A Lesson in Code Switching
Code Switching: n the use of one dialect, register, accent, or language variety over another, depending on social or cultural context, to project a specific identity
I am in a crowded conference room. I’m wearing one of those “Hello, my name is ____” badges, and my clothes are itchy. I often find myself in these rooms wondering, “How the hell am I going to connect to these people?” I usually have a drink to sip at in order to anchor myself, and give me time to think. I need to give myself time to find the right words — the words that make me seem nonthreatening and not out of place. I have to chart out every move I make, and every word I say. I just have to follow the script. It even comes with stage directions which tell me how to feel. The interrogation begins:
You: “So, what are your parents like?”
Me: [State simply with no fanfare] “My mom works for the post office, and my dad owns his own business.”
My mom is driving me somewhere. I think we’re going to see my great grandmother. She looks tired, and her eyes have bags underneath them.
“Would you be proud of me if I followed in your footsteps mom?” I want to ask her.
I could be a teen mother, and work for the USPS. I could have five children to depend on me, as I wonder where dinner is going to come from next. This question is not intended to be rude. I watch her do those things and more. She makes it look easy.
Only a few years after that unasked question, she goes to college. She now has multiple degrees.
My father and I spend one of the few weekends he manages to pick me up going around putting flyers on diesel trucks. Business has been slow for him. He cuts his car off at red lights to save gas. He spent hours typing those flyers, stunted by unacknowledged dyslexia and a partial high school education.
Now, he owns a thriving business, but still cannot type to save his life.
You: “So where are you from?”
Me: [Hesitate] “I am from Compton, California.”
I can practically taste the following questions before they get asked. They always react the same way when they find out where I live.
In every eye I meet, I see confusion, as if the subconscious is biting back the question of how I got here, and whether or not I belong there.
The truth is, I was packed into a car with all of my lifelong belongings that could fit. I was driven through snow, desert, valley, and mountain until I made it here. I also wonder how I got here. I also wonder whether or not I belong here.
Next time, I will just say I am from L.A.
You: “Oh woah! Compton. That’s so cool! Do you know -insert celebrity here-?”
Me: [Laugh stiffly] “I mean everyone knows everyone. It’s a tight knit community.”
I always humor this attempt to lighten up the conversation. It never works, but I indulge them with some true, but insignificant stories. My mom worked with one of that rapper’s relatives. My sister used to go to parties where that musician would turn up. That actress went to school with my brother. That singer went to the same high school as my father. I trained with that tennis player’s coach once.
It is a strange question. It reads as an attempt to legitimize me due to my proximity to a familiar name. Honestly, no, I don’t know them.
You: “That’s a really dangerous place. Those riots were terrible.”
Me: [Nod solemnly] “Yes, that was a dark time. But the city has grown, and the residents look to the past only in order to remember to look forward.”
I know not to expect an explanation for that transition. I am sure the riots were terrible, but I was not alive yet to tell you firsthand. All I know is from the moments my mom talks about the National Guard imposing a curfew, and military tanks prowling the streets like armored predators. The news reported most of it in its usual voyeuristic manner. When we are angry, we are a spectacle. It was like living in a cage and having the whole world watching, laughing, and judging you.
I feel that way very often.
You: “Have you ever seen a drive by?”
Me: [Try not to glare nor sound too angry] “No.”
There was that time my dad got shot. I did not see it happen of course, but I remember them coming to tell my mother. I remember the way the whole house smelt like fear. I remember them moving him from one hospital to another because the guy who shot him was trying to find him and finish the job. I remember throwing a fit because I wanted to visit him in the hospital, and then bursting into tears when I saw him in the hospital bed because I realized for the first time that every human being, including my father, is actually small.
He’s fine now. I wonder if his scar has gotten any smaller.
I hate being asked that question by the way. Yet, it always comes up.
You: “You’re so different from what I’d expect. You are very articulate.”
Me: [Frown but relax before they notice] “My parents took my education very seriously.”
The “articulate” statement is usually made to save face. My mom did not tell me I was smart often when I was younger. It was not out of malice or spite. It was because my mother did not want me to become so confident in my abilities that I would fear a challenge. Hubris makes people foolish. I never have the luxury of foolishness.
I am fluent in very many different forms of English. Yes, I know African American Vernacular English. I also know the English we speak over the phone when talking to an absolute stranger. I know how to speak Customer Service English, where smiling and nodding both count as punctuation marks.
As a matter of fact, in this painful conversation, I am speaking yet another kind of English. It is a coded format where every word and gesture has a hidden meaning or dilutes the substance of my thoughts to make it taste sweeter to you.
Truth be told, I am articulate, but that is not noteworthy. My upbringing was filled with intelligent, diverse persons who were well-spoken in their dialect of choice. There are many nuances that can be expressed in AAVE or Patois that the King’s English cannot convey.
You: “What part of Africa is your family descended from?”
Me: [Detach] “I don’t know.”
I once made a family tree. It stopped at my great-grandparents. Despite the sparseness of memory regarding my lineage, I modeled my tree after an oak tree — a tree with deep roots that go nowhere. I filled the branches with aunts and uncles who were likewise ignorant of their history.
The tree was a school project, and I remember watching others bring in photographs and heirlooms from their family’s past. All I ever had were names.
I spend a lot of time asking who I am. I stare in the mirror at my skin and eyes. I dissect my features one by one curious about how many histories led to this combination of physical traits that would eventually become me. This examination, compounded with the blank roots of that tree, leads nowhere. I have no history. Thus my search ends prematurely with me wondering, “How did I get here?”
I may never know where my family began. Those DNA tests hardly ever work for Black people, and I do not have money to waste on an educated guess.
I doubt they understand how painful it is to constantly be asked where I come from, as if that identity had not been stripped away from myself, and my family over the course of centuries. My ancestors never anticipated that they would be forgotten or wiped out of the record of time. They never anticipated that they would only be known forevermore as an entity called “slave” with no recourse to regain their identity or sense of self.
I wonder how many times those ancestors asked, “How did I get here?”
I don’t know.
You: “What was it like growing up in the inner city?”
Me: [Relax] “Well, I grew up in the Richland Farms area of Compton. There were lots of horses. Someone around the corner owned goats. My neighbor’s chickens wandered into our yard once. It’s really not what you would think…”
I am young, and I am sitting in my front yard watching a horse pass by. The street is almost completely silent with the exception of the clopping of the horse’s hooves on pavement. I wave at the man riding the horse and he tips his head at me. Later on that day, my sisters and I decide to plant a lemon tree using a seed that we strained out of the lemonade we had made fresh with brown sugar, not white. We get mud everywhere — clothes, faces, and hair. Our laughter echoes through the house, and through the decades. I do not clean my muddy handprint off of the wall for a week.
This is a safe question. Everything I say is all true. . Yet, at the same time, they are sugarcoated memories that sound more inviting than the tempestuous environment you envision through lenses tinted with ignorance.
Compton has its own legion of cowboys that ride their horses languidly through the Richland Farms area. They are a great group of people who keep the agricultural history of the city alive.
This memory of my childhood, however, plays heavily into the hands of respectability. These are the things people want to hear. This is what is safe to share.
I can talk about the night when the police were in pursuit of a suspect on my block. They shined their lights into our house while we all lay on the floor with our hands over our heads to make sure they knew we were harmless. We lay, prone and too terrified to even breathe, for over half an hour.
I can talk about the time a cop pulled us over. It was late, and we were going to pick up my eldest sister from a field trip. He shined his flashlight into my older sister’s and my eyes, and then the eyes of my infant brother when he noticed we were shielding him from the bright light. My older brother wanted to get out of the car and go walk the short distance to get my eldest sister. My mom held firm on his arm, her nails digging into his skin, as she firmly stated, “No, they’ll shoot you.”
Let’s keep talking about the horses instead.
You: “This is really far away from home. Must be hard for you.”
Me: [Lying] “Well, it is, but I’m happy to for this opportunity. You can’t stay home forever. I like a challenge.”
I am about to see my family for the last time for so many months. I want to cry, but I keep it together. There are many expectations resting on my shoulders, but I grin and bear them.
This question lets me know that my isolation is not only noticeable to myself. I stick out in this crowd. There’s this sense that I may not belong here, and this whole time I’ve been at work trying to convince myself that I do. The concept of belonging is an odd one. It relies on too many different constructs to remain consistent, yet it prevails nonetheless.
I have never been further from home. I have never felt more isolated. But, I’m too far gone for going home to be an option. There is no other recourse but success.
You: “It was a pleasure to meet you.”
Me: [Relieved] “No, the pleasure was all mine. Hope to see you again.”
I take a deep breath and another You approaches. With a smile plastered on my face, yet another interrogation begins. I feel a piece of myself crack and fall away. I crush it underfoot until it is dust.
I never want to see these people again.