NPR is beginning a fascinating dive though issues of race, ethnicity, and culture called “Code-Switch”. They describe code switching through this anecdote:
So you’re at work one day and you’re talking to your colleagues in that professional, polite, kind of buttoned-up voice that people use when they’re doing professional work stuff.
Your mom or your friend or your partner calls on the phone and you answer. And without thinking, you start talking to them in an entirely different voice — still distinctly your voice, but a certain kind of your voice less suited for the office. You drop the g’s at the end of your verbs. Your previously undetectable accent — your easy Southern drawl or your sing-songy Caribbean lilt or your Spanish-inflected vowels or your New Yawker — is suddenly turned way, way up. You rush your mom or whomever off the phone in some less formal syntax (“Yo, I’mma holler at you later,”), hang up and get back to work.
Then you look up and you see your co-workers looking at you and wondering who the hell you’d morphed into for the last few minutes. That right there? That’s what it means to code-switch. [Source: http://www.npr.org/blogs/codeswitch/2013/04/08/176064688/how-code-switching-explains-the-world?utm_source=NPR&utm_medium=facebook&utm_campaign=20130408]
I love Key and Peele, so I was excited to see this clip. We all will laugh at it — but the point is that it is true. Certainly as an African-American female I code switch. I switch from speaking fluent “resume”, to adding in some of my southern drawl, to dropping appropriate slang words — yet it all depends on where I am as to how I sound. My voice at work talking to my department chair, is very different than my voice talking to students, which is still different than my voice when I talk to my friends in the department. Oh don’t put me in a Black Graduate Student meeting — that’s another swap.
However, should I have to swap? All those voices are authentically mine — but I swap for the comfort level of the OTHER person — or to be accepted as “one of us”. Can’t I just be crazy preppy southern me all the time? Can’t I the words “like”, “cool”, “aight”, “yeah”, “whatevs”, “totes”, “presh”, and “ya’ll” right along side of “per se” and “satisficing” and still be taken seriously? I’m in my thirties — can I not act like it? Or must I carry around all of these separate authentic voices? Heck it’s almost like hairstyles! Will my unruly bantu knot out curls be taken seriously [I think they can be now…as I did get a kiss on the cheek by Cory Booker while I was rocking them this weekend — more on that later, and did it help that I was wearing a black formal from Talbots? Did that balance out the hair?]? Should I straighten my hair so as to not scare those in power (e.g. conservative white men and women)? Will a ponytail be inappropriate at an academic conference? Do we all go through these authentic parts of ourselves, finding the flavor of our persona that is most acceptable — or do most people walk to their own drum beat?