Learning When to Flip the Code Switch

When I was a teenager, I struggled to fit in with my peers because I always felt like an outsider in a society defined by a Black-White paradigm.

I was uncomfortable in my own skin until I was 20 or 21, when I realized that being an Indian-American who could mix easily with diverse communities wasn’t a bad thing. I always felt like wasn’t Indian enough but when I started meeting others in my community who shared my views and my grievances, I began to realize that there was a “third space” for me in between the Black-White binaries.

I think my adaptability to different groups had a lot to do with my upbringing in a racially and ethnically diverse suburb of Philadelphia and my ability to “code switch” naturally once in college. I realized the slang I spoke around some of my peers didn’t work with other settings, or the formal manner of speech I used in class wasn’t going to fly at a late-night party.

This is why “keeping it real” was such a complex idea for me to grasp. I’ve never bought into the idea of a purely authentic experience. I think you can be yourself and yet interact differently in diverse settings.

We as faculty of color often know the importance of code switching. My boss, an African-American in his 30s, and I are of the same generation and speak the same vernacular to each other in private. But when we’re interacting with students and with higher ups at the university, we know there’s a different way we must conduct ourselves.

I had a good friend come and speak to my students last week. He is one of the most prominent Black male broadcasters in Philadelphia and related his experiences of learning how to speak “proper” in order to gain credibility as a journalist.

Some of my students spoke to me afterward and expressed concern over whether learning to “speak like a White person” would somehow betray who they are. I told them changing your speech pattern doesn’t change you as a person.

When I called my friend later that day to thank him for his visit, we broke out in slang. However, when a student walked in, I adjusted my tone of speech immediately and told my friend I’d call him back.

Maybe when some of my students move on to bigger and better things they will hear a side of me they’ve never heard before. But they won’t hear it while they’re in my classroom.

Dr. Murali Balaji is an assistant professor in the Department of English and Mass Communications at Lincoln University.