The Practicalities of Code-Switching

Photo of Armani Dure

by Armani Dure

Armani Dure is a labor studies major from Malden, MA. After reading previously published Undercurrents essays, specifically Aneika Robinson’s essay on marginalization through race and language, Armani was inspired to reflect on his own interactions with academic spaces. He says that “This semester was one of the first times I really experimented using ‘I’ in my academic writing.” He adds that using “I” in his writing “allowed me to not only connect more to my writing but also get more personal. I think that ability gave this essay its flair.” Armani’s major indicates his passion for social and economic justice, along with an interest in the role and history of labor unions. He says, “Both the idea, and the implementation, of collective action are fascinating to me. I’ve followed the various strikes throughout the summer and it has been encouraging seeing all these people come together in solidarity.”

One of the most important aspects of living in America as a black person is adapting. I feel like, in some ways, you have to tiptoe around life to make sure you don’t hit a landmine. This affects how we live our day to day lives and makes us internalize certain actions like keeping your hoodie down at night, driving slowly on the road, acting overly sweet in some social interactions, etc. This “tiptoeing” does not only exist in the daily lives of black people, it also extends to how we interact in academic settings. For example, I feel like I often have to present a hyper-curated version of myself in academic settings in order to feel accepted. I also feel the need to overcompensate for any perceived prejudice. While I have to change my mannerisms for academic discussion, it also affects how I write. Many of the mannerisms, phrases, and slang I would use outside of an academic setting feel inappropriate to use in both writing and discussion.

The racist aspects of our society, but specifically academia, are what makes what should be considered normal speech wrongfully shunned. There is an apparent stigma around the use of African American Vernacular English (AAVE). It is often seen as unprofessional and inappropriate in everyday life, but particularly in academic spaces. This stigma makes many people of color elect to not use AAVE in academic space and choose to code-switch instead. This is a large societal issue, but if the social stigma around the use of AAVE exists, then code-switching provides a valuable utility.

In the journal Undercurrents: A Journal of Undergraduate Student Composition, Aneika Robinson writes about the feeling that one needs to code-switch extensively. Undercurrents is student-written and published by UMass Boston. In Undercurrents, Aneika Robinson writes specifically about the use of code-switching and African American Vernacular English (or AAVE) in formal academic writing. Robinson defines code-switching as “…language conversion” (Robinson). She identifies the feeling black individuals have to change language as code-switching. In this essay, Robinson is able to identify the process black people passively go through when interacting with their writing. She also correctly describes the inherent racism in the need to code switch when she writes, “…I believe after you start changing how you speak, you lose part of yourself, even if you just limit your dialect in only certain settings” (Robinson). For me personally, code-switching can feel inauthentic because I have to cut out many of the phrases and sayings I use. Code-switching is like showing only part of me rather than the whole picture. Robinson also finds in her paper that “many African Americans, including myself, do not always speak in what one may call your ‘Standard English’ and often engage in ‘code-switching,’” which oppresses black people (Robinson). Establishing that there is one correct way to speak and all other ways are improper establishes a sort of hierarchy in speech. When applied to AAVE, it implicitly means the way that black, Indigenous, and people of color (BIPOC) speak is somehow worse. This assumed inferiority creates negative attitudes about the use of AAVE in predominantly non-black spaces. This, combined with the heavy use of slang, also causes AAVE to be considered “ghetto” or “fake,” reinforcing the feeling that people of color can’t use AAVE in professional and academic settings.

The association of AAVE with negative traits connects to the argument Robinson presents that it has an overall negative effect on marginalized people. Robinson says that these characteristics jump from being about the dialect to about the people. This migration from language to people is obvious, despite the fact there is no intrinsic quality to different dialects that would display different levels of intelligence. We know this, too. While there is a stereotype that southern or valley accents are “dumb,” people aren’t surprised when a Texas-born southerner is intelligent. We like when people match stereotypes, but we know our place of origin cannot determine whether we are smart or dumb. I think it is interesting how an intelligent person who uses AAVE would be surprising to some people who think AAVE is exclusive to the uneducated. My theory is that instead of regional origin being attached to the dialect, race is attached to AAVE. The presumption of intelligence from someone who uses AAVE is not attached to a large group of people from several states with few unifying similarities like a regional dialect. It is instead attached to a racial group with physical similarity and preexisting prejudice.

I agree with Robinson that society’s negative attitude towards AAVE causes harm to people of color. However, Robinson goes on to say that there is essentially no benefit to the use of code-switching. She writes, “they are still vulnerable to prejudice, as the discrimination that African American students receive goes deeper than just language” (Robinson). While there is a point to all BIPOC being vulnerable to prejudice, it is my opinion that they have to mitigate the prejudice they face. I think code-switching, like when black people feel necessary to do so in professional or academic settings, reduces the prejudice we face. In my opinion, enforcing the idea that black people should code-switch because AAVE is less intelligent than standard English is racist. It establishes that a cultural element of black people makes them less intelligent than the majority culture, which is white. There is a level of nuance to this conversation. Stanley Fish, an author Robinson cites, writes about composition education at a college level. Fish says many things in his New York Times opinion piece that I disagree with, such as, “students are too infected with the simplistic egalitarianism of soft multiculturalism to declare that they have a right to their own language” (qtd. in Robinson). I still believe that there is some value in his words that Robinson discounts, “students…are being prepared for entry into the world as it is now rather than the world as it might be in some utopian imagination – all dialects equal, all habits of speech and writing equally rewarded.” (qtd. in Robinson). While I think the ideas Fish presents in his article are generally close-minded, there is truth in the idea that we are not equally rewarded for the way we speak. The rewards for BIPOC are essentially diminished because of the way we speak. In a society where people of color are given fewer rewards, further diminishing those rewards feels foolish. Even though we, as people of color, acknowledge that code-switching being a necessity is overall racist, I believe we code-switch anyway because we understand that it gives us an advantage.

The reason I feel that code-switching can be personally useful, while also being institutionally harmful, is because what matters the most is having your audience hear your argument. If people discount your writing because of your dialect, you lose the ability to convince them or influence their opinion. It’s a harsh reality that we have to alter our language to be more palatable, but if it gives BIPOC an advantage, I say take it. I believe that an Undercurrents essay by Quinn Cantor exemplifies the necessity of writing in a way the reader will not immediately discount. Cantor wrote a rhetorical analysis of Linda Villarosa’s report about the history of medical racism. Cantor notes how, in this essay, Villarosa takes many steps in understanding her audience and appealing to them. Cantor identifies that the audience of The 1619 Project is conservatives that are not going to like the ideas presented. Villarosa is forced to essentially put on “kiddy gloves” to address them. In Villarosa’s essay, she takes an approach that makes her point very clear but in a way that tries to not antagonize the audience. Cantor says that you “must consider that one critical connection with the audience is the rhetor’s purpose [and]… ‘has to be someone who is capable of helping you accomplish your purpose’” (Cantor). I feel what Villarosa does, and Cantor notes here, pertains heavily to the use of code-switching. As Cantor points out, Villarosa shifts her language to fit her audience because otherwise, her audience will not read her essay. I feel that BIPOC do the same thing, for similar reasons. We understand that our audience may have some sort of prejudice, so by default we “sanitize” our way of speaking. I would much rather have a world where we didn’t need to, but I feel that code-switching to apply to the audience makes people of color more visible and allows what they have to say to be heard.

My opinion is that people are prejudiced, and sometimes you have to acknowledge that prejudice will affect many aspects of your life including academics. You have to take this into account when you are writing and understand how your audience will receive it. Just like how Villarosa identified her audience to be hostile to her opinions, we as BIPOC have to unfortunately identify our audience as being hostile to the way we speak. I agree with the approach that Villarosa takes to address this when she writes around the audience. She plays into the audience by avoiding the landmines while criticizing them at the same time, particularly the part where she writes, “Hamilton was a courtly Southern gentleman, a respected physician and…wealthy plantation owner who tried to use science to prove that differences between black people and white people… were more than skin deep…” (qtd. in Cantor). This shows how she knows the invocation of him being white would unnerve her audience. I would prefer that she did acknowledge the power dynamic of him being a white man in the 19th century, but I know that this is more effective in displaying the message to an audience who will discount the entire essay the moment that it is invoked.

When it comes down to it, I think that it’s reasonable for the voices of people of color to be heard in academic settings at the cost of potentially having to alter them. Prejudice affects every aspect of our society and affects the academic community. While it would be amazing for people like me to be able to speak the way we naturally do, we have to acknowledge that there may be consequences in doing so. Racism is built into the system and while racism is present, then I believe playing into the prejudice in academia is more harmful to your voice. Code-switching is useful in reducing the prejudice associated with BIPOC by using what we consider “standard” English. Why allow a prejudiced person to immediately discount the conversation because they dislike the way someone writes or speaks? You need your audience to engage with the material for them to fulfill the objective of the author’s writing. This may be difficult if your audience is not willing to listen, but I believe that presenting your arguments in a way your audience has a strong chance of not liking is self-sabotage. Code-switching is overall harmful, but the goal of writing should be for the benefit of the author, or who they are advocating for, and if code-switching accomplishes that goal it should be considered.

Works Cited 

Cantor, Quinn Gabrielle. “Race and Rhetoric: Examining How the Audience’s Race Creates Rhetorical Constraints and Influences Rhetoric.” Undercurrents: A Journal of Undergraduate Student Composition, 2022.

Robinson, Aneika. “The Marginalization of African Americans in Educational Institutions Through Race and Language.” Undercurrents: A Journal of Undergraduate Student Composition, 2020.