Code-switching is defined by Carlos D. Morrison, a writer from Encyclopedia Britannica, as “[the] process of shifting from one linguistic code (a language or dialect) to another, depending on the social context or conversational setting.” Everybody code-switches all day long without even knowing they’re doing it, and it’s pretty cool. Do you talk to your friends the same way you talk to your Mom or Dad, the same way you talk to your professors? Though you may speak in a single language to all of those people, you most definitely use different dialects depending on who it is. That is code-switching.

Jamila Lyiscott, a poet and educator, delivered a TED Talk back in 2014 about code-switching in which she also explains that she is trilingual. Please take four and a half minutes to watch that TED Talk here…

This is the least boring TED Talk ever. If you’re rolling your eyes at the thought, I swear you won’t regret watching this.

Lyiscott makes it clear that, when done properly, code-switching is a fabulous tool that enables you to speak to various groups of people in their respective dialects, or simply just the way they want to be spoken to. Though it may be perfectly okay for a sibling to call you names, most would agree that it would be inappropriate for a teacher to call you those same names. It is a normal occurence to code-switch, a part of everyday life. It is strange to think that someone would choose to go against this norm.

A particular micro-aggression experienced by the narrator in Citizen happens when she is called a name by a friend: “This friend says, as you walk toward her, You are late, you nappy-headed ho. What did you say? you ask, though you have heard every word. This person has never before referred to you like this in your presence, never before code-switched in this manner” (Rankine 41). Included on the page is a photo of the Rutgers women’s basketball team, relevant because white announcer Don Imus referred to them by the same name during a live broadcast. The women in the photo are angry, but not violently so. Imus apologized soon after. The narrator does not include the race of the friend who said this, but as this is a book about racism and it is a racially charged comment, I would imagine that this friend is not black. The narrator is immediately taken aback by the comment, able to quickly acknowledge the false use of the dialect. To be able to code-switch properly, you obviously need to understand the social context that you are in at any given moment. The friend clearly does not understand that she is not the person to be making comments like that, nor is it the time or the place. Perhaps what is worse is that, after the narrator expresses her distaste, the friend is unable to recognize her mistake and instead insists to the narrator that it was just a joke. The narrator intensely compares this whole event to the reopening of a wound (Rankine 42). This is yet another metaphor that Rankine is employing in this book to help express what dealing with these micro-aggressions feels like. These metaphors create some powerful juxtaposition, since the events may be small (micro) but the feelings are huge.

How do you feel about the idea of code-switching?

Has someone ever wrongfully code-switched when speaking to you?

Are there other instances of wrongful code-switching present in the novel that have stuck out to you?

11 thoughts on “Code-Whating?”

  1. Code-switching exists everywhere. I’ve noticed myself do it before- the way I talk to my mom is obviously not the way I talk to my friends. I didn’t know that there was an actual word for it, to be honest. Everybody code switches just from speaking differently to peers or to professors but is it right when you code-switch to different races? In the case of calling the narrator a “nappy-headed ho” (Rankine 41) it is obviously wrong. But, when your with your friends and not rudely putting them down (“as a joke”- the friend said) I think code switching is okay (depending on the context- as you mentioned). Most people don’t even notice code-switching like you stated. Its mixed into our lifestyles. Another example from the book where someone has code-switched is on page 33, “the American media reported ‘And there Serena was… Crip- Walking all over the most lily white place in the world'”(Rankine). Here the American media states Serena was “crip-walking” after her tennis match. This is a direct hit on Serena targeting her for being black. If it was a white tennis player who had been in the same situation as Serena was, the American media would not have referred to them as “crip-walking” on the court. Not to mention the negative context they added to it by saying it was one of the most lily-white, referring to purest, places in the world, and also kind of implying with the color white, its for white people. This was wrong to do, and should no have been stated by the American Media.

  2. Hey Kristen! I am really glad that you chose to talk about code-switching. It’s crazy how much every human being does this without even realizing it. I find myself doing this a lot. For example, I talk to my friends in a totally different way than I talk to my parents. I feel that when it comes to racism, code-switching could be dangerous to do. A person of the opposite race could easily say something hurtful or racist without even realizing it. The friend that said “nappy headed-ho” (Rankine 41) to her friend, could’ve been trying to “code-switch”. As you can tell what she chose to say was totally wrong and backfired on her. I experienced a wrongful code-switch during high school from a teacher. This teacher thought talking to his students the way he talked to his friends was okay to do. I was one of the many kids who was taken aback by this. He ended up getting fired from trying to act like a friend instead of a teacher. Maybe if he didn’t code-switch, he would still have his job. This goes to show you, code-switching can go very wrong.

  3. Kristen, thank you for directing us to this TED talk! I had to watch it with Dr. McKenzie and it’s as good now as it was then. Personally, I love the idea of code-switching. There is a lot of discourse in my major about the positives of code-switching, and I’m happy you bring it up here. Standard English–sometimes called dominant English–has been a source of oppression and segregation in our society. It privileges affluent individuals over those who may not have had the same education as them. Promoting code-switching, not only in the classroom, but in society as well helps mitigate deep-rooted racism that stems from language use.

  4. Hi Kristen! I really enjoyed watching the Ted Talk it was interesting and it directed the attention of the audience and even mine to many significant issues that occur or have occurred in society. Code-switching is inevitable I feel and we all do it. We talk differently to our friends and family members than we do to our professors or bosses and so on. There is often different slang we use as well or different ways in which we all interact with one another. The tones and the ways people speak to their inner circle of friends in comparison to someone they aren’t as familiar is different too. The author, Claudia Rankine describes a time where someone from an audience asks a man who made a book on humor what makes something funny. “His answer is what you expect – context. After a pause he adds that if someone said something, like about someone, and you were with your friends you would probably laugh, but if they said it out in public where black people could hear what was said, you might not, probably would not,” (Rankine, 48). I feel like this situation from page 48 is an example of code-switching as well. There are certain things people joke about in their inner circles and when placed in comfortable settings they tend to act and speak freely and could potentially joke about things some may not find funny. When pulled out of this comfortable setting and placed around people from different racial backgrounds, for example, people tend to be more cautious in how they act and respond to things and what they say. I think code-switching is natural, however, in some situations, it reveals someones true self when they are around their main social groups and it almost creates false personas and we somewhat alienate ourselves from our species being. People have wrongfully codeswitched when speaking to me and have associated my skin color to different stereotypes or have tried to speak to me differently than they would to their friend who was from the same racial background as them. Some of the narrators encounter with different people, for example, the man who said she reminded him of her wife “beautiful and black” I feel like was wrongful codeswitching.

  5. I’m so interested in the topic of code switching, it always reminds me of a time a few years ago when I first noticed that my boyfriend talked differently to his black friends compared to his white friends. They were subtle changes, but I noticed the use of different words and his voice always seemed to get louder when speaking to his friends of color. I remember being confused about why he wouldn’t talk the same way to everyone.

    In your post when you said “to be able to code-switch properly, you obviously need to understand the social context that you are in”, it immediately reminded me of Rankine’s paragraph about the author of a new book answering the question, what makes a book funny? He answers saying “context” then adds “if someone said something, like about someone, and you were with your friends you would probably laugh, but if they said it out in public where black people could hear what was said, you might not, probably would not” (Rankine 48). Is this another example of code-switching? When someone is with their white friends they might tell jokes and display racism, but in a different social context they mask those tendencies.

  6. Hi Kristen, great blog post and I love how you incorporated the ted talk! I found this blog post very interesting and eye opening since I have never thought of this before but I do it everyday myself. I think people use code switching because they have different amounts of respect for different people, but I think that everyone should talk everyone in the same way/tone since no one person is better than another. I found myself able to relate when Rankine said “If someone said something, like about someone, and you were with your friends you would probably laugh, but if they said it out in public where black people could hear what was said, you might not, probably would not” (Rankine 48). Sadly, I find that this is true with myself and I feel like other teens as well since it’s hard to understand how your words are affecting someone especially if that said person is not even there to hear it. I find code switching wrong and believe everyone should be talked to the same way.

  7. Hey Kristen, I love how in depth you went with this blog post, and as someone who finds code-switching fascinating, I really enjoyed the TED talk!!!!!
    Code-switching is not inherently bad, because to do it properly, it needs to be done in a pragmatic way. A scientists explaining a complex concept in “layman’s terms” is a great example of someone code-switching to be better understood by their audience. It can even establish feelings of respect and understanding between authority figures and peers in a socially practical way. I believe we are all in agreement that the situation explained to us by Rankine on page 41 is NOT a socially and conversationally acceptable use of ‘code-switching’, and I would like to argue it wasn’t even code switching at all. Very few, if any, people of color would enjoy and find humor in being called a “…nappy-headed ho” (Rankine 41). There is a difference between making a joke that is just poorly received or understood, and veiling an insult as a “joke”. This ‘friend’ of Rankine’s may have unconsciously doing the latter.
    For me, the instances of inappropriate code-switching that stick out are times where the atmosphere should be professional but is not. A customer who curses in front of you or is vulgar, a male coworker or manager who speaks inappropriately, etc.
    An example of this inappropriate code-switching that ties in almost perfectly with my examples above is on page 44, when Rankine’s manager sees her for the first time and exclaims: “I didn’t know you were black!”. How rude and utterly inappropriate to say at all, let alone to say to someone who is technically working under you.

  8. Hey Kristen, this was a great blog post and I loved the inclusion of the TED Talk! The idea of code switching may seem ignorant but I think it actually expresses a profound amount of intelligence. To be able to identify the situation one is in and alter to fit in is significant for how the average human doesn’t want discomfort for themselves and others. Although no one has every wrongfully code-switched to me, I can only assume how frequent it happens (or doesn’t happen) in someone’s day to day life. Whether it’s between two people of different race, sexual orientation, gender, or even position in the classroom, it can often be used purposefully to harm someone or by accident. On page 51, the real estate woman didn’t seem to code-switch in my opinion. Instead of putting her racist feelings aside to show two women a house, she steps out of her professional role and tells the non-black friend that she is “comfortable” around her. In this position, she should have continued to give a tour of the house, no matter the race, but instead she decided to make the whole appointment about how she was black.

  9. Hi Kristen! I really enjoyed your analysis of code-switching and using the TED talk to add more information to your argument. When I first read about code-switching it was the first time I ever heard of this phrase. I knew I changed the way I spoke to different groups of people but I never knew there was a specific name for it. However, as I read more into the book I noticed the ways in which each group of people addressed and spoke to those of the black community, which was demeaning as well as racist. For example, the narrator explains how “you” are at a board meeting and in a distant conversation you hear “being around black people is like watching a foreign film without translation” (46). Although, these two individuals are speaking to themselves that doesn’t mean their voices won’t carry and others won’t hear them. The act of code-switching doesn’t have specific rules on how or when your suppose to use it but in this case these individuals just have no respect for anyone in the room especially someone who is Black. I personally love code-switching, knowing that it is an automatic response for most is very interesting. However, the part of code-switching I don’t enjoy is that many don’t know the appropriate way to code-switch , they go off their own experiences and opinions leading to possible hurt feelings after they miscommunicated something or just simply said something so offensive. Overall, there is no right or wrong way to code-switch but there is the appropriate way that allows communication to be effective in a positive way.

  10. Hi Kristen! I loved how you incorporated the TED Talk, I thought that went with your post! I believe the idea of code-switching occurs more than we even consciously understand in our everyday lives. For example, I talk to my friends in a certain way that I would never talk to my parents out of respect. Like how Rankine wrote about a friend calling her other friend a, “nappy headed-ho” compares to code-switching in that she probably would not say that to her parents for example (41). The difference that makes this code-switching is that there is a huge difference in making a joke and making a joke including an insult then saying, “Don’t be offended, I’m just joking”. Another example of how we use code-switching in an everyday setting is the way in which you talk to your professors.

  11. Posting this on behalf of Mikey, who is experiencing technical difficulties.

    Hey Kristen! What an amazing TED Talk, thank you so much for sharing it. I definitely feel that code-switching is a pretty common thing in our society but many people are very unaware of it. Being that there are so many dialects of the English language, I feel code-switching in a sense originates from people trying to assimilate themselves with language to make them feel more comfortable. The insane part about it is that everyone code-switches and it’s impossible to not. If I spoke to my mother the way I spoke to my friends, my mother would disown me at times. On page 49 in the novel, the narrator states, “For so long, you thought the ambition of racist language was to denigrate and erase you as a person…Language that feels hurtful is intended to exploit all the ways that you are present.” When people feel uncomfortable with the words said by another, their minds become introverted. “Why would someone say that” or “how could someone be so rude” and that is just as natural to the human race as code-switching. While code-switching is a skill that needs to be practiced, I think it’s very important to be aware of how one should speak in specific settings. While I was abroad in India, many of the Indian students were curious about our culture. They would constantly throw words out like “dude” and “whassup” because they knew I was from America. While everyone there is open to discussion about sort of uncomfortable situations, I explained to them that just because I’m from America doesn’t mean I’m from California and that I didn’t speak that way. I didn’t take offense to it of course because they weren’t acting racist, just not informed, but code-switching really is an interesting sociologically and I’m glad you brought up this point!

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