How Code Switching Is Turning Black People Into Method Actors
"...taking a break, from work and from our multiple personalities, is a necessity for the human body."
Black people love to say, "I'll sleep when I'm dead." Between that and "everyday I'm hustling," black people have seemed to place a golden significance over work ethic that never subsides, and glorify the absence of a social/family life in place for green paper. Maybe it's because most of us didn't have much of it growing up. Maybe it's because we're still playing catch up with our white counterparts. Or maybe we're trying to counter our media portrayal of being lazy. Either way, there are a lot of people spending a majority of their lives in their workplace. Which should be fine. Dreams only come to those who work, until, ultimately, it turns into a nightmare, grows wings and comes home with you. Couple this with black people's survival tactic of code switching and you will see some of the best "method" acting by those who would never consider themselves thespians.
We hear stories about Heath Ledger and the things he did in order to get into the Joker character for The Dark Knight, such as locking himself in a hotel and keeping a journal with the Joker's thoughts, and how it may have been a trigger to a slippery slope that led to his death. That's definitely on the darker side of acting, but when multiple characters are occupying one body, one of them is going to win at some point. It seems he brought the more negative pieces of work home with him.
The initial concept of an actor who doesn't leave character sounds obnoxious, right? But how many of us do this in our regular lives?
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Chandra Arthur describes her first experience of code switching in school during her Ted Talk, "The Cost of Code Switching."
"Most importantly though, I learned how to align myself, not just so I'd fit in, but so I'd be culturally compatible. I didn't know it then, but this is where I learned to code switch and how to behave and speak in a way that made me a non-threatening person of color."
A colleague of mine once joked that a cool movie about black people's code switching would be an alternate version of M. Night Shyamalan's Split. By all means, we are speaking multiple languages, or multiple personalities, in order to function in most places. In my previous life, working at a college, my work required a shirt and tie, most days, and a level of service that one should not be required to tack onto one's back for so long. The lines between my work and my life were so blurred sometimes that I found it near impossible to switch off because my environment would not allow. And more than that, if I stopped code switching, would my regular character personality reach a glass ceiling in my workplace? But what happens when a body isn't allowed to break?
As our society grapples with police brutality and protests against such violence have become synonymous with big brand ad campaigns and pop culture, it's a person's behavior, which indicates whether or not they've learned the language of effective code switching. There have been countless instances in recent history where a person's ability or inability to code switch has meant the difference in life or death. (Arthur, 2017)
Over the last year, my partner Cliff Notez and I, have been going to universities with two of our films about black mental health, and doing workshops with students and faculty about coping skills and trauma. A lot of these students have an unmatched grind, trying to be full-time students, full-time workers, full-time friends, children and, sometimes, parents. Often times, code switching in between all of them, their multiple personalities leaked into each other, causing a stress that can lead to depression.
And they do have depression. There's been a rise in college students suffering from mental health issues, and I've witnessed it first hand, having seen a student suffer from a mental break and be hospitalized.
On Halloween, I released a short film called "The Methodist" which is about an actor who doesn't leave character as a metaphor for people who bring work home or do not endure breaks. We watch for 10 minutes how his "method" comes in between his relationship with his partner. He begins to smoke and drink, which he doesn't regularly do, which begs the question: Is he in character or is his work driving him to pick up vices? In analyzing this, and physicality aside, how is this any different than the fighter who comes home and starts to box their family members? Or the football player who has violent outbursts? Or just the marriage that ends in divorce because a spouse doesn't pay their family any attention?
At some point, when you carry a character on for too long at a time, there is a chance you will bring it home. When thinking about the movie Split [spoiler], James McAvoy's character took on a personality called the Beast that essentially took over his body, turning him into a killer. When we hear domestic violence stories about Ray Rice and Floyd Mayweather, two people who are essentially praised for their violent professions, as disappointing as it is, are we really surprised when we know that they are bred for it? When we know they are going at it day-in and day-out?
In terms of blackness, a lot of us are told, growing up, that we have to work twice as hard just to be in the race. Along with this, I would also say we have to learn to be a chameleon, and change characters at the drop of a dime. Ta-Nahesis Coates, in an excerpt from his book Between The World and Me, would say, "This is your country, this is your world, this is your body and you must find some way to live within the all of it." And in the all of it, we risk losing whom we are to a character built just to survive.
This isn't to say that we shouldn't work hard and make sacrifices, but taking a break, from work and from our multiple personalities, is a necessity for the human body. Sometimes leaving work at work is healthy for the mind and for your family. In the end, it's not like we can take all of this with us when we go.
I would also challenge those in "professional" settings to be conscious about the amount of time they spend code switching. Is there a fear attached to it? Whom are you trying to make feel safe? What would happen if you didn't switch languages? If you are not a person of color, and your workplace promotes "diversity," really take the time to listen to how everyone speaks — the words they use, colloquialisms, personality traits, etc. Is your workplace truly diverse, or just color-coated differently? How many "method" actors are you working around? And are you one yourself?