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Black History Month Chronicles: Why I Code Switch

Dictionary definition of code switching: the alternate use of two or more languages or varieties of language, especially within the same discourse.

My definition of code switching: the necessary act of speaking to individuals of one’s culture where they can truly grasp the content and intent of my words.

Urban definition of code switching: communicating with your old neighborhood friends and proving that you can still talk “black” even after all these years of living in the suburbs has got you talking “white.”

A startling thing happened to me four years ago. Something that I did not know had bled into the 21st century. Something that I had only heard of being said or done to others. My husband and I had traveled up for his graduation from a very well known Christian college in Chicago. At one of their meet and greets that weekend, I decided to set aside my natural introversion and actually talk to people.

An older white male was clearly enamored with me. I thought it might have been a piece of food in my braces or something. He asked about my background and where I was from (that should have been the clue right there). When it came time to respond, all he could come up with was that I spoke very well and where did I say I was from again? I honestly don’t remember my response but I do recall how I felt on the inside. Like a turtle who regretted coming out of her shell. Like the 5th grade Haitian girl at an urban school who was always being teased for talking “white.” Like a black professional woman who is still regarded as the Eighth Wonder of the World. The convo usually goes like this: Yes I’m Haitian-American. No I wasn’t born here. No I wasn’t born in Haiti either. Yes, St. Maarten has a lot of Haitians living there. And yes, I speak Creole.

In the worlds that I travel through (Black, Caribbean islander, Haitian, Latin, White) I have come to realize that I just can’t be me ’round some folks. The need to code switch is a necessary evil in order to keep others at ease and unthreatened by my natural propensity to just be and speak me. Now granted, a night out with friends will not be about a discourse on molecular biology. When you are among friends you act a different way. It’s a casual environment with less restrictions and expectations. That’s not the code switching I’m talking about.

I am referring to what one has to do to keep everybody happy. The type of code switching that solicits more information with honey than making verbs and nouns agree. The one that throws in euphemisms and idioms at will, to bridge the generational gap. The one that proves to the listener that they are still relevant to you. It is an exhaustive thing this code switching. This appeasing every person you meet just so they won’t feel threatened or intimidated is hard work. I guess the clinician in me will always meet the “client” where they are, in hopes that one day they meet me where I’m at.

In telling my husband about one of my more interesting days, his response was “You better tell ’em where you from!” I’m like. Where am I from? Nine years on a Caribbean island learning Dutch, four years living in a Miami Vice era crime-infested neighborhood where I quickly dropped my accent, another four living in a white suburban turned black neighborhood where I had no friends, and now living in a middle class Black community with smattering of older white neighbors, hasn’t yielded me the “you don’t know where I come from “street creds” that everybody else claim they got. See I just code switched in that sentence, lol!

I’m just a plain ol “brown paper bag” Black woman who will continue to be who I am in the face of a society of people, be they black or white, that can’t quite figure me out.

My inspiration for this blog came from the video below. She spoke to my soul on this one. Memories of taking African History in night school because it was not important enough for the day. Learning that Queen Mary of Scots wasn’t the only queen I should learn about. That Queen Nzingha, Queen of the Ndongo and Matamba Kingdoms (photo attached), an astute diplomat and military leader, should have made it into my daytime history books too. After all she kept the Portugal army at bay for more than four decades. So here’s to code switching and to those who have not lost their minds in the minefields of society.

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