Chronicles Of A Code-Switcher
Today I had a phone interview for a non-profit in the San Francisco Bay Area. Considering the Bay Area’s vast diversity, I wanted to believe that I could work in an office where I could truly be myself. To act and speak freely as I do with friends. I, however, know too well that I must use my “I need this job voice” on the phone. I must use code-switching. The Oxford dictionary defines code-switching as the practice of alternating between two or more languages or varieties of language in conversation.
I am fluent in English, I know a bit of Spanish from high school (I can ask where the bathroom is and not get lost), I can say Je’mappele Jessica in French, and I’m quite fluent in African-American Vernacular English (AAVE). AAVE is the variety (dialect, ethnolect, and sociolect) of English natively spoken by most working- and middle-class African Americans. I, as well as Dave Chappelle, would call my fluency bilingual. Mr. Chapelle so eloquently stated, “[e]very black American is bilingual. All of them. We speak street vernacular and we speak 'job interview.'”
It’s true. We do, and today as I sat on the phone for this interview I spoke job-interview fluently. I knew not to drop the “g’s” from words (“singing” v. “singin’”, “dancing” v. “dancin’”) and knew to properly enunciate “going to” instead of saying “goin’” or “gonna.” I knew to pronounce “ask” slowly, and not accidentally say “ax.” Subconsciously, I didn’t want the interviewer to think that I couldn’t speak correctly. I experience a strange dilemma between having to speak 'job interview' and wanting to just be myself as an AAVE speaker. The interviewer laughed at my jokes, my experiences, and felt that I was a good amount of intelligent, ethnically Black, and qualified for the job.
Must we code-switch to get jobs and signal our worth to other races and ethnic groups?
Vernacular v. The Interview
My co-workers and I went to lunch today. It wasn’t a particularly diverse group (I was the only African-American) but they are progressives and relatively “woke” so I didn’t have the fear that they would say something offensive. We talked about current events, music, what food we were going to eat and the happenings at work. I then ran into a friend from college at the restaurant. The conversation lasted maybe five minutes. I am familiar with her, she has known me most of my adult life. We talked about going to the Trap Art Event that upcoming weekend, me staying in Richmond, CA with my aunt, and the past weekend’s ratchetry in L.A.
Somewhat surreptitiously, the difference between the conversation I was having with my co-workers and the conversation with my friend--the tone, the laughter, my volume (from 3 to a 7)--all came rushing to my awareness. How I interacted with my friend is second nature and is how I act in my everyday life when I’m around the familiar. When I’m around family and friends who know me. I gave my friend a hug and told her that I would see her later. I turned around to see my co-workers sitting there, almost in an awe-like silence at what they had just witnessed and secondhand experienced. At that moment, I realized that the conversation with my college friend was like stepping into Shakespeare’s “As You Like It” in that “All the world’s a stage, And all the men and women merely players,” and my co-workers in their seats, the audience.
I felt their stares riddled with questions but mainly, “What Jessica is this?”
Code-switching has seeped into not only my speech, but also my music. Is that even possible? In the office, I usually keep my music between low to jazz, something non-offensive. Today, I had my morning inspirational playlist on my work computer. While I was typing away at a motion (a written request to the court to release my client on their own recognizance) completely focused, I hadn’t realized that my car playlist made its way into office 332 until someone loudly asked, “Who is playing Migos?”
Trappin’ out the office
A new day and a new job. I’m now working at the Public Defender’s office. My code-switching skills have to surpass what they have been. It’s interesting to work in an office where professionalism is often required, where for a young, African-American budding attorney, code-switching is most definitely a necessity if not a survival tactic.
It is daunting to switch not only for the work and where I am, but how often as well. The men and women in the box (the area where inmates sit before being arraigned by the judge) seem to be 40-60% African-American on any given day. The clients in the box and I are not necessarily from the same background, but our similarity is in hue and in some familiarity with the switch. Between client and court staff, I feel like a translator when it comes to both the client’s verbal and underlying message in their plea for representation.
Translating -- from client to court staff -- doesn’t just include reapplying the letters that have been dropped (like changing “goin’ or “gonna” to “going to”), but also includes translating slang (some judges think that colloquiums are a foreign language) and turn of phrases that haven’t been embedded into everyday American English lexicon.
Prime example: one client walks up to be heard on their case. In a courtroom where it’s a no shorts policy, the judge, albeit sarcastically, asks what the client is wearing. The client responds, “These is red bottoms, these is bloody shoes, Ms.” The same blank stare that once went over my co-workers’ faces went over hers. I just replied, “He’s quoting a Cardi-B song...those are lyrics.” At this point not only was she staring but she also looked slightly confused. I thought I may have broken the judge but she continued on with the case. I just sat back and thought to myself, “you know, I think I may need to add code-switching to my list of languages.”
The code-switching translator
I had to explain to someone today that “Bye, Felicia” actually did not originate with “Orange is the New Black” but from the movie “Friday.”
The code-switching translator for my white friends
A client’s family member saw me in court today, looked at me with much sincerity, took a deep breath and said, “I don’t want you to take this this the wrong way but I did NOT think you were Black when we spoke on the phone.” Am I supposed to take that as a compliment?
Code-switching phone voice level 9000
It’s wedding season. I have found myself in the mountainous range of Virginia. The grassy knolls and trees are beautiful, but I’ve seen get out, which albeit fiction made me think deeply about the location and required me to send my location to various friends (you know, just in case they try to put me in the sunken place). Yes diary, you’re probably thinking to your papered self, “Why would she need to send her location to her friends? Is Virginia unsafe?”’ Well, diary it’s not inherently unsafe but I failed to mention that we’re not only in Virginia, but I am the only Black person attending this wedding. A fact that I didn’t realize until tonight, the rehearsal dinner.
I am now THE black person. The go-to for questions, comments, thoughts, you name it. I was trying to make sure that I was/am seen as the “good Black friend.” In a room full of Harvard Doctors I was proud to say (1) I went to Howard, and (2) that I was an attorney. To be Black and Black trained was a double whammy.
Again, I go back to whether it’s even important or necessary to make a showing that the Black people white people meet in real life, especially if they don’t see or really befriend other Black people, are counter to any stereotype that’s made of us. It’s the double consciousness that W.E.B. DuBois talks about in the Souls of Black Folks. DuBois states that this feeling is, “ ... [a] peculiar sensation, this double-consciousness, this sense of always looking at one’s self through the eyes of others, of measuring one’s soul by the tape of a world that looks on in amused contempt and pity. One ever feels his two-ness, -an American, a Negro; two souls, two thoughts, two unreconciled strivings; two warring ideals in one dark body, whose dogged strength alone keeps it from being torn asunder.” We are programmed, somewhat as a means of survival in our youth as switching between these two levels of consciousness. Now, while DuBois rails in the back of my mind, I think about how , I am miraculously getting through the weekend free of “You speak so eloquently!”
Outside of the internal crisis I was experiencing with my double consciousness, I made sure that I remained aware of my element. That I knew enough of the Bohemian Rhapsody lyrics , the current social media dance craze that has swept the Instagrams (you know what I’m talking about), and to drink enough to be social, but not too much to let all the social capital I’ve built up go to waste.
All was good. I made it through the day with no hiccups.
Weekend Code Switcher
The wedding was beautiful, we even danced the night away. And then…someone asked if I could be their Black friend. C’est la vie.
Black Friend for Hire