Opinion | Code-switching is the talent no one talks about

By Ashanti McLaurin, For The Pitt News

I think everyone in the world has talent — you, me and your next door neighbor’s dog — but what is the definition of talent?

After a quick search on Merriam-Webster Dictionary, the results say it is “a special often athletic, creative, or artistic aptitude.” There are all sorts of talents — singing, dancing, painting or doing a cartwheel. A few talents I have fit these three categories. My athletic talent is being able to do a backflip, thanks to eight years of competitive cheerleading. My creative talent is singing my ABCs backward — funny, I know — and my artistic talent is being able to code-switch.

Code-switching is the practice of alternating between two or more languages or varieties of language in conversation, such as bilingualism or speaking English using “proper grammar” without slang. Using this talent can be very challenging, exhausting and frustrating, but is also necessary. Being Black, especially in America, we are born with this talent, then taught how to use it — in the workplace, school and everyday life.

A Harvard Business Review article, titled “The Costs of Code-Switching,” states the reasoning and effects of relying on this talent. Black people use this strategy within the workplace to increase perceptions of professionalism, be seen as leaders and raise the chances of promotion — positives. “Acting white” reduces authentic self-expression and contributes to burnout — negatives. We face a lot of criticism and discrimination when we code-switch, another downside. Backhanded compliments such as “you talk so proper” tend to downplay Black people’s intellect.

Being around people who experience the same racial divide as you, you tend to feel comfortable using certain phrases and language. You might be familiar with some African American Vernacular English, commonly known as AAVE. Terms like “lit,” “no cap” or “period” are often mistaken for TikTok, Twitter or Gen Z lingo — but these are terms Black people are criticized for when we use them naturally. When non-Black people use them, they’re seen as relatable and trendy. It is often misunderstood as “incorrect English” and “ghetto,” but it’s what makes Black culture so special.

According to Pew Research, 48% of Black college graduates in America felt the need to change how they talk around people of other races. I will be a junior this fall and can attest that this is very true. I find myself having to use this skill more in college when networking, meeting new professors and creating friends. It might look like I am seeking validation from people for acceptance, but I am true to my personality and character. I code-switch to protect myself from interactions that might be dangerous — especially interactions that involve police. I use different speech and body language as a defense mechanism to try and make sure I am not seen as a bigger threat than I am perceived as in society. This talent still presents itself in these situations which have been instilled in my mind since I first understood what racism is.

Black people use code-switching as a weapon against systemic racism and discrimination to survive and be taken as seriously as the rest of our non-Black peers. This survival tactic does not only apply in the workplace. It is mentally and emotionally scary when we have to resort to this in fear of being killed for just being ourselves — our speech, accent and dialect.

We do not code-switch to fit in. We do not code-switch to seek validation. We do this to not become another statistic at the hands of racists — whether it is an interaction with a boss, a teacher, the police or the nosy neighbor across the street.

Ashanti McLaurin primarily writes about Black culture, human injustices and gives life advice. Write to her at [email protected].