Newly Minted

Newly Minted
Right after I was hooded

Saturday, February 25, 2012

The fine art of culture switching...

If you are hoping to get a lesson or some insight on culture switching, if there were such a thing, you can stop reading here...

I gave a talk at the institution of higher education that employs me on Thursday. I read a bit of my dissertation. I was scared to death. I had forced my class to come and several colleagues were in attendance. It was actually a nicely filled room.

I read, shared a Kip Fulbeck clip, and opened the floor to questions. Our research librarian asked a lovely and thoughtful question about my research and findings. and then... well...

From my left comes a question that made time freeze. I had just spent 20 minutes talking about the unique location and identity of mixed race millenials in the United States. My colleague asks, with a deep and thoughtful expression on her face as she rises from her chair, "did you find that the participants in your project struggled with the code switching?" She prefaced this question with a long narrative on how she "was listening to, what I thought was, a black preacher on the radio. Only in the last few sentences was I able to recognize the speaker as President Obama". Really?

Blank stare....which always elicits further explanation and no self-reflection....

"You know African Americans speak (air quotes) black English (end air quotes) and not (more fricking air quotes) so called white English..."

Blank stare... (seriously???)

awkward silence...

Finally I was able to speak. I let my colleague know that this never came up in my work and that the participants were more concerned with being recognized in multiple contexts as the children of their parents and family. I went on to say that language and code switching, while a very important conversation, were not part of this projects' question...I also took the time to mention that the beauty and utility of the mixed race conversation is at a minimum a deconstruction of abstractionist views on race, racial identity, and stereotypes. I also stated that I felt like this was a very weird space to be assuming that all African Americans spoke any particular language or that they all code switched. I also pointed out that my own experience was one where I had a singular cultural language and thus had no other code to switch to.

Blank stare...

My (really quite brilliant) response was lost in the fervor of figuring out how mixed race kids handled code switching (which I imagine is like how any other bilingual person switches the way). Person after person reasked the question and it was clear that they were trying to get me to take a position on code-switching in African Americans. I did not. Perhaps they felt that I could code-switch and was hiding it from them trying to fool them into believing that African Americans can speak "so called white English".

The whole time I was thinking what is it about my body that causes people to think I code switch. I know the answer but what I am confused about in this particular situation is a) these folks know me; b) they just suffered through 20 minutes of a talk that went into detail about my family background and upbringing - none of which included living in a community where African American Vernacular English might have been used - my parents would have had to buy me tapes; and c) I have been working with this community for three years on assumptions of sameness and abstractionist thinking... wth?

I was relieved when I returned to my office that my boss and colleagues had experienced the moment like I did. Of course now I have to endure jokes about "what code should we have our meeting in". But we are all baffled at what happened.

Of course it did make me wonder. I never asked a question about "code-switching" but there were strong themes of culture switching and racial identity fluidity. Many participants talked about being "white with my white family and black with my black family and mixed race in my house. This isn't passing... these are the spaces I have a natural right to. This is who I am." One person at the talk offered "is it like when a Spanish person goes back to the Caribbean and speaks a different kind of Spanish"? Again, not my question but it is a closer representation of what the participants in my project talk about when going from one side of the family to the other.

The only language conversation my participants and I had was about naming... creating a lexicon that framed mixed race lived experience and intimate reality accurately. But there was never a sense of code switching... which for me is moving from ones organic language to a language that has to be learned and cultivated. For my participants, that was not the case. If there was a difference in language between one familial space to another, my sense of the experience of shifting from one language to another was a) about shifting from one space to another - which may or may not have a different language; and b) the language in both spaces BELONGED to the mixed race individual. In my mind that is about being bilingual and bicultural not about switching codes to access education and capital.

The direction my colleagues took during my talk was really useful for me (now three days later when I am no longer mortified) because I have been able to recognize the power of the binary here. Unconsciously (I am certain) my colleague was trying to re-polarize mixed race back into diametrically opposed positions, positions that we in the United States are comfortable with. This was more about keeping black and white separate, moving against my work and my claims that mixed race - while connected and intersecting with monorace - is a unique and separate identity, lived experience, and intimate reality.

...more soon...

1 comment:

  1. Interesting read. I'm often criticized and criticize myself for what I can't help but notice is something like code-switching. I'm mixed and while I wouldn't say I struggle with my racial identity, it's something I have often thought about.
    Although I can't lay claim to all the accents and types of language I use by right of having grown up with it in my own family, I certainly grew up with them around me and it feels as natural to roll out a 'y'all' as a ten-cent word. It's just as considered, in any case, since y'all is a pretty useful word.
    I want to thank you for this article because it helped me think about this in what is, to me, a new way. I believe now that there's a continuum of using different vernaculars from code-switching to owned. I'm somewhere on there, and I would certainly like to think of it as more on the natural end of the spectrum. Either way I think there's room for the entire spectrum in an individual's authentic experience of one's own life. While your colleague perhaps failed to understand your point and approached the idea from a divisive angle, I would hope that understanding that any point on the entire continuum represents a person's genuine use of language could be a source of greater understanding and love for your fellow instead.