Code Switching

I don’t usually discuss race, on this blog or anywhere else, unless it is preceded by the acronym “NASCAR.”  Today, however, I’ll give it a go, because I’ve been inspired by the new NPR blog, Code Switch.

At first, I didn’t really know what code switching was.  But then I remembered that in the years that I worked for the state relay service for the deaf, I occasionally heard the term “code switching” used to refer to the phenomenon of CODAs (children of deaf adults) and some hard of hearing people who are fluent in both American Sign Language and English suddenly switching between the two during a conversation, perhaps even during the same sentence.  Of course, bilingual people in every culture do this regularly.  It only makes sense:  Cultural context is everything, and it can be pretty close to impossible to explain a concept native to one language in another.

I find multiculturalism thrilling.  I enjoy being able to experience bits of other cultures and to share some of my own.  Those who can speak two or more languages are able to create bridges that our society sorely needs.  Of course, it is possible to use bilingual ability as a tool to keep others out rather than letting others in.  Growing up, I would hear the Yiddish phrase red Yiddish, der goyim ken nisht farschtehen (“Speak Yiddish, the non-Jews won’t understand us”).  Of course, this can backfire, as described in one of the NPR blog’s stories about two women on a subway switching to French to make comments about a fellow passenger (and being shocked when he responded in perfect French).  Among the hazards of code switching:  This is an equal opportunity game.

Code switching doesn’t have to be between different languages; it can also be among dialects of the same language.  The NPR blog points out that many Americans who naturally speak using a Midwestern, Southern or African-American dialect/accent switch to a standard, white bread, “professional” brand of English on their jobs.  Receiving a phone call at work from Mom and slipping right into one’s natural dialect can be rather jarring to coworkers overhearing the conversation.

Although I’ve resided in California for nearly 20 years now and have a relatively flat accent, coworkers often tell me that they can hear the “New Yawk” in my voice.  They should only hear me on the phone with my mother.  As I discussed in a previous post, the Yiddish is flung about with reckless abandon and I sound as if I’ve spent my entire life in Brooklyn.  My wife, a native Californian and daughter of a Pentecostal minister, has learned to understand me when I slip into that mode.  Well, mostly.  I giggle when she starts peppering her own conversation with schlep, schmutz and oy vey.

But the NPR blog points out that code switching isn’t just about language; it’s about multiculturalism as a whole.  It points out that hip-hop music has either become ubiquitous as it merges and assimilates into the larger culture, or has been (mis)appropriated by whites, depending on one’s point of view.  This, of course, has been going on for a very long time.  For years, my father reminded me that the music of the 1950s became less homogeneous when Hoagy Carmichael sang “white” and Elvis sang “black.”

Meanwhile, today’s white kids listen to rap music and enjoy emulating the clothes, hairstyles, lingo and mannerisms of their black peers.  To relate to kids of any race, teachers need to be fluent in African-American jargon and cadence (yet be able to code switch to standard English with the administration).

I should pause here to say that I am a white boy.  Caucasian.  Despite my eastern European ancestry, all the melanin seems to have skipped right over me, leaving me with skin that is pale as a ghost.  Growing up with parents who have graduate degrees, standard, textbook English is all I learned from square one.

My mother gets upset when my sister calls her a racist.  My mother strenuously objects, citing her early years as a teacher in a heavily African-American public school and how she went into “the projects” to tutor kids in jeopardy of failing when none of the other teachers would do so.  It was just a few years after the Newark riots and most white people were afraid to “go up on the hill.”  Despite all of that, today my mother continues to refer to African-Americans as “colored.”

“Nah, I think they were born that way,” is my father’s usual retort, ever the wit.  Never mind that he habitually refers to African-Americans using derogatory terms that I will not repeat on this blog (or anywhere else).

The NPR blog cites the Ontario Human Rights Commission’s decision to refer to African-Americans as “racialized people.”  Well, how dumb is that!  What about the rest of us?  Caucasian, Asian and all the rest are races too, you know.

The U.S. Census, I’ve learned, can’t seem to decide how to refer to the various races, changing the terminology they use nearly every decade.  These days, of course, most of us have backgrounds consisting of multiple races.  I think of my little grandniece, whom I had the pleasure of spending some time with today.  Her father is Filipino (I think) and her mother is part Hispanic, part Caucasian.  I vote for a check box that just says “cute.”

Racial terminology is, of course, anything but cute.  It is loaded with a sad history of discrimination that continues to this day.  And everyone knows that saying the wrong word can get you in trouble, get you fired from work, get you hauled into court, maybe even get you killed.

The NPR blog mentions that the idealists who hoped to forge a post-racial society have not succeeded in their plans, and that it’s not looking good for the foreseeable future.  Despite all the code switching and the melting pot of cultural norms, for unfathomable reasons we still have to pigeonhole each other with terminology that describes the color of our skin and/or the history of our DNA.

I smile broadly when I see how much my grandniece enjoys watching children’s videos in Mandarin Chinese and in Spanish, and when I observe her expressing what she wants in ASL.  I try to remember to say the words for things in English, Spanish and French.  On the day she was born, I whispered a song to her in Hebrew.

I hope she grows up to be an expert code switcher and that she doesn’t find herself hampered by a lot of inaccurate, unfair and discriminatory racial stereotypes.

And I know that I will be happy with whatever languages she ultimately decides to use, as long as her mother tongue remains the language of love.

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2 thoughts on “Code Switching

  1. Nice piece! I don’t like categorizing people by race, country, religion. I prefer to refer to us all as Homo sapiens, each as unique and different as there are in population. (You already know how I feel about speciesism.). Each should be free to be, speak, or practice in whatever manner he is accustomed, and should he use his speech or practice to put himself above others, he shouldn’t be surprised if there is backlash.

    I love the variety of cultures and languages in this country! We are blessed to enjoy them all. They shouldn’t separate us — we should celebrate them.

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