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Examining "code switching" on NPR's new race, culture and ethnicity blog

Jordan Peele as President Obama (right) and Keegan-Michael Key as his "anger translator" Luther lampoon the phenomenon of "code switching."

Comedy Central

Jordan Peele as President Obama (right) and Keegan-Michael Key as his "anger translator" Luther lampoon the phenomenon of "code switching."



Back in the day, we used to call it “speaking proper.”

It’s that more formal, more traditionally “proper” speaking voice your parents used when speaking to on the phone to people at work or dealing with authority figures.

What we didn’t know, back in the day, is that there’s a name for that kind of move: code switching.


Linguists define the term as switching between different languages or speech patterns in the same conversation. But many of us who write about race, culture and media have expanded the term to include moving between different cultures in life; the way you use one patois kicking it with your friends around your neighborhood and another in the stuffy confines of work or school.

Code switching is a particular talent necessary for members of racial or ethnic minorities looking to move between the culture of their home or heritage and the mainstream world. (The comedy team Key and Peele even lampoon this idea with their “Angry Obama” sketch, showing our first black president with his anger translator, Luther.)

So it makes a certain kind of sense that NPR would name the blog for its new race and culture reporting team, “Code Switch.”

They asked me to contribute a post on code switching for its inaugural week; the story was published Wednesday, and centered on the learning curve I experienced when sent from my all-black, economically challenged neighborhood in Gary, Ind. to a small private school (a Jewish middle school, actually) in nearby Hammond, Ind.

I didn’t have  word back then for the skill I was forced to develop; learning how to speak one way at school to be understood – a classmate responded to my enthusiastic compliment that something was “bad” by saying “actually, I thought it was pretty good” – and another way at home to avoid ridicule.

My piece starts this way: “"You guys doing anything today?"

That might sound like an ordinary, even dull question. But in my old neighborhood — mostly poor, entirely black '70s-era Gary, Ind. — that kind of question was grounds for serious ridicule. Or worse.

The problem: I had dared use a word none of my partners ever let pass through their lips, unless they were making fun of a white person: "guys."

It was a word that had seeped into my speech patterns almost without thinking since I reached the fifth grade, when my mother sent me to a white-dominated private school outside our neighborhood.

That word — "guys" — might earn smiles and nods of understanding in that world, but it brought the ultimate insult in my neighborhood. "You sound like them white boys you go to school with, you know that?" my friends would say, with a tone parked somewhere between amused disdain and outright disgust. "Why you always talkin' like them white boys?"

To read the read of the piece, click here. Check out Key and Peele's sketch below (its bleeped, but may still be NSFW).


[Last modified: Friday, April 12, 2013 6:35am]


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