Students Negotiate Right Speaking Voice To Fit In

by Timaya Pulliam ‘23

Code-switching is when someone goes back and forth with the type of language/speech/voice that they use around different groups of people. This alteration of language is most common in minority communities and often occurs in school even if it is unnoticed. It is a learned behavior often used to assimilate in different spaces.

Code-switching can be used in various ways. For example, a black person may talk in what is deemed “proper” English normally but may switch how they speak when speaking to other members of the black community so they can sound more like some of their friends. On the other hand, someone may be more comfortable using African American Vernacular English (AAVE) in their daily life but may code-switch into using more conventional English when around a majority white group of people. AAVE, also controversially known as ebonics, is a category of the English language derived and spoken primarily by African Americans. This form of Black speech distinguishes itself from standard English with its unique grammatical structure, pronunciation, and vocabulary.

Code-switching is essentially social self-defense. “I have caught myself many times code-switching without realizing it. It’s honestly been a habit … I began to use slang to fit in [with my black friends],” said senior Fernando Johnson about his unconscious experience of code-switching from “proper” English to AAVE.

Code-switching can also happen consciously in order to not feel judged by one’s peers. “When I code switch consciously, I do it for the reason of not wanting to be judged … People may think of me as a stereotypical ‘ghetto person’ or if I don’t code switch, I am called ‘white washed,’” said junior Vera Gitau. She code switches in different ways based on who she is around, as she may speak in conventional English normally, but may code switch around other black people to sound more like the specific group. However, when Gitau does not code switch to fit in she may be judged.

Several black students have recognized that they experience code switching every day, whether it is code switching to sound more like an African American majority of people or a white majority. Even though both students code switch in different ways, they both have the common experience of feeling like they must change their way of speech to fit in with others.

Black people are not a monolith. Some black people may speak in AAVE more frequently while others speak in “correct” English. This creates judgemental experiences especially in school — where students spend most of their time. Trying to appease teachers and white friends, while doing the same to black friends in similar vicinities or to black families at home, can be emotionally taxing for black students.

Though the phrase code switching was not coined until 1954, it has been used to equate value and success since slavery. During that period, it was difficult for blacks to be seen in positions of power; therefore, African Americans would use dialect to equate to whiteness in order to receive and keep jobs if they were not enslaved.

Schools can look to having more culturally aware and culturally valued environments through language. “The purpose of a culturally relevant environment is to rise above harmful effects of the dominant culture and uphold the student’s culture by using it in the school and classroom,” said Melanie Hines-Knapp, managing director of Impact Integration at Teach For America of the University of Mississippi.