Beads of sweat drip down the back of my neck as I sit sweltering inside a steamy portable classroom in Houston. The beady eyes of my mostly white classmates bear down on me. I feel the weight of their gaze, and I am forced to sit-up and repeat my question to my teacher.
The back of my throat is dry and sticky with anxiety. My teacher’s eyes narrow as I try my best to speak as clearly as possible, but the consonants weigh heavily on my tongue. I had only been in the United States for a few years and my words were thick with my homeland’s influence. I repeat myself, and she interrupts me once more and tells me in a condescending tone, “It’s asked, not axed.”
I hear a few students snicker behind me. I feel my face flush with shame; although English is Nigeria’s official language, everyone assumes that I do not speak “their” English, so I was a target.
When I’m in a social setting, have to speak-up or simply be around anyone I don’t know, it’s a scene from my childhood that replays in my mind. I’m wary of how I speak, and many minorities are also conscious of how they speak growing up. Calgary is a predominantly white city, so with my audible accent and how I looked strikingly different from Caucasians, I couldn’t help but feel like an outsider.
In Christopher Boulton’s Black Identities Inside Advertising: Race Inequality, Code Switching, and Stereotype Threat, Boulton defines code switching as how “speakers might modify their vocabulary and even shift their ‘pitch, volume, rhythm, stress, [or] tonal quality’ to better accommodate the expectations of their listeners or conform to the context … power hierarchies of any given social interaction.” I recall times in my life where I was intensely aware of how my voice was coming across to other people, and I wanted them to like me.
I had to establish myself as more than what they could perceive me as. The typical stereotype of someone who uses African American Vernacular English (AAVE) is bold, often sassy and aggressive. People associate any speech negatively on a black woman like me. The article Sassy Queens’ by Christina Ilbury states that “there exists an essentialized imagining of the ‘Black Other’ which is contingent on the property of sassiness.” I do not want to be a walking stereotype, and I don’t want characteristics assigned to me just because of what an individual assumes my personality might be due to how I talk.
Although Ilbury’s article is about the intersection between the LGBT community and black culture, this is precisely the point I am trying to make. They can wear our culture like a costume and have none of the actual repercussions of using other dialects. This is not a luxury for everyone. A Black person can be sentenced to court without a lawyer, just using our vernacular like in the case of Warren Demesme, who was denied his right to a lawyer in Louisiana because of the following quote: “This is how I feel, if y’all think I did it, I know that I didn’t do it so why don’t you just give me a lawyer dog ’cause this is not what’s up.”
Case studies like this are why I must code switch because the alternative is that people will purposely misconstrue me as they did to Demesne. It’s obvious that he was just asking for a lawyer and not a “lawyer dog,” as the judge ruled. Though this may seem ridiculous, this happened in 2017, and to protect myself from that, I change my voice, and I be “codeswitchin’ up on em.”
Asma Abbas, a first-generation Sudanese immigrant and president of the African and Caribbean Society of Mount Royal University, knows exactly how it feels to be ostracized for her roots.
“In junior high, I had just moved to a new school, and because I used slang like y’all, and people thought that I was ghetto,” Abbas says. “You don’t feel accepted, and you become obsessed with being like the white people. It sucks because you get ashamed of your whole culture.”
Abbas, like many other young people of colour, is more aware of being accepted and is especially sensitive to being different.
“Being different can be viewed as bad. It comes from a place of internalized racism, and it can manifest in things like hating your culture or wanting to change things like your hair texture.”
She describes her code switching as using her “white voice.” She finds that she is very aware of anti-Blackness in society. Abbas feels that professional jobs and professional spaces “are places that only exist to allow whiteness.” To her, code switching is just the way she can talk naturally without being censored.
So, on the one hand, I need to be accepted by my peers but, on the other hand, I cannot do that without changing my tone and policing the way I talk. It’s a precarious place to be. But it’s not hopeless.
I know my worth intrinsically, and although there are places in the world that see me as a walking caricature, that does not mean that is what I am. Like I said to my fourth-grade teacher, “There’s no difference between ‘ask and axe. We’re both saying the same thing.”