The Many Layers of Code-Switching

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By: Zach Fulwood

Lights. Camera, Action! One of my favorite movies of all time is Training Day and my favorite character from the movie was Alonzo, played by Denzel Washington. Out of all the movies I’ve seen Denzel Washington in, this was the one movie where I couldn’t wait to see his character not make it to the end. If you’ve ever seen Training Day, you know all about Alonzo, his crooked ways, and the scene that made the historic “my nigga” meme possible. Personally, I think Training Day was one of Denzel’s best performances because even though I don’t know him personally, the character Alonzo seemed so far different from the perceived character of Denzel himself but yet it seemed so real. For 2 hours, I really believed Denzel was Alonzo.

You see, myself and Denzel actually have a lot in common. We’re both men, we’re Black and we’re also very good actors who get paid for our jobs. The difference is, his audience knows it’s just an act. My audience assumes the character I portray for eight hours a day is really how I am throughout the other 16 hours of the day. How far from the truth this truly is. Now before you think I’m crazy and just talking nonsense, just remember the act that you put on at work everyday.

As Black people, we tend to know exactly what we’re up against going into the professional world. We’re battling negative stereotypes throughout the majority of our professional lives from the “angry Black man” to the loud and abrasive Black woman. I know Black people hate hearing about how we have to always work twice as hard as the next person to earn any level of respect but too often, this has proven to be true. In order to combat these stereotypes, we have to put on an act, otherwise known as code-switching.

When it comes to code-switching, it’s a direct reflection of our need to be accepted in the settings that we’re placed in. Whether it be in the form of a change in dialect or just a change in mannerisms when talking, code-switching is what we all do as a means to not feel like an outcast. For Black people however, code-switching acts more as a double entendre.

When Black people code-switch in a formal setting around a predominantly White middle-classed environment, it mostly consists of proper speech (meaning no slang) and business-like handshakes in an effort to come off as non-threatening as possible. When Black people are in more informal setting around other Black people, we’re more loose with the way we talk and act.

Typically, when around other people who look like you, you’re not worried about fitting in or being judged based off of stereotypes because people who like you tend to understand you better. The ironic part about it when it comes to Black people is that the code-switching that’s done at work is also done in our own community. This is referred to most notably as proving someone’s “blackness”.

A perfect example of this is the episode of The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air when Carlton went to Compton with Will and his friends. Will would always make fun of the fact that Carlton acted more “White” than “Black” and Carlton went to Compton to prove that he could be just as “Black” as Will. Carlton would go on to prove to Will and his friends that he could at least present himself as more “Black” than what they previously thought he could but almost put himself in harms way as a result. Needless to say, proving one’s “blackness” isn’t all it’s cracked up to be.

At the end of the day, we all conform to some degree for various reasons. It’s far from the end of the world but it is something to remain aware of. Code-switching doesn’t necessarily mean you have to deviate from who you are. It just means you have to show a different side of who you are.


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