Why I’m So Happy My Mother Taught Me Code Switching

Code Switching is so much better than assimilation.

Why I’m So Happy My Mother Taught Me Code Switching
Photo by Sai De Silva on Unsplash

What Is Code Switching

For my readers who don’t know what code switching is, it’s when a person switches their language, pronunciations, and/or dialects to better fit in with a group. The people most frequently required to code switch in America are Blacks and people of color. The reasons we code switch may vary, but the primary reason for any of us to engage in code switching is because in America the dominant (White) racial group requires us to for our survival. Code switch also includes changing names to decrease the likelihood of White Americans being less tolerant. For example, Amir or Rishi (Indian men) working in a god awful call center in India will give themselves European names and try to speak with American accents in order to appease angry Whites who only want to speak to “Americans” who speak English with no accents.

The sound of non-White people speaking their native and cultural languages, dialects, and tongues really drives a lot of White people crazy — so we code switch to please and appease Whiteness. We are just doing our good model minority service.

It’s the Quiet Thing They Don’t Say Aloud

Code switching is most times an unspoken requirement by Whites in order to be accepted and respected in their worlds. We code switching because we know Whites judge Blacks and people of color on how we speak. Speaking the Kings English (code switching) to them implies intelligence/intellect, but it’s also another way Whites subjugate Blacks and people of color. Requiring us to speak in a manner that is pleasing and acceptable to them in order to work, play, do business with, etc. is a form of domination and control. Why else would you force a person born and raised in another non-European country to speak English? Most White people don’t give it a second thought because their mindsets stay in superiority mode. The bottom line is that non-Whites must accommodate Whites.

The other reason is simple, they are nosey. White people hate not knowing what other people are saying (stems from slavery times), so bitching about the way people speak or forcing folks to speak English is a way of knowing everything.

We code switch for our security (financial, personal, social). Most Black Americans who are descendants of slaves had their own languages and cultures. A lot of the language we use is handed down from I’m from South Carolina and my family originated from the low-country where there is a rich slave history full of languages, customs, foods, and cultures. My parents made sure me and my siblings did not forsake our culture, choosing to teach us code switching in order to preserve what’s left of our Black languages and culture instead of immersing into all White settings which could damage our self-esteem.

My mother started teaching me about code-switching in elementary school and I’m so thankful she chose that method instead of all out assimilation by forcing me to attend all-White schools where I was the only minority, forced to speak the language and assume the values of the descendants colonizers. That never works well for us.

I might have been forced to code-switch in public spaces, but at home and in throughout my childhood, I was allowed to embody all that Black culture offered. We would not forsake our culture, values, traditions, and languages because the descendants of colonizers believed they were uncivilized. In our household, my mother taught us who the real uncivilized people were — and they weren’t Black people.

My Childhood Code-Switching

We had an interesting childhood. Because my mother was functionally mentally ill, she was able to work, and she worked for the city and state government until she retired. My mom only had a high school diploma, but she was smart as a whip. She made sure we were educated and that we went to schools where we were safe and free from the racial prejudice.

Looking back on my education now, I think my teachers were the last generation of educators raised and educated from the civil rights era when Black education centered and people like Dr. Benjamin Mays, Justice Thurgood Marshall, Coretta Scott King represented Black educated, Black excellence. Back then Black was a source of pride and Black educators knew the important role education played in making things better for the collective. Educators understood smart and talented Black children would be the only hope for the Black community’s future, so they all tended to us like we were beautiful flowers in their gardens. They made sure we were loved, welcomed, educated, disciplined, and respected. They also taught us code switching.

The things I loved about going to all public Black schools was being taught by Black teachers, attending schools led by Black principals with the swagger of Denzel Washington or the class of Diahann Carroll, and watching my Black teachers inconspicuously teach us about code-switching. Black teachers would talk to us and teach us often the way our parents did in our homes, the Black way — using our language, in our Southern Black dialects. The discipline in school was no different. The village raised the children, spankings included. We knew to behave because getting in trouble at school meant trouble at home. We also didn’t want to let our teachers down. If our parents got word we’d misbehaved in school, we had hell on our hands when we got home. Black teachers were highly regarded in the same way we revered our church elders and civil rights leaders.

Our teachers taught us how to speak to each other inside of our worlds, and they taught how to speak outside of communities. I attended to predominately Black public schools until my last year of high school and nurtured in Black TLC from elementary school until high school. I never felt out of place because of my color. I’m not saying I skipped out on typical teenage experiences like peer pressure, bullying, sex or other things teenagers face in school regardless of their socioeconomic status, but racism was something I felt I missed the racism piece. As a result, my mind, body, and soul was fortified to deal with today’s racism.

I knew where I belonged at my schools. I didn’t have the being “the only one” experience, that being the only Black in the classroom.

I know a lot of parents wanted their kids to have a “good” education in all White settings, thinking that would give their kid a competitive edge — and it may have. But for many kids who were forced to attend schools in such settings, they leave school with scars. Having a racialized educational experience is a blessing and a curse.

Often, placing our kids in spaces where they aren’t wanted does more harm than good. Sure the kids get into college and perhaps get a good job, but they still don’t belong in White spaces, and guess what? They likely never will. White people create their spaces just for them. Just because we make it to the upper echelons doesn’t mean they will roll the welcome mats out for us.

Blacks cannot appease Whiteness. Ever. Putting our kids through that torture has them screwed up forever.

You’ll never fit in with Whiteness. You’ll just be tolerated until you’re not. Going to predominately African-America schools, growing up straddling community lines and code-switching prepared me for the real world. I’m thankful my mom taught me to code switch.

Had it not been for my mother choosing our own culture and teaching us code-switching, her placing us in safe spaces with Black educators, I could have been overtaken by the same feeling of isolation, loss, and prejudice many Blacks endure when forced to attend White schools. A lot of my Black friends also are racist, saying the same things they’ve heard White people say about Blacks.

These Blacks believe the Whiter you live, the better off you’ll be. The more you assimilate, the more opportunities you’ll have. They believe the smarter you are, the more you can compete with White folks. They thinking living amongst White folks will make you acceptable to Whites.

It’s a lie. It’s a fantasy. It’s a facade.

There is nothing Blacks can do to be accepted into their club. To me, code switching is a means to an end. White immersion is selling your soul to the devil.

The Case For Code-Switching

Whiteness has done such a number on our psyche we believe we will never make it unless we forsake our Black and pick up Whiteness. What we don’t realize is that every time we do this, we’re building up their schools, their communities, their businesses, and their local economies while we demolish our own. The very communities, businesses, teachers, and economies that made our parents. Ancestors like Septima Poinsette Clark, Justice Thurgood Marshall, Dr. Martin Luther King and Fannie Lou Hammer, Dr. Benjamin Mays, and so many other notable Black professionals. Black people know how to produce smart Black leaders.

They all knew how to code switch too. That’s how they could go to the White House and and then come back and march with us from our church houses. Today, many Black people educated in White settings know how to be White, putting down and criticizing Blacks just like Whites. Just like Whites, all they know about are the racist stereotypes they’ve heard from family and friends. They spent little time around Blacks, which makes the criticism unfair. Blacks educated in all White settings often aren’t aware of how Whites have maintained America’s inequality because Whites don’t teach what they do to maintain inequality.

White immersion makes Blacks who are educated in White spaces afraid of their own people. These Blacks often fight harder for White Supremacy than they do against it, which is why they have such a hard time fitting into Black spaces. By the time they realize the truth, they’ve spent half of their lives chasing American dreams filled with White Supremacy.

White Supremacy wins not only when they divide us, but it also wins when they strip the little culture we have.

White Supremacy wins when they get us to hate everything about ourselves — so much so Black people believe that what we teach and the way we teach is inferior. I love all cultures, including many things we associate with White/European culture, but I don’t want to be forced to assimilate as my punishment for being born the wrong skin color or being a part of what is perceived as an inferior racial group. Code switching preserves culture while appeasing Whiteness. No racial or ethnic group should have to forsake their culture or language to appease Whiteness.

Having the ability to code switch has given me the best of both worlds) if there is a such thing where White Supremacy is concerned). It also helped me maintain my dignity and respect. Loving Blackness isn’t any different from White people who love Lawrence Welk, the United States flag, hell that raggedy-ass Tea Party flag, pumpkin pie, Johnny Mathis (yes the Black delegation gave him to ya’ll White people), Lady Gaga, Robert DiNero, Ivy League schools, White Jesus, Kid Rock, Eric Clapton, U2, George Washington, the Backstreet Boys, segregation (also called White isolation, White spaces, private school, church, the VFW, etc.), Kenny Loggins, Kraft Macaroni and Cheese, Paula Deen, dogs and saving animals, or Minnie Pearl from Hee Haw (I used to love her). Whatever White folks like, I love it for them. I’m not trying to deprive them from anything their culture appreciates, except stealing elections.

With code switching, I can be a part of the team when I need to, then retreat to my safe Black spaces when I’m done. Black is where the home is. Where there is Black, there is safety, and I know there are some wonderful Black people who know my struggle, because most of us have the same struggle — White people.

I never knew how blessed I was until I had children who didn’t have the luxury of all Black educational settings. I had to fight for my sons and other kids of color every step of the way in mostly White settings.

I know what Black love is thanks to my family and my teachers reassuring me my Black was beautiful and my complex Black was good enough. I experienced Black love from my community, through our music, and other experiences growing up as a child. I witnessed Black love by the people in my community, via the stories my parents passed down about our history as a people and through education where my teachers modeled a necessary life-skill I use til this day — code switching.

The Lesson In The Madness

I’m not pressed, sad, confused, angry, or homesick because my mother made sure I knew who I was and I loved who I was. Code-switching saved my life. I would not be who I am today without understanding when and how to code-switch. It’s an invaluable life skill.

I’m thankful my mom taught me to code-switch and I’m happy I missed racism in my school settings. You can’t learn when your teachers don’t like you because they are prejudice.

I never feel I missed out on the Black experience or that I’m late to the party, except for Black Twitter — but that’s a different story for another time. I feel I can go to any Black community and be at home.

I made sure I taught code-switching to my sons. I never wanted them to feel as though Black was bad, our culture was bad, or that Black people were bad. Unfortunately, thanks to the school environment, one of my sons strayed for a moment, but he eventually learned the very lessons his mother and grandparents warned him about when it came to venturing into White spaces with White women.

He learned. We all must learn in our own time.

We cannot hate our parents for trying to give us better opportunities. They did what they thought was best. But hating and forsaking Blacks and teaching their children to hate and forsake Blackness to me is blasphemy, and no other culture does it except Black folks. Native Americans don’t forsake theirs either. They have their own schools, nations, and culture. Jews definitely don’t forsake their culture or religion for Whiteness, even though they benefit from White Supremacy just like White folks. They too have their own schools, languages, cultures, and they possess so much influence here in Florida we celebrate their religious holidays. But I digress.

Being a society is one thing, we’re all supposed to work together to have a society, but who says society needs to act, look, sound, and learn White. One culture dominating all cultures in unfair.

While many minority groups assimilate, they mostly maintain their cultures. They also code-switch to appease Whiteness. All non-White people do. Blacks need to learn how to do the same thing. Build up your own. Take care of your own. Teach your own. Love your own. White people have shown us time and time again they are incapable of letting go of White Supremacy. It’s not our job to carry the master’s water anymore.

I’m not saying mingle, mix, fight together, and so forth, but understand, the only White people come into neighborhoods of color is to gentrify, police, or exterminate. Their kids aren’t coming into our communities to go to school, learn how to dance, or experience our culture. They take what they want and leave.

Black folks need to learn how to do the same. Code switching is a better option than assimilation any day. We build Black communities and people up when we do so, and after the last three years, we need all the building up we can accomplish. We are investing in ourselves when we do, and that’s something you’re never going to learn about in White schools.

Code switching is so much better than assimilation. Code-switching is like being baptized. You get your quick dunks, and you’re done. You go home and go to church when you can. With assimilation, it’s like you’re tossed in the middle of a lake and you’re drowning with no string on your life-saving floating device. You’re fighting for your life, all disoriented and confused. You’re trying to breathe but the lake is trying to swallow you, sucking the life out of you as fast and you can gather yourself.

In the big scheme of things, code switching is so much better than assimilation.

Marley K.