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?