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On Code-Switching

November 21, 2008

Yeah – that’s right. That’s a photo of some thuggish-ruggish, street-repping ASIAN youth. Kids like many I’ve worked with who balance the American street life with traditional “Asian” cultural systems at home with the dominant white cultural systems of the establishment. Think that’s easy?

There’s a term that I’ve heard off and on within educational circles called “Code-switching.” Now, this term was initially coined in terms of bilingual people – whose brains adapted to switch linguistic coding depending on their situation: such as English at school, and a different language at home. In countries where people grow up speaking even more languages, this is even more evident as people can end up switching between three or four different languages in one social situation, depending on who is there and the circumstances.

When used by educators (and other social workers), however, “code-switching” is use more broadly as a term referring to adjusting to different cultural situations, in general (including language, but not only language). And this isn’t just in terms of ethnically mixed folks (like me), but anybody that finds themselves regularly interacting with people of very different cultural backgrounds.

Specifically, this idea is used by educators to discuss the obstacles in the way of many students within the current public education system in the United States. Because, to be blunt, our schools are run within the parameters of the dominant white, middle-class culture. This means that the values being enforced are white, middle-class values – whether or not that reflects the students (or even staff) in the system. So anybody from a different demographic (whether it’s by socio-economic status, race, sexual orientation, or otherwise) comes in at a distinct disadvantage; because they come in having to learn new rules of social interaction, new ways to handle situations, different ways to communicate – all on top of the academics they are also expected to learn.

The problem being, of course, that few teachers actually go about TEACHING any of these new rules or ways of communication. Since the education system is so biased towards this white middle-class cultural mindset (and usually hires those from within that demographic), it is often assumed that this mindset is “normal” – thus, kids who are not fluent in the ways of being and communicating in this system are “bad kids” or “trouble-makers,” etc. Students are assumed to have an instinctual knowledge of these rules, and so nobody takes the time to TEACH it – and so the kids who come in from a background of poverty, or a different ethnic or racial culture often suffer disciplinary repercussions, as well as poor school performance.

And this is where the concept of “code-switching” comes in. Because it is not necessarily a bad thing that schools move through a white middle-class cultural framework. Nor is it necessarily a good thing. It just IS. And, realistically, most of the professional world in the United States operates from an identical framework, so it is important for kids to master an understanding of these “rules” in order to move up, economically. It’s not exactly fair (since it puts kids from a different cultural viewpoint at a distinct disadvantage), but it’s brutal reality.

So some educators have begun to try to actively teach students how to code-switch in order to be successful in school. What that entails is throwing out a lot of the judgments that usually come when a student isn’t following implicit school rules (such as levels of volume that are “too loud,” ways of interacting that are “disrespectful,” or ways of communicating that are “violent” or “aggressive”) and instead teaching the student how to adjust. For example, a teacher could tell a kid, “Hey – I know it’s not so easy to just ‘turn the other cheek’ in real life, but you’ve got to be able to find other ways to handle it if you’re going to be successful in school and/or keep a well-paying job” and then following up with some brain-storming of other ways to solve it in a way that works within the system, but also for the kid.

Because, for many kids that don’t fall under the white middle-class umbrella (which, actually – are the majority) coming to school can be like playing football all their lives and then suddenly being thrown into a basketball game without ever having the rules explained to them. So when the coach tells them to keep the other team from scoring, there’s one most likely outcome: the kid tackles the Hell out of the dribbler in the middle of the court, gets thrown out of the game, yelled at by coach and other players and fans, and hates the sport of basketball ever afterward. At least, that’s what would happen if the coach ASSUMED the kid had seen/played basketball before. If the coach was working with a kid he knew was new to the sport – a very different outcome would result.

And that’s what happens in our current education system. We have a bunch of teachers (coaches) who ASSUME that kids know all of the many implicit rules of the white middle-class cultural game because that’s the framework within which those teachers have lived their entire life. And so the kids end up getting themselves in unwinnable situations that end up in tragedy.

Of course, some folks are better adapted to code-switching than others: for, instance, those who have been practicing it from infancy. Those people who learned from a very young age about the changing rules of the game. Those who implicitly comprehend the very fluid nature of cultural values and are able to read the subtle cues that can clue them in to ways to be in different cultural situations. One such group of people are mixed folks like me. And that’s why I will forever be grateful for my mixed background – because it gave me this inherent code-switching ability that most people don’t have.

Because I grew up knowing – when I visit my Chinese grandparents, I should act this certain way, and talk this certain way, eat this certain way, etc; when I’m with my white grandparents, I should do these other things; when I’m with my friends, I should be like this. When I lived in Tanzania, people were constantly commenting on how “Tanzanian” I became – in action, mannerisms, ways of thought. But it was natural for me, because I was born into an adaptive cultural world, so I sub-consciously adjusted to a “Tanzanian” way of living and speaking as a matter of course. I have lived my life with a given intuitive knowledge that there are a whole number of different cultural ways of being and acting, and they are not on a hierarchy of “good” or “bad” or “rude” or “acceptable” – but rather a spectrum of “how this group does things.” And that will forever be the greatest gift my mixed background has given me.

The problem is, of course, that those without an inherent understanding of cultural fluidity so often peg folks like me (let’s call us “Instinctual Code-Switchers” or ICS) as “sell-outs” or trying to “play both sides” because of our ability to interact at the cultural level of whomever we happen to be with. I am now able to start pegging the distinct ways I change my demeanor depending on who I’m talking to, and it’s interesting to me. I completely change my body language depending on the demographic of the people around me, and it is completely automatic. I’ve even tried NOT to do it, at time, and it’s an actual fight for me to do so. And I’ll tell you this – it is NOT “fake.” It is not “selling out.” It’s just being able to better communicate between cultures and to adapt to subtle cultural cues to get along better.

Because we all do this on a regular basis. We all talk differently to our friends in a relaxed atmosphere than with our co-workers at work (on rare occasions, we don’t . . .). We act differently in a job interview. We speak differently to our elders (hopefully) than to our peers than to small children. When we go to a show, we take on the mannerisms and adjust to the expectations of the specific fan-base for the show we are watching, whether it’s rock, hip-hop, or the symphony. We are constantly code-switching as we move from situation to situation.

But when we do the same thing between racial cultural situations, people get uncomfortable. POC tell other POC we’re “acting white.” White folks get upset when POC don’t automatically adjust to a white cultural framework and wonder why “they act that way.” We make jokes about how people do things in other countries, or in ethnic cultures different from our own. We make tv shows called “Bizarre Foods” and crack jokes about the people of the country we are visiting.

And why? Because we don’t directly acknowledge code-switching and how it works in our society. White teachers are afraid to tell their students that, in essence, they actually ARE being asked to “act white” to do well in school.* POC are afraid to admit that we do, indeed, “act white” in order to get better jobs. We all tip-toe around it because it’s so damn touchy – and, in the meantime, our education system fails the majority of our children. Were we able to simply say – “there are certain rules to every game you play, and the specific rules for the game called ‘do well in school’ or ‘get a promotion’ are like this . . .” Kids are all about rules and fairness, so when you explain it to them in these terms, it settles them. You’re not telling them how they do things are wrong or bad or any other such judgement – simply that they’ve got to learn some different rules and adjust to them to play these particular games.

Because, again – these kids are no less skilled or intelligent than their white middle-class counterparts.** In fact, I would argue that they must be a little MORE skilled and intelligent to be able to adapt (something others don’t have to do) and still be successful. And this is why I think white college kids so often struggle with all-black fraternities, or the existence of BET, or why an Asian students’ coalition is NOT the same as a white supremacist group – because these are the very kids who NEVER had to learn to racially code-switch in order to survive. Because they never had to adjust their ways of thinking or being to make do. And so they are unable to wrap their heads around the concept of different cultural value systems, or how other people do things without judging it based on their own narrow views.

And, oddly enough – it’s not really their fault. It’s frustrating as Hell, and often makes me want to scream – but it’s more a flaw in the system than anything specific to them, personally. Because nobody ever explicitly taught them about code-switching or how it works or its prevalence in our society. To them, that has never been shown to exist because we’re all so scared to admit it, and so they are allowed to roll through their lives in ignorance. It’s the backbone of white privilege. Tell people to “respect other cultures” by saying “that’s a pretty dress” or “I really love your hair” without ever having to understand that it’s just about different rules to a game, thus eliminating “normality” and replacing it with “how things are done in this particular situation/place.”

And so right here represents the beginning of a movement. Whether you’re white or a person of color – please start openly acknowledging how code-switching works in our society. Just be honest about it. Teach your kids about it. Talk to your friends about the different rules you all play by. And if you’re an educator? Start changing the system by just being open and frank about what we’re asking our kids to do to be successful – and stop assuming they “should know how to behave.” Please.

* Specifically, “middle-class white.”

** Again, I must stress the “middle-class” aspect of the educational culture here, because white kids coming from poverty struggle with the adjustment in the same way that their more colorful peers do.

*** Thinking about it, I should probably specify that the educational system runs from a STRAIGHT white middle-class cultural viewpoint, as I have no doubt that GBLT students must also do some heavy code-switching to have success in school.

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13 comments

  1. That was a very well stated, cogent essay. I had never thought about this issue in this way, but it is very true and makes a lot of sense. Too bad more educators and people in general don’t think in this way. This is really good food for thought and I will keep mentally chewing on this for awhile.


  2. interesting.
    i just facilitated a group activity in my grad-school class that helped people explore different aspects of intercultural communication and conflict. i did a piece on code-switching, and in my preparation, came across a really interesting article. it’s called “Cross-cultural code-switching: The psychological challenges of adapting behavior in foreign cultural interactions” and is written by A. Molinsky and is publised in the Academy of Management Review. i’m curious to hear your thoughts on it…

    check it out at:
    people.brandeis.edu/~molinsky/documents/Molinsky%20Cross-Cultural%20Code-Switching.pdf


  3. hmmm… looks like the link didn’t make it intact. let’s try again:

    http://people.brandeis.edu/~molinsky/
    documents/Molinsky%20Cross-Cultural
    %20Code-Switching.pdf


  4. Very interesting, well-written post, and I think very important for educators to read. I do take issue with a couple of points, though:

    First, the co-opting of the term “code-switching” by educators (I’m a linguist, linguistics being the field in which the term originated). On the one hand, I suppose it’s flattering to linguistics that other circles are interested enough in our work to appropriate some of its terms; on the other, I think it’s not the most fitting term for the types of sociocultural situations it’s being used for. In linguistics, code-switching refers to switching codes (e.g., languages or dialects) within the same conversation. It’s not the case that multicultural people are switching among two or more cultural behaviors in the same situation; rather, their choice of cultural behavior depends on their situation.

    Also, one statement me feel a little uneasy: “What that entails is throwing out a lot of the judgments that usually come when a student isn’t following implicit school rules (such as levels of volume that are ‘too loud,’ ways of interacting that are ‘disrespectful,’ or ways of communicating that are ‘violent’ or ‘aggressive’) and instead teaching the student how to adjust.” Particularly, the scare quotes you have around “violent” and “aggressive” make me uneasy.

    Linguistic code-switching entails shifting between two or more inherently neutral codes (granted, societies apply value to them, but intrinsically, there is nothing “better” or “worse” about any language over another). For fear of being labeled a cultural supremacist, let me assure you that I don’t think any given culture is better than another. However, I definitely value certain social behaviors over others; and outright aggression and violence are not ones I hold in very high esteem. It seems that the point you are trying to get across is that certain cultural behaviors may be misinterpreted as “violent” or “aggressive” whereas they are not really (or maybe they are, but only from the perspective of middle-class, white culture). Please correct me if I am misunderstanding this.

    Violence is a problem in every culture. More than that, it is a human problem, and one that should be addressed at every opportunity from every angle, especially by educators. Believe me, I understand the notion of misinterpreting social and cultural cues, especially when it is done by people in powerful positions. I understand the impacts that these misinterpretations can have, and I definitely get the value that there is in being open with everyone about the cultural athletics POC go through to make it in mainstream America. But I’m having trouble thinking of a particular situation where something is misinterpreted as violent when it actually is not.


  5. Greg – Being loud can sometimes be seen as being overly aggressive (leading one to ask “why are you yelling at me?), as can misinterpretations of socially accepted manners (in some circles answering “what?” is seen as talking back).

    -I’ve recently had the discussion of whether being mixed allows a person to aculturate more readily. Many Blacks were mad at me for even asking the question (It seems that they were infering a type of Field Negro/House Negro assumption on my part).


  6. Greg –
    But kids (and adults) DO switch “codes” within the frames of one single situation (or, sometimes, one conversation). In the classroom, kids talk to each other one way while turning around to act/speak differently to the teacher (or other students). Or they might speak to each other differently ABOUT the work, as opposed to when they’re just chatting casually. It definitely happens (and not just with kids).

    As for the “violence” and “aggression” – those are definitely subjective to a certain degree (maybe aggression more so). Sure, most people would agree that actual acts (when one person is physically hurting another) constitute violence, no question.

    However, I see it over and over in education (and elsewhere) where those in the dominant culture tend to equate more emotionally-expressive behaviors from another culture as “violent” or “aggressive.”

    The mainstream places major importance on being “rational” and “calm.” Therefore – especially during a power-struggle-type moment – teachers like to accuse students of color (or those from poverty) of “shouting” or “being aggressive” if the student speaks above a semi-whisper and/or expresses emotion physically or verbally when there is a conflict.

    Have you ever seen/heard this?

    Teacher makes “sit-down” gestures with hand while “calmly” saying, “Please stop shouting, J. I said, stop shouting! If you can’t calm yourself down and get under control, I’m going to have to ask you to leave.”

    Student: “I’m not shouting! I AM in control. It’s just not fair that you – fill in the blanks- . . .”

    Teacher: “That’s it! If you aren’t willing to have a (normal) conversation, you might as well just go.”

    And . . . CUT!!!

    Every day. Every damn day this happens in every school in this country. Student tries to communicate how they learned to and they get crushed by a teacher that claims the student isn’t trying to have a conversation. Teacher thinks of the student’s behaviors as “aggressive” and “out of control” and says how “reasonably” they were trying to deal with it (while, the whole time, suppressed anger is written all over their face). No listening occurred. No conversation. But whose fault was that?


  7. Uglyblackjohn –

    Doesn’t surprise me that you get that reaction (about mixed folks acculturating more easily). It simply coincides with the claims of “selling-out” and the like. Again, I attribute that level of defensiveness to the fact that we never have honest, straightforward conversations about this phenomenon, and so it carries a heavy, taboo weight that is just completely unnecessary.


  8. CVT and uglyblackjohn, I appreciate the further explanations, and I understand that different communication styles are often not only misinterpreted, but completely unvalued by dominant culture. My perspective is admittedly limited — I’ve been living my life from a middle-class, privileged, white POV for quite a while now. And, yes, in academia and the white-collar work-force there is a lot of emphasis put on being “calm” and “rational.” But my background/childhood isn’t so cut and dry. Suffice it to say that I witnessed a fair amount of violence growing up, much of which likely sprang from cycles of poverty, frustration, ignorance, and violence itself. In reading what you wrote, I don’t think I thought that you would ever excuse violence or brush it away as a benign result of cultural variation; but I was worried that some readers might — especially middle-class, white educators who are honestly trying to incorporate a broader perspective into their classrooms (and lives, for that matter). Because I’ve heard this sort of thing done before — “Well, we may consider it child abuse, but that’s just how they raise their kids…” or “Women are expected to obey their husbands in such and such culture, otherwise…” These sorts of comments from well-meaning people who consider themselves “open-minded.” These are obviously extreme examples, but I would hate to think that violence is ever just brushed away as “cultural” variation. There are many children out there (from lots of different cultures) who learn to deal with problems/conflict through violence, and yes, this is how they learn it, and yes, it is difficult to unlearn, but it should never be lauded as variation that has any sort of value. This is not to dismiss the “dominant culture” which has institutionalized large-scale, and yet for many of us, far-removed violence such as war and the death penalty; it is simply to say that while I think that everyone (educators included) should be very aware of, and taught to value cultural variation, never should they let violence slip by without recognizing it for what it is, and addressing it. I hope this makes sense and that I haven’t come across as too long-winded.


  9. This is such an interesting topic. There is that saying, “When in Rome, do as the Romans do.” But, what can/should someone do to blend in here in the U.S.?

    We face such an interesting dilemma in this country in that we lack a very strong, unified identity as a people. We are a huge country with drastic cultural differences shaped by geography. The Southeast is incredibly different from the Northeast, etc.

    On top of this, we have so many different cultural groups in our country. Our county’s identity and prosperity is premised upon forced and willful immigration.

    The current and past de facto cultural norms hail/hailed from White standards. Many people feel that this is not appropriate in our diverse nation. But, what replaces these White norms if we throw them out? This seems like such an important question to me.

    Greg seems to think that non-violence should be one of the standard of conduct for our citizens. I happen to agree, but how do we get EVERYONE to agree on common conduct in this country when we are so diverse culturally?


  10. I have a similar experience in facile transitions between/among different cultures and colloquial language groups. Being labeled as inauthentic because of the ability to “code-switch” led to me second-guessing my motivations. Was it just to fit in? Was the modification of my behavior/speech according to situation appropriate or self-suppression? Because we often link our language and carriage with who we are, changing these things according to situation or surroundings can be challenged as being fake.

    I would say now that there are some cases when it seems obvious that people are trying to completely divorce themselves from their culture/traditional mannerisms and speech, and cases where people just ‘go along to get along’ in terms of language and manner. Then there are those who refuse to modify their demeanor or language. They may be able to fully retain the authentic label, but are often relegated to not actually getting the service/result that they are looking for. Penalized for being “authentic”, it’s easy to see why they may be angry with those who assimilate with ease.

    It’s such a complex issue – great discussion!


  11. LOL, I was waiting for someone to talk about Andrew Zimmerman!! LOL!!!

    I just started watching that show, although I do feel Anthony Bourdain has a better show and actually tries to get into the cultures he visit. Saudi Arabia and Laos are good examples. But, I think he’s more…racially ambiguous. I don’t think he stands out as the “white guy” like Zimmerman. I’ve found myself wondering “what is he”, PLUS the man was A badass. Tats, earings, curses- deft for late night viewing. Zimmerman is “safe for the kiddies” and …entertaining. I miss Jayme Ramirez of Ecolux .

    Don’t get me started on Samantha brown…she had been everywhere but Africa right!? Even on TWO cruises!!!!


  12. ThoughtsOfARandomCollegeStudent, It’s funny you should bring these people up. To be honest, I don’t really watch the travel channel, but I’ve seen commercials for some of the shows you mention, and I’ve caught bits and pieces while channel surfing. From what I can gather, I’d say the hosts of these shows are much less “code-switchers” and more “tourists” (though this may be because of my stricter definition of code-switching). As a matter of fact, when I saw a commercial for “Bizarre Foods” it really made me sick to my stomach — not because of “all the strange food he was eating” but because of the outright exoticization of the cultures represented. Just now, reading the wikipedia page and all of the episodes and the foods he has “ventured to try” has reinforced this feeling. I mean think about it: the travel channel is fairly elite (for people with cable, who can afford to leave not just their hometown, but their country), totally capitalizing on the “difference” and “exoticness” of others places/cultures/people for (I’m presuming) a largely upper-class, white audience. I think it’s probably because of my strong feelings about this that I tend to stay away from travel literature. Most of it just reeks of exoticization.

    I just can’t help thinking of that line “Everybody hates a tourist…” from “Common People”.


  13. Greg– you’re a linguist! Surely you realize that language evolves and is adapted to the community and context that uses it. đŸ˜‰

    CVT- This is a lot to chew on, in the good way. I’d bet fully half the kids at my daughter’s mostly white, mostly rural school is a code-switcher, because of that rural background– my husband is particularly ‘fluent.’



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