Code switching – or the act of altering how one expresses oneself based on the audience – is a fact of life for many Black Americans, with pressure to adopt figures of speech seen as more “white” in professional and other situations. LeRon L. Barton explains why he has learned to resist the practice of code switching and consistently present his true self.
“One ever feels his twoness – an American, a Negro; two warring ideals in one dark body, whose strength alone keeps it from being torn asunder” – WEB Du Bois, The Souls of Black Folkz
My life is all about balance. Defined as mental steadiness, emotional stability, habit of calm behavior, and judgment, I try hard to implement this in every part of my life. From writing, working, spending time with loved ones, exercising, traveling, relaxing, and reading, balance is at the forefront of who I am. Managing all of my interests is like walking a tightrope with a stack of books in each hand, attempting to move through life without falling over or dropping any of them. Balance, as a Black man, also takes on a whole ‘nother meaning. Being true to oneself, one’s race, and one’s culture while existing in white dominated society is another balancing act – one that people often lose.
If you know me or have talked to me for a length of time, heard me speak publicly, and/or listened to a podcast of which I was a guest, you would realize that I talk slang. My speech is peppered with sayings and words from the 70’s and 80’s: things I have heard growing up on the streets of Kansas City, MO, as well as phrases I have picked up while listening to rap music from Los Angeles, New York, Louisiana, Philadelphia, and adopting some language from my current residency, San Francisco, CA.
I love slang – I love the way it rolls off my tongue and the creativeness of it. Being able to express myself in the language I feel comfortable with is my joy in life. It is who I am. The way I talk is the way I am. However, it hasn’t always been like that. Dealing with balance as a Black man, there are times in life where I code switch.
“Every Black person is bilingual; we have a certain way we communicate amongst ourselves and another way we talk to white America. Code switching – moving from one language or language variety to another – is how we were taught to operate in a world that wants Black people to assimilate”
Every Black person is bilingual; we have a certain way we communicate amongst ourselves and another way we talk to white America. Code switching – moving from one language or language variety to another – is how we were taught to operate in a world that wants Black people to assimilate and to discard anything that resembles our culture. Growing up, I would listen as my family members would produce a whole different way of speaking when they were in white spaces, and once they got back around Black people, their speech would return to “normal.” I remember being amazed by this.
I can recall hearing that my Mother’s phone voice was different when she would talk to clients or places of business. Those instances indirectly taught me to talk differently to white folks than to my own. When I would be in a predominately white class in college or interacting with customers at work, my speech would tighten, words would be clearly enunciated, and my speech would be free of any levity. I would be “straight down the middle” or an “L 7” (that’s a square for the slow folks in the back). Some black folks would say, “Leave that ghetto shit at home. Talk like you got some sense!” I wanted to go far, get a nice job, and make money, so I would switch it on and off when I needed to. I felt like I was doing what I needed to do in order to become accepted in the world.
We all have a specific way we talk. I have always thought that Black and people of Latin descent talk in a special groove: a Miles Davis composition with a Roberto Roena flair, Billie Holiday honesty and a Chuck D boom. If you are from the ghetto, you’re born with a rhythm that cannot be duplicated. My Puerto Rican folks in Spanish Harlem speak with much soul as the Creole in New Orleans. It’s all lovely and beautiful and here I was hiding it, trying to fit into the mold that America had placed me in.
“I love that I can go to the grittiest neighborhoods in the United States, talk with the folks, then enjoy a 4 course lunch at Le George in Paris the next week and use the same vernacular – all while having a great time and not feeling like I have to change who I am.”
About ten years ago, I decided to stop code switching. I would remember talking one way around my white friends and people at work, trying to sound proper and educated and then reverting to slang when I was around Black and Latino folks. I felt phony, like “Who am I trying to run away from? Why am I not being myself?” It felt exhausting speaking two different ways around two different sets of people. It’s as if I was hiding who I really was.
One day, I just said, “Screw this, I am going to be me.” I like talking slang and using the phrases that I grew up with. I’m comfortable with myself and more importantly, as a Black man, how I talk does not define how smart, cultured, or refined I am. I love that I can go to the grittiest neighborhoods in the United States, talk with the folks, then enjoy a 4 course lunch at Le George in Paris the next week and use the same vernacular – all while having a great time and not feeling like I have to change who I am.
A mask is helpful in covering your face and concealing who you are. It allows you to take on another identity, or hide your own. With a mask you can be as loud or as silent as you want to be. Your inhibitions can disappear while you wear it; you can literally become a new person. The problem is there comes a time where you have to take the mask off and reveal your true self.
When I think about code switching and its effect on Black people, I realize that it is essentially respectability politics: a belief that if Black people “act” as upstanding citizens who are not like the scary African Americans you see blasted on music videos or those being interrogated on The First 48, then maybe white American will treat us with the respect and humanity we have been continuously asking for. I have realized that no matter how I walk, talk, act, or dress, I am Black and in this country that means automatic discrimination. I am not advocating for Black people to behave stupidly and ignorant, but we shouldn’t go out of our way to make white people feel comfortable. Adopting a specific way of speech will not blunt the effects of racism and white supremacy.
When I think about how I used to code switch, I laugh and shake my head. I was hiding who I truly was. I pepper my speech with “You dig?” “You feel me?” “Ima keep it all the way live”, and “That’s what’s up.” Matter of fact, I use “you dig?” so much, it is permanently wedged into my vernacular. The way I talk doesn’t mean I am not an erudite man who is a published author. Me saying “What’s going down” should not take away from my perceived intellect. I recently spoke at a TEDx event and I used slang in my talk. I can quote Dr. Bill Nye as fast as I recite Snoop Dogg. I am not worried about being the articulate negro that “speaks so well.” I know who I am.