It’s time to acknowledge the fact that Cardi B is punk rock. From her unflinching praise of sex workers to refusing to let her art take a backseat to motherhood, Cardi B couldn’t care less about what the establishment thinks of her. Her most punk-rock move to date? Resisting the pressure to code-switch.
For centuries, Black and Brown people have been told that in order to “succeed” in white American culture (a.k.a. win awards, attend college, get jobs, avoid arrest, the list goes on) we need to assimilate. One of the hallmark’s of that assimilation is using the Queen’s English, which many of us do despite being raised speaking a different language or dialect at home. In effort to preserve our unique cultures, we become experts at toggling between tongues — talking how we wanna talk around members of our own identity group, and speaking “properly” in the presence of white people. This is code-switching.
I came to understand its necessity early on. As a young girl, I was taught that how I present myself within white spaces directly affects my chances of survival. This lesson was often linked to a manner of speaking: The “whiter” I sounded, the more acceptable my Blackness became, and the closer to “success” I was allowed to get.
For the most part, a lifetime of code-switching has worked. Every performance review I’ve ever received — whether from a teacher in grade school or a manager from some tech company — includes comments on my “ability to articulate.” This is code for, “Wow, she sounds nothing like the Blacks on the evening news!” A success — in white America’s eyes.
When I hear this back-handed compliment, I think, Whew chile, if they only knew! My natural way of communicating is comprised of so much Ebonics, or African American Vernacular English (AAVE), that autocorrect has largely given up on correcting my texts. Still, I consciously smile, emote and speak in ways unnatural to me just to make my white coworkers comfortable with my presence — while being paid less than most of them — day in and day out. Despite the implications, it still feels like a super power to go from “Whatchall on here talmbout” to “Any forward movement on our Q1 initiatives?” in nanoseconds. But the older I get, the more cynical I become about my people’s chances of obtaining some shabby version of the American dream, no matter how we present ourselves. And sometimes I’m not in the mood for the Queen’s English. Especially not in this increasingly hostile white American world.
You know who else ain’t in the mood for the Queen’s English? Cardi B. She refuses to fix herself into what mainstream white America expects, no matter the context. Instead of refining her speech and suppressing her accent, Cardi B is teaching Nina Garcia the proper pronunciation of her signature “Okurr.” Her ability to turn nouns into verbs (“summonsing” is my favorite) while thoughtfully discussing everything from ass and titties to politics has awakened something deep within me — a determination to code-switch less. Commiserating with a white coworker after a frustrating meeting last week, I didn’t talk about the “misaligned goals” or the “lack of process.” Instead, I was pleasantly surprised to hear myself say, “LOOK. If they don’t stop with all that mess!” — completely unbothered by what my coworker might have thought. It felt great.
So now, I’m channeling my inner Cardi B punk rock whenever I can. If Cardi B can be true to herself while riding a regal white horse on the cover of a high fashion magazine, then I can at least let out an “aw hell naw” while commanding authority and safety in white spaces. I know that this punk rock approach works for a rap artist in a way that it cannot work for a college student trying to get an internship, but Cardi B gives us a new north star, a new idea of what a personal freedom can look like. Someday, we may not have to be a rapper dressed in Moschino to get to be ourselves.
Graphic by Madeline Montoya.