Let me tell y’all (I am from the South and I find nothing grammatically improper with using this collective pronoun) about a white girl in my class whose name I shall omit for privacy reasons. She is a lovely girl, really. Blonde hair, blue eyes. Very pleasant, intelligent, and just so happens to be from Alabama. Her accent is thick. You know she is from the south and she wears it proudly. My daily interaction with her in my law school section is always pleasant. I have respect for her, and she in turn respects me. But there is one thing she does that irks me just a bit. From time to time, I will say “hey”or “how’s it going” and she will smile back and simply say “Word.” Every once in a while she will give me the head nod and say it. Think of the way a rapper would say “Word” and you’re coming close to getting what I mean.

Artist's Rendition

Now I understand that in a law school section of nearly 90 students, where only 9 of the total are African American, we sort of stand out. However, when speaking in class, and in discussion amongst a ethnically diverse peer group, the English I use is the standard that anyone would use. Let’s call this “Interview English.” I keep the slang at a minimum and seldom, if ever, use language that would be common among an all-black peer group but not-so-common in a white one. . . but I may slip from time to time. Perhaps that is when she heard me use the word “Word” [wow, that was really meta] in a way that connotes assent or incredulity. For some reason though, she has saw fit to use it with me as a response to my cordiality.

Understanding that I am now in an ethnically diverse – my law school being vastly more diverse than most – environment, I do as most blacks do when kicking it with the white people. Namely, I use what in linguistics is called codeswitching. Essentially it is the process by which a person raised in another language incorporates and/or omits the syntax and phonology of that language when speaking to those of dissimilar backgrounds. It’s a way to essentially “turn on and off” another vernacular that may be confusing to the person who is not familiar. I do this. Well. Yet for some reason, this girl feels the need to “black it up” for me when speaking and uses the emphatic “Word” construction.

White people, come real close so I can share some sage advice: don’t try to “black it up” for us colored folk. We can’t help but be immersed in the dominant culture in America. We know our own cultural norms and speech, and we know yours too. Many of use speak both, fluently. We don’t feel any more comfortable when you use slang that you think we use when we are with our black friends. Instead of making us feel more comfortable in school or in the workplace, what you actually do is reduce a complex culture and vernacular into a series of slang words or phrases that make you as the white person look like an ass. We here at 40A&C want you to speak in the way you learned and we shall use appropriate language in appropriate situations.

3 Responses to “Codeswitching”
  1. Blanonymous says:

    I agree. Yet I’m wondering how you feel about non-whites doing the same thing. Such as say, Indian Americans? I’m talking dot, not feather here. People from India or descended from parents from India tend to be middle-upper middle class, college educated, professional and well, pretty financially stable if not downright well to do. And yet some of them insist on identifying with the African American “struggle” – as if they and their ancestors have gone through the same things.

    I find it insulting.

    • kim says:

      Hmmmm. Good question. In my Black Literature class my professor made the point that Asians (Far East, not so much South East Asian) are widely considered “model minorities” and are “structurally” white (white socially, economically, politically).

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  1. […] “I could beat all they asses in a fight”, etc). But for many black men; having to code-switch in an office is like having to act like someone else for 8 hours. You cannot reveal your true […]

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