Why I’ve Concluded Code Switching Is Absolutely, Irrefutably For The Birds
I'm over it.
While most people express curiosity about my academic life, my interactions on social media have actually been reflective of my learning and growth since leaving home to live in Austin and pursue my degree. I grew up in Dorchester, MA, so I am no stranger to the ‘hood and all that comes with living in a community where you must be just as street smart as you are book smart to thrive. My family still lives in the same house that I grew up in- an old Victorian mansion on a busy street anchored by a corner store and a community center at opposite ends, with a Christian Science library somewhere in the middle.
I grew up in a family of academics. My father is a college professor and my mother a therapist. I grew up hearing people refer to my family as “the real-life Huxtables,” and they weren’t too far off. My older sisters both have advanced degrees (an MBA and a doctorate), and my younger brother recently returned home from Michigan after completing his Master’s degree in Biomedical Engineering. He’s taking prerequisites in preparation for applying to medical school. I always knew my parents’ expectations, and no matter how much I fooled around in school, I knew how to pull it together in a crunch to excel.
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From the outside looking in, we are the picture-perfect Huxtables. People see perfection, do-gooder kids who followed their parents’ dreams of continuing the cycle of higher education, success, and perfection without any struggle in sight. While I know that my family has been blessed with access to amazing networks and higher education spaces, I find it very difficult to resist the feeling to make sure that people understand that I am just as in touch with my home and community as I was before I left for school. While I don’t “force” my blackness in an insincere performative way, I find that my state of being can often be interpreted as such, or even the opposite.
Let me explain. I, like most black people, once maintained two separate identities by choice. We are taught that we should conduct ourselves differently in various spaces in order to be deemed “acceptable.” While I knew of this feeling and expectation long before I began my Ph.D., and long before I even knew that this feeling was a “thing,” I did not know what to call it or why I felt the need to conform in different spaces. Why did my voice go up a bit higher and my vocabulary suddenly change when I spoke to my white professors and classmates? Why did my spidey-senses kick in to work harder than my white classmates in my college classes to make sure that I stood out in a “good” way? Why did I feel personally attacked every time we read articles in class about “marginalized” or “minority” students? It was because I was always the only one or one of few black students in classrooms filled with a sea of white faces. In these spaces, I conformed to speak, dress, and present myself as the same as everyone else so that I did not stand out. I, dark skinned, 5’9”, and loc’d tried to blend in a classroom of white students. It sounds silly, but I comforted myself with the thought that if I looked and sounded like my classmates, maybe my blackness would be overlooked and I could just be another human- just as human as anyone else in the room.
While I loved being different, I wanted to be different in a comfortable way. I wanted to be different in a way that was cool and made everyone smile, not in the way that made everyone look to me as the black voice in the room that could speak to confirm the findings in research articles about black boys and the school to prison pipeline or black families and the word gap. I did not want to be different in the way that was the exception to any rule, either. As one of few black students in every classroom I have ever been in since college, I never wanted my education to make me "special," but just another asset that I could add to my resume as a qualifier- like everyone else.
Back home, I was always more comfortable. With my family, friends, and church being predominantly black, there was never pressure to conform. We actually had open conversations about the problem of whiteness, hegemony, and navigating those spaces for the sake of pursuing a degree. I particularly loved having these conversations with my father and my best friend. My father would understand exactly where I was coming from since he has been the only or one of few black full professors on his faculty for decades. He would advise that I learn to “play the game.” I had to do what was required of me in order to attain my educational goals, but only once I had my degree, could I openly do whatever I wanted. My best friend would commiserate with me as we humorously, and slightly truthfully, discussed our trust issues when it comes to white people.
Navigating between black and white spaces was exhausting, so one day I decided that I would stop code-switching. Double-consciousness and in-betweenness are still things that I have to navigate and consider for safety purposes, but as far as changing myself to make others feel more comfortable? To hell with that. At first, I made the decision because I realized that I had worked too hard and gotten too far in my education to find myself conforming and faking, pretending to be something and someone that I am not. The truth is that I am so unapologetically black that it doesn’t matter how many white spaces I occupy, there is no hiding it. And why should there be? The way I speak is reflective of my Boston roots, my Guyanese blood, and my mixed vocabulary of standard English and facial expressions that include an appropriately and frequently used side-eye.
I manage a ton of different identities, and to mute or amplify any single one at a time is not worth the work. Instead, I choose to use my positionality to my advantage. Upon first glance, I am a black woman and that informs my work, how people view me, and how I view and experience the world. Although I am a black woman and so many other things at the same time, I know that this is what stands out the most until I open my mouth. I had to become comfortable with knowing that some would see me as “the black woman who speaks articulately”, “the black woman who is always talking about race”, “the black woman who always has an opinion", and maybe even "the black woman who talks like a white girl", but no matter what, codeswitching is no longer an option for me. I'm over it.