, chances are that wouldn’t need to happen because vernacular forms of English still are English: people who speak them can still effectively communicate their thoughts and ideas, just with certain intonations and grammar rules that diverge from the traditional norm. In places like the schoolyard and restaurants, and even beyond, there is no real need for these people to change the way they speak.

      Believe it or not, Aaminah’s “small neighborhood,” the San Fernando Valley, is actually quite large, and is chock full of non-white individuals, many of whom speak non-standard forms of English. In fact, many parts of America are beginning to resemble her “small neighborhood” as we become a more diverse, and less racially segregated nation. I think that speaks to the need for adjustments in the way people view vernacular forms of English, rather than major changes in the speakers themselves.

      Thank you for your comment, though. I think it is important for people to recognize that code-switching isn’t some inherently evil symbol of oppression against minorities. My ultimate goal in writing this article was to add an important perspective to the mix that would aid in more thorough, thoughtful understandings about the nature of discrimination against minorities in this country.

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