The first time I actively noticed someone code-switch I was about 10. I told my mom (who is white) that she put on an accent around my dad’s relatives (who are black) at Christmas. “Please stop,” I said in the car one day. When you’re 10, everything is embarrassing, but I think there was something about that particular brand of code-switching that stuck out to me. It seemed so inauthentic, an attempt to belong in a way that just came off as awkward. So often when we talk about code-switching, we talk about a certain group shifting to meet the expectations of a dominant culture. I think watching that in reverse was what caused me to notice it, even though I had been code-switching for most of my life.
There’s the linguistic-focused dictionary definition of code-switching — “the practice of alternating between two or more languages or varieties of language in conversation” — and then there’s the more colloquial one that centers around changing one’s behavior, conversation topics and dress when around different groups of people. There’s a podcast, a Key & Peele sketch and a million memes about code-switching, and for Duality Month at Man Repeller, I wanted to hear from some other real-life, self-proclaimed code-switchers about their experiences. Below, five women talk about the hows and whys of their personal code-switching and how it feels to move between languages and identities.
Rachita Vasan, 24
I grew up not feeling at home in my own skin, feeling too Indian for Americans and too American for Indians. You internalize those judgements and value systems, not realizing that in doing so, you’re setting yourself up to fail because you consider yourself to be an inherent contradiction.
But you can’t sharpen a knife without a whetstone — as hard as my childhood was in a lot of ways, I credit it with so much of who I am today. Constantly having to reevaluate your audience and context can take a lot out of you when the entire world is trying to tell you who you’re supposed to be. So I developed a really strong internal radar for what felt authentic and honest to me — time spent understanding other people was also time spent nurturing my intuition and sense of self. Especially as an only child, I didn’t have anyone Indian-American to really model behavior off of other than myself, so I got really good at observing and learning from the people around me, even if they weren’t “hybrids” like I was.
The practice of putting myself in other people’s shoes to delve into their state of mind is one that became critical to almost every skillset I’m proud of today, especially writing. When you code-switch, you get really fucking good at understanding the power of words, how to get people to take you seriously, how to override their lizard brains shouting stereotypes and misconceptions in the background of your conversation. I have an endless fascination with the nuances in language and communication because as far as I’m concerned, I am a nuance.
There’s a tension in code-switching, you know? But there’s also an energy and a power in that tension; eventually, I learned that being from two cultures didn’t have to mean I was excluded from both. It meant that, once I grew enough to feel secure about who I was and who I wanted to be, I could be greedy with my identity — I could have everything I wanted, I could be unpredictable, I could have all of the above instead of a, b or c. I might look like I’m caught between two cultures, but I am exactly who I am and where I belong. That hyphen in Indian-American could have been a shackle, but I turned it into a bridge.
My brain subconsciously goes back and forth from thinking in Spanish to English. If I’m thinking in English, I’ll blurt something out in Spanish and vice-versa. I often find myself accidentally describing things using Spanish slang and being unable to explain to English speakers what exactly this slang word means.
Sometimes certain topics and emotions bring out the Spanish or English in me. It’s interesting because when I’m talking about love, joy and all things sweet, I tend to speak in Spanish. When I’m angry or annoyed or anything of that sort, I tend to speak in English. I think that has to do with how romantic Spanish sounds compared to harsh English.
Overall, it’s a blessing and a curse, but I consider it a huge part of my identity now.
Leslie Bartley, 26
I learned to code-switch from an early age. I watched as my mom, and our lineage of Kentucky women, find out that if we wanted access to jobs, mobility and respect, we better scrub our tongues clean and recognize that how we talk to our family is NOT how we talk in public. Put your shoes on and hang your banjoes up; it’s school time.
A hellish CEO I met recently in an elevator in Bangkok asked me where I was from after a gregarious introduction from my end. After telling him Kentucky, he responded, “I heard your accent. Thank god I got rid of mine years ago.”
To create balance in spaces I own or feel responsible for, I draw on tropes of Southern women of yore, caricatures of my matriarchs who don’t sell used cars like my actual mom, but had the whole day to focus on buttermilk biscuits and receiving the boys for supper. If I want to make guests, new folks or students of mine comfortable, I’ll greet them with a plucky “Hay y’all,” clasp onto their forearms and ensure them that “I got you baby!” As I’m pushing into my late twenties, I’m starting to recognize the patterns of when I use my Kentucky accent outside of familial spaces, and every time it’s to create warmth.
Olha Kurenda, 18
As a native Ukrainian, I speak a whopping five languages: Russian, English, German, Polish and Ukrainian (naturally). In my country, code-switching is very common, since so many people speak both Russian and Ukrainian every day without realizing that they have changed languages.
I love code-switching with my mom. She doesn’t speak English and German fluently, so hearing her pick up the words I use when talking to my English friends, sometimes without knowing the meaning of them, is hilarious. All the languages I speak have allowed me to learn words which do not exist in other languages. German pick-up lines are amazing; you can compliment someone by telling them, “You look hot as a rat.” In Ukrainian, you can call someone a breadcrumb and they would feel flattered. In general, code-switching allows me to know so many idioms, and using them in other languages can be a lot of fun!
Code-switching really spices up my speech and makes people slightly confused. But sometimes you have to confuse people, right?
Jean Hall, 33
Code-switching is as much a part of growing up black as double-dutch and hot combs; you would be hard-pressed to find an educated black person who hasn’t mastered the art. I grew up in a predominantly white suburb of Washington, D.C., and commuted an hour each day to attend an all-black, African-centered private school in northwest D.C. I was labeled the “white girl” immediately. Not only did I live in white west bumfuck, but my mother is from Connecticut and my father is from New Jersey … I lacked that particular D.C. drawl, the one that pronounces crayon as crown, and so I “talked white,” too.
In kindergarten, I learned to minimize the parts of me that my black inner-city peers referred to as white. At school, it was “crown”; at home, it was “crayon” or my mother would pop me for talking [like that].” I spent kindergarten through high school switching between the codes of the streets and the codes of my mama’s house. In high school, I had more freedom and thus more access to the hood. My street code was solid, I dated boys who sold drugs, I had an adopted big brother from a hood that claimed me, I danced on speakers at go-gos (dangerous dance parties that usually ended with gunshots), I was all set! Then came college, where the hood persona became a bit less necessary. My mother was thrilled when she realized my D.C. accent was slowly fading away.
I moved to New York after college, to Bed-Stuy, to be exact (not today’s Bed-Stuy, but the Bed-Stuy of 10 years ago when you could still get your purse snatched). I finally lived in the hood, and my years of practice served me well. If the little hoodlums came at me sideways on Nostrand Avenue, I knew exactly what to say to shut them all the way up. But at work as a visual merchandiser for Louis Vuitton, a different code was expected, and my education and upbringing prepared me to switch easily. I’d read the right books, visited the right countries, wore the right brands and pronounced them properly. While working in fashion — like magazine fashion, not retail — I learned that my underlying hood edge gave me a kind of cachet. I would find the white people I worked with picking up my slang that had now morphed into a weird amalgamation of Atlanta, D.C., New York and California hood.
Let’s fast forward 11 years … I’m 33, and Bed-Stuy isn’t the hood anymore. I’ve done enough soul-searching to know and love who I am: I’m a little bit country, a little rock and roll and even a little Soul II Soul. I’m educated, confident, well dressed and well travelled, but I prefer bodega coffee to espresso, consider “chicken and mumbo sauce with a jumbo mix” a delicacy and I am exactly the same everywhere I go.
Illustration by Emily Zirimis.