Living as a black person in the UK, changing the way you interact with different audiences can become a lifelong practice.
Growing up, I noticed the way my dad’s strong Nigerian accent would soften and become more anglicised when he spoke to his colleagues over the phone. I was always aware of the way I addressed my teachers at my predominately white grammar school, often feeling like I didn’t want to give anyone a reason to question my place there. My parents had instilled in me the idea that because I was a black girl, I would have to work twice as hard as everyone else and, at the age of 11, I was already aware that I was under more scrutiny from teachers. I wanted to distance myself from the stereotype of being a loud, disruptive truant; a stereotype I knew would be more easily pinned on me than on a white student. And so, through keeping quiet in lessons save for answering questions, avoiding slang that could be frowned upon, and modifying my accent, I began to code-switch.
'Code-switching' was originally coined as a linguistic term for the ways in which bilingual people engage with language. It describes bilingual speakers alternating between literal linguistic codes in environments where just one language is spoken and adapting to situations where a blending of languages is not unusual, such as 'Spanglish' (Spanish and English). However, sociolinguist expert Chad Nilep notes that the definition of code-switching can (and has) been widened to include a conscious organising of conversational exchange, with knowledge of the wider context; altering the way you communicate your ideas based on your surroundings.
And so, code-switching now commonly means changing the way you speak, dress and carry yourself in order to fit in and assimilate, a theme that runs through recent popular culture. In Angie Thomas' bestselling YA novel The Hate U Give, 16-year-old Starr Carter struggles with being 'normal Starr' in her black neighbourhood and 'Williamson Starr' at her mostly white, affluent private school. When she steps through the doors of Williamson Prep, she "holds her tongue when people piss her off so nobody will think she’s the 'angry black girl'...Williamson Starr doesn’t give anyone a reason to call her ghetto."
Spike Lee’s BlacKkKlansman provides a take on the true story of a black police officer who infiltrated the Ku Klux Klan by sounding like a white man over the phone. Meanwhile, in dark comedy Sorry To Bother You, a 'white voice' turns protagonist Cassius into an overnight sales success. All these interpretations take the concept of code-switching to various degrees, however, they all demonstrate how employing particular mannerisms and patterns of speech can enable black people to attain opportunities they otherwise wouldn’t.
Black people also find themselves code-switching in an attempt to fit in or avoid microaggressions – small, unintentional actions that demonstrate prejudicial views towards a marginalised group. During a TV interview, creative technologist Alex Fefegha found himself changing the way he spoke when he got nervous: "I felt like people wouldn’t understand [me]. When I first started working in tech, I was the only black guy there so I was trying to be someone that I wasn’t for the sake of social acceptance by my peers," he tells me. "There were times when I would get comfortable and talk in normal slang and then people would be like, 'What?' In my head, I was like, 'Oh god, they don’t understand me'."
I would get comfortable and talk in normal slang and then people would be like, 'What?' In my head, I was like, 'Oh god, they don’t understand me'.
Fearing not being understood or being perceived negatively due to slang or, in particular, having a foreign accent is a legitimate concern. In one study, psycholinguist Shiri Lev-Ari found that we’re "less likely to believe something if it’s said with a foreign accent" due to the extra work our brains have to do in order to process foreign speech and sounds.
And so, code-switching in professional environments, particularly white-dominated workplaces, is a common experience for black people. University student Makella believes she has done it in the past in an attempt to be seen as 'just another employee'. "Work environments tend not to be safe spaces to truly be yourself, especially for people of colour. [There is a] very narrow pendulum of either being seen as 'too much' or being completely unacknowledged so code-switching temporarily helps to balance these experiences."
Leeds-based primary school teacher Liz believes that code-switching for her is crucial to her work in education. "The more 'professional' I am, the less room for criticism [there is]... I code-switch to survive. My voice is lower, I smile more, and talk less." However, she also notes the ways in which she has found herself changing her behaviour around different friendship groups. "It was different at my white friend's house," Liz notes. "As soon as I entered their house, I’d be on my best behaviour, especially if I was one of the few black friends. It always felt as though I was 'representing' for the culture."
Unsurprisingly, having to constantly reinvent oneself in order to achieve palatability takes a mental toll, especially given the feelings of shame that often accompany it. Received pronunciation – or 'Queen’s English' – for example, is a historical signifier of status and high social class, education and, undoubtedly, whiteness. Therefore, adopting such a mechanism can feel like a rejection and betrayal of your culture and upbringing. Alex says: "Code-switching makes me feel uncomfortable. I feel like my ancestors are on my neck for doing so." For writer Tamera, it leads her to question which parts of her are real: "Sometimes I think, 'Am I not fluently myself in all situations?'"
Code-switching is murky and uneasy territory. It can be both a subconscious and conscious method of alleviating the weight of assumptions and expectations that come with being black in non-black spaces. It can be a way of dodging awkward conversations and exaggerated stereotypes. It can feel like you have many personas but also none. In an attempt to protect yourself mentally, financially, emotionally and more, it can feel like the lesser of two evils.