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Code-Switching to Code Stitching: Theorizing an Alternative Framework

The term code-switching has become a part of our sociocultural lexicon, especially among Black and Bi-Racial Indigenous People of Color (BIPOC) communities.  The definition of code-switching is two-fold:

The first definition refers to specific linguistic action of alternating or combining two or more languages. The second definition comes from a sociolinguistic perspective that describes the use of different dialects, accents, language combinations, and mannerisms within social groups in order to project a particular identity. Dr. Fred A. Bonner IIDr. Fred A. Bonner II

McCluney, Robotham, Lee, Smith, and Durkee (2019) advanced in their Harvard Business Review (2019) article , “Code-switching most often occurs in environments where negative stereotypes about BIPOC individuals don’t align with what is considered normative or appropriate for that environment” (para.1).

In addition, Thompson (2013) in his article titled Five Reasons Why People Code-Switch offers the following:

·     Our lizard brains take over (i.e. authentic ‘real’ way of being).

·      We want to fit in.

·      We want to get something.

·      We want to say something in secret.

·      It helps convey a thought.

A review of both the academic and non-academic literature related to code switching will quickly reveal the recapitulation of a number of terms like identity, comfort, consciousness, authenticity, privilege, loss, fitting-in, natural, fake, normative, traditional, conservative, ghetto, slang, proper, street, professional. All of these terms swirl around this concept, which at its core infers that the individual must in some way ‘switch’ his or her identity in a given context to present a more congruent palatable identity representation. 

In a recent virtual webinar, I engaged in dialogue with a session attendee about code-switching. The attendee’s question that resonated with me, “Do we have to code switch and change the focus of your research agenda to be successful in the Academy?” My immediate response was, “No — however, I think you should consider alternative approaches that allow you to meet your career and professional objectives while simultaneously being able to hold steadfast to your true cultural and social identity. I tentatively labeled this alternative process, code-stitching.

In essence, my authentic identity is permanently stitched to my personhood, like the patches on the sleeves of a brigadier general’s coat. Regardless of the context, it is clear who the general is, and what she represents. Each patch has its own distinct representation (code) that is never switched, but indelibly stitched. For example, I am not going to switch out of my Black identity in a White context, instead I am going to embrace my rural, Southern Blackness and use it as an asset.

Code-stitching as a conceptual framework is comprised of a number of essential constructs, perspectives and positionalities — Insider/Outsider Status; Gender, Ethnic, Racial Identity; as well as actual Code Switching itself that serves as the spark that initiates the code stitching. Perhaps most critical is the environment that we have descried as the mediating context. The mediating context is comprised of people, places, and positionalities. Each one of these contextual variables have implications for how the individual negotiates identity in a particular space — is the appropriate response in the setting to ‘switch’ out of representative identities to fit the environment or does the individual ‘stitch’ these identities to his or her personhood, forcing the environment to fit  who they are and what they represent. Said differently, I do not change myself to adjust to the environment, but the environment changes to fit me. 

Bequita PegramBequita PegramTo illustrate how switching and code stitching have both played a role in my, as well as my co-author and doctoral advisee’s (Bequita Pegram) lived experiences, we offer the following narratives:

Fred: My engagements with code switching come in a variety of ways, with the most common happening when the comfortable Southern drawl I present as a proud product of rural East Texas, delivered with the often truncated ‘ing’ at the end of my words, replaced by the ‘in’.  My language code becomes switched to a hypercorrect and over-enunciated form of speech. In these situations I often think of my high school theater teacher Mr. Spruell coaching me through the proper diction, intonation, and voice to pull off the lead character role for One Act Play competition –“Bonner, the character is not from East Texas, he is from Manhattan, so we have to work with your diction!”

Bequita: For me, one of the most vivid experiences I had with code-switching is when I was a child and I would spend my summers visiting my grandmother in Meridian, MS.  I can hear her talking on the phone just like it was yesterday. What ensued after her “hello” were her words, but they were ... different.  The pronunciation was more precise, you could hear every “r” and “t” when she talked. It’s not what she said, but it was definitely how she said it that made the needle on the record in my head scratch across the vinyl. Was grandma switching to her White folks’ voice to act like them? Grandmother explained that her ability to switch her approach was necessary to conduct business with white people. My grandmother went on to say, “Baby, you have to give them what they are used to, so you can get what you need.”

Fred and Bequita: The above examples provide our narrative experiences with code switching; however, both engagements could have been transformed into code stitching engagements. For me (Fred), although I sometime slide into the comforts of hypercorrect grammar to fit into what I perceive is a context that expects my subjects and verbs to agree – I never depart from my culturally loaded examples that serve as conduits to convey my intended message.  For example, it is fairly routine for me to reference my upbringing in the Black Baptist church, one way is by invoking the refrain often used by African American ministers, “turn to your neighbor” as a way to initiate collaboration during planned session activities. For me (Bequita), even though my grandmother’s precision with her words might have been a slight departure from the Mississippi cadence and vernacular that I was accustomed to, especially during our informal exchanges — she was still able to “give them what they wanted” while at the same time — keeping what she needed, her dignity and self-worth. What these experiences with grandmother taught me was to recognize that there will be environments, in which I will utilize code switching as a means of effective communication with different audiences; however, I will be more courageous in my effort to live out my cultural identity, remorseless.

Given the discussion about the psychological toll that code switching takes on the individual who has to engage in these performative departures from self and self-identity, it is our sincere hope that Code-Stitching as a new conceptual framework will offer a viable alternative approach.

Dr. Fred A. Bonner II is professor and Endowed Chair in Educational Leadership and Counseling at Prairie View A&M University and is the executive director of the Minority Achievement, Creativity, and High Ability Center. 

Bequita Pegram is a Ph.D. student in the Educational Leadership Program at Prairie View A&M University.

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