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.