The Art of Code-Switching

John David Washington’s depiction of Ron Stallworth in Spike Lee’s The BlackKklansman highlights the concept of code-switching. Stallworth, the first African American police officer hired in Colorado Springs, CO in the late 70’s believe it or not, infiltrates the KKK by sounding white on the phone.

What is code-switching? From Wikipedia:

“Some scholars of literature use the term code-switching to describe literary styles that include elements from more than one language, as in novels by Chinese-American, Anglo-Indian, or Latino writers. In popular usage, code-switching is sometimes used to refer to relatively stable informal mixtures of two languages, such as Spanglish, Taglish, or Hinglish.  Both in popular usage and in sociolinguistic study, the name code-switching is sometimes used to refer to switching among dialects, styles or registers. This form of switching is practiced, for example, by speakers of African American Vernacular English as they move from less formal to more formal settings. Such shifts, when performed by public figures such as politicians, are sometimes criticized as signalling inauthenticity or insincerity.”

I was introduced to code-switching before knowing the term in the early 80’s while waiting for a bus on UCLA’s campus late one night with a group of others including an African-American student dressed as UCLA’s mascot, sans the head which he held in his hand. His animated “street” talk was punctuated with profanities, non-standard usage, and related funk. “Wow,” I thought, who would’ve ever guessed that “Joe Bruin is one cool brother.” Until a professor acquaintance rolled up at which point he literally threw a switch and went standard English. The speed and skill of the transformation left me dumbstruck.

Granted, there’s always a risk of inauthenticity or insincerity, but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t make an effort to relate to a wider range of people than we’re accustomed to. For all the academic mumbo jumbo, that’s all code-switching is.

Richard Russo is one of my favorite authors. He has a doctorate and teaches writing at elite universities, but he grew up working class, returning to do manual labor each college summer. His respect for working men and women, and his feel for the speech and mannerisms of construction and factory workers is one of the hallmarks of his writing. Like Ron Stallworth, he’s an expert code-switcher.

Our church’s new “transition pastor” is also a licensed electrician. Which makes me think of the clash of cultures at my university one night a week when youngish electricians suddenly materialize for evening certification coursework. They’re a distinct subculture in that they ALL drive BIG trucks, are varying degrees of dirty, and smell like cigarette smoke. I’m betting Pastor Duane could go from one of our church council meetings to the steps outside my office where they take their final puffs and not miss a beat. Given his varied life experience, I’m betting he’s a good code-switcher.

Interpersonal intelligence requires making constant adjustments in speech and behavior based upon changing group norms. Rather than always expecting others to adjust to us, we watch, listen, and learn to adjust to them. Like Ron Stallworth, Joe Bruin, and Richard Russo.

 

 

 

 

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