Managing your otherness

Jul 02 2013 Published by under Uncategorized

(Adventures in code switching. This post is a bit rambly)

Back in the day I attended a prep school on the other side of town (0n my first day, in my naivete I asked "Are the other black kids sick today?"). There were a few, but not many. Some years later we had an interesting new addition from my side of town. Right away I could tell there was something odd about her. She always acted and talked the same. Sitting at the (black) lunch table or in math class. Always pretty much the same. We didn't know the term code-switching but we certainly knew it. It's not something we discussed any more than you'd discuss breathing. It's so normal you don't talk about it until someone isn't doing it. The new girl wasn't doing it at all. She had no practice in what I and the other black kids were quite adept at: managing our otherness.

I am no expert on code-switching or AAVE. During graduate school I saw a talk by a professor who studies code-switching and literacy in African-American children. She spent some time going over some examples of AAVE. Many folks when asked to describe AAVE basically do a bad impression of a character from The Wire, often focusing on "they be". As the professor goes over these examples at first I recognize all of them. Then she slips one last one in that I didn't get.

"That's not standard English?"

Everyone looks at me funny. Nope.


Somehow that was embarrassing. Not in the moment. I thought back to all the times I'd spoken using that phrasing (countless) thinking it was standard when it wasn't. Did everyone else know this? Did I use that during talks? Yes. Job interviews? Yes. Why didn't any one tell me? The idea that I wasn't fully aware and in control of how I spoke was disconcerting. I needed to know when I was being other and when I wasn't.

What's the big deal if you can't code-switch at all? My highschool classmate had trouble being taken seriously by people who associate standard English with intelligence. I even know of an academic who is AAVE all the time. She ended up stuck in the lots of interviews but no job offers limbo. Goods good on paper, doesn't do well in interviews. She suspects a lack of code-switching skill is hurting her prospects.

It-shouldn't-be-that-way's aside it's clear that managing your otherness is a career, if not life skill.

14 responses so far

  • DrugMonkey says:

    Check how the press, even NPR (FFS) treated Rachel Jeantel's testimony and demeanor in the Martin murder case. For example.

  • Anonydoc says:

    I am probably marching into a minefield here, but why not. Code switching is undoubtedly more crucial for AAVE/standard American English than for other circumstances (and I acknowledge unfairness here) but the rest of us do it to some degree or another, too. E.g., my parents used a lot of foreign expressions, and I also read a lot of British stories growing up, but if I used those phrases in school I would be mocked (this was long before Harry Potter made "snogging" a familiar term to Americans). So I learned to use different working vocabularies at home and with my friends.

    There are also a lot of languages where one dialect is used for everyday speech, and another for formal, e.g. political speech (Arabic?) Again, showing that you can code switch for your audience is pretty important. I am sympathetic to the point that black Americans who speak AAVE at home are forced to code switch for job survival, and it's more damaging to use AAVE at your science job than to trot out "bloody nuisance" in sixth grade in the USA, but many, many people use multiple dialects as a matter of course, and I don't think it's terribly elitist to expect professionals to be able to do so, nor is it only an issue for people who are "other".

    However, I take your point that for AAVE speakers, it is yet one MORE thing to manage, in addition to everything else, for dealing with people's expectations.

    • Hermitage says:

      This is like saying managing curly hair is indistinguishable from AA's struggle to have their natural hair seen as 'professional'.

      • DrugMonkey says:

        True Hermie. But does it not help for people to realize what it entails? Meh, I dunno. I guess I was librully edumacated or something, can't remember when the idea of code switching was nonobvious (and note that where I grew up the elocutionary switching was driven socioeconomically in a way that did not coincide with skin tone).

    • Bashir says:

      Sure. AAVE is not the only code-switching going on. Variations of Spanglish come to mind. Part of what drove me to write this was the Rachel Jeantels testimony. On the one hand it seems ridiculous that she be treated as stupid because she speaks some variation of AAVE. On the other hand I was surprised the lawyers didn't try like hell to coach her not to (or didn't seem to have).

  • Anonydoc says:

    Really? Hair is something you're born with, whereas what you speak is not. So bias against someone for hair that is genetically predetermined, versus bias against someone for not being able to speak in appropriate dialect, actually seems different to me.

    DM is making my point for me, that dialect switching isn't unique to AAVE speakers. I guess what I'm curious about is the putative faculty member Bashir brings up who "is AAVE all the time." Do you think that that is something she *could* change? Do you think it's unreasonable to expect that, in an academic setting? I'm asking genuinely here.

    • bashir says:

      That's a good question. AAVE is certainly not the only 'low-prestige' dialect. I know of similar issues with Southern dialects (which has a lot of AAVE overlap). I'm not sure how much an adult can change these things. It's to just word choice, but stress patterns, non-standard phrasing, etc.

  • DrugMonkey says:

    It's perhaps not innate but it might as well be if one has gotten to young adulthood speaking one language and then is being asked to switch.

    It is unreasonable, yeah. "Standard English" is a convention, no more.

  • Anonydoc says:

    "Standard English" is a convention, sure. But where does one draw the line in communication skills? Is your contention that, since I make every effort to understand, for example, a native Chinese speaker with strong accent, I should extend the same courtesy and understanding to an AAVE speaker in a professional science setting?

    Because it's not as though an AAVE speaker simply *wasn't exposed* to SE as a child. They heard it on TV and radio and youtube or whatever, and they are likely to have heard something reasonably akin to SE in their classrooms (acknowledging again the gross disparities in basic education here, but still--let's not pretend that standard English is anywhere near as hard for an AAVE speaker as for a native Chinese speaker). So in my mind, an American who can't produce some sort of standard English is in all likelihood (a) greatly undereducated, and/or (b) impaired in communication skills.

    Seriously not trolling here. If you both think I should avoid down-rating someone who speaks AAVE in a science setting, just as scrupulously as I (try to) avoid down-rating someone who speaks with a thick Asian accent, for example, I will keep this in mind in the future.

    • becca says:

      It's not as though the average American, particularly in Arizona, California, New Mexico and Texas, *wasn't exposed* to Spanish as a child. They heard it on TV and radio and youtube or whatever, and are likely to have heard something reasonably akin to Spanish in their classrooms. So in my mind, an American who can't produce standard Spanish is in all likelihood (a) greatly undereducated, and/or (b) impaired in communication skills.

    • bashir says:

      There's a bigger conversation here about regional dialects, standard english and assumptions about education/class. I'm sure someone has written a dissertation about it.

  • DrugMonkey says:

    Yes. You should extend the same effort. Period, end of story. "Hearing" so called standard English on teevee by no means makes that the person's native dialect.

  • Bashir, your brilliance warms my heart.

    Accent and dialect have always been difficult topics. As such, I have a hodge podge accent that is occasionally comical and largely reflects the advice that I once received to eliminate any Spanish-rooted intonations...

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