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The Subconscious “Skill” of Code Switching

Being Black and queer, you subconsciously amass an arsenal of weapons to combat your daily life.


It’s time we start calling out one of them.


“Code Switching”


Code Switching typically refers to the practice of alternating between two or more languages or varieties of language in conversation.


In the context of millennials, this very specifically refers to the use of changing your normal speech or vernacular when around different groups of people.


I first came across this term a while ago when my cousin face-timed me at my day job. Literally, his reaction to my answering the phone was, “Why the hell do sound like that?” Apparently, my voice distinctively changed, which was something I wasn’t even aware of – It got me to thinking where I learned this behavior specifically, and even how long I had even been doing it.


This was extremely triggering for me, as I always try to live every day as authentically and unapologetic as possible. It took me all the way to middle school, to a younger, a lot more insecure self, thirsting to fit in, masking myself in Birkenstocks, and Abercrombie T-Shirts.


It wasn’t really until college, when I met other Black queer people, that I felt comfortable in my own skin, and yet here I was almost 10 years later, trying to make myself more palatable for these white folks. Shook isn’t even the word.


Little do we know, events like this, are very indicative of PTSD like triggers, whether it’s doubling down our Blackness, or queerness – Black queer people have a hidden pathology of trying to make ourselves more easy to digest for the world around us, to make cis, straight people more comfortable around us, or even out of fear – for our lives, our jobs, for some “our tea.”


It presents itself in so many ways, from lowering your voice in the drive through, so you aren’t misgendered. To answering the phone in your “business voice” (You know the one I’m talking about, the imitation of #Beckywiththegoodhair).


Ian Stewart –a gender non conforming artist and activist in New York City– says, “I think code switching is really difficult for me to talk about because it’s something I do to myself on behalf of others so instinctively it’s hard to grasp it as a concept and not as a facet of me. I have raised my voice to assure women I was worthy of being in woman-led spaces. I have made my voice softer when I am a facilitator so my directness is not read as abrasive. Racially I think the hardest thing for me to do is code switching with my white family. It’s a struggle because I grew up speaking with my family one way, and now that I’m grown and able to define community for myself I sound more like the people I grew up with outside of my family.”


So much of this ties into “pass-ability,” which I typically thought as a gender-non confirming issue. I’m discovering that we try to to pass as so many different things– pass a straight, pass as “not Black,” pass as “more Black” (Whatever that even means), and that it’s all rooted in this patriarchal heteronormative bullshit of a culture that we have, that defaults in whiteness, and maleness.


How can we challenge this system & fix this?


“The 3 A’s” 

Affirmations – You are enough, your Blackness is enough, your queerness is enough – you don’t have to make yourself easier to digest for anyone, let those bitches just get heartburn.


Awareness – Pay attention to the way you naturally move, and speak, try to distinguish when you feel uncomfortable and start to veer away from that – If possible, keep yourself away from these situations/people, they ain’t good for you sis.


Accountability – Notice, and call these behaviors to yourself, and examine why are you doing this? Normalize your Blackness and queerness.


Which leads me to the question, is this simply adaptability? Or something that requires a bit more digging? Drop in the comments your experiences with trying to “pass,” and your use of code-switching!


Cover photo Brunel Johnson@brunels_world via Unsplash

What do you think?


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