Why I Mastered Code-Switching

And my commitment to stop trying to fit in

Photo by Jared Giles

In my 8th grade yearbook, my English teacher wrote a message that has stayed with me for the past 14 years. “It’s O.K. to be the only one at times (you know) because you help to break the mold.” It wasn’t difficult to decipher what she meant: there will be moments throughout my life, as there had already been, in which I will be the only Black person in the room, which is okay because my presence is necessary to break the proverbial glass ceiling. And while it was not right that I would be the only one, I would be okay because I would learn how to fit into any environment, or what I would later learn to call “code-switch.”

My journey in mastering code-switching began the first time I felt othered because of my Blackness. I spent the summer of 2005 in the gifted and talented program at the University of Louisville where I took a couple of courses to exercise my mind over the break. At the end of every day, my friend and I walked from the library in the middle of the campus to the business school where our parents picked us up. One day, as we walked along the concrete path to our parents, my friend asked if, instead of walking next to him, I could walk around the parking garage and take the long way back to the business school, so that his mother wouldn’t see us together when she picked him up. At the time, I knew he asked me to do this because his mother didn’t approve of him hanging out with the Black kid. Why? I couldn’t say. I was kind, had excellent grades, and was in the same program as her son, but she still saw something negative in me. As if my Blackness would rub off onto her son, tainting his otherwise pure spirit. And while not a conscious effort, this moment triggered a need to revise myself for the benefit of others so that I would fit into the spaces I would inevitably occupy.

“It’s O.K. to be the only one at times (you know) because you help to break the mold.”

At the end of the following school year, my English teacher wrote the note in my yearbook. The succeeding high school years were filled with good-natured friends deriding the authenticity of my Blackness. To them, I “didn’t sound or act like a Black person” (meaning I didn’t fit the media-constructed stereotype that lived in their minds), or they “didn’t see me as Black” (erasing my identity altogether). I was often one of a few, if not the only, Black people in the room when these jokes were made, and instead of pushing back, I laughed. I had not yet learned how to stand up for my Blackness, nor did I want to lose my friends, so I joined in, told jokes of my own, and laughed at theirs hoping not to risk any relationships I had built.

Within a few years, I would begin to think that the impression I left on people was, like the weather, essentially beyond my ability to control. In retrospect, I just started to control it subconsciously rather than consciously. The process of calibrating my external self became so instinctive, so automatic, that I stopped being able to perceive it. — Jia Tolentino, Trick Mirror

Code-switching is a process of fitting in, of constantly calibrating pieces of yourself — your language, habits, and reaction to social cues — to match your external environment. As my teacher pointed out, I often found myself as the only person like me in the spaces I occupied, leaving me to feel I had no choice but to adapt, to find a way to fit in. I became someone other than myself and learned, slowly, how to survive in any circumstance. And while the switch may have started as conscious choices, eventually the lessons became so ingrained into who I was that one day, when going from work, into a board room and back to my group of friends (all spaces in which I was the only or one of a couple of Black people) I realized that I had forgotten a part of myself. More accurately — I never took time to understand who I was because for years I had been negotiating my external self with the people and spaces in which I moved.

That’s who I was. Always an outsider. As the outsider, you can retreat into a shell, be anonymous, be invisible. Or you can go the other way. You protect yourself by opening up. You don’t ask to be accepted for everything you are, just the one part of yourself that you’re willing to share. For me it was humor. I learned that even though I didn’t belong to one group, I could be a part of any group that was laughing. I’d drop in, pass out the snacks, tell a few jokes. I’d perform for them. I’d catch a bit of their conversation, learn more about their group, and then leave. I never overstayed my welcome. I wasn’t popular, but I wasn’t an outcast. I was everywhere with everybody, and at the same time I was all by myself. — Trevor Noah, Born a Crime

When I code-switch, I reveal only the side of myself that I know others will understand. Whether I am presenting in front of a group of (primarily white) donors or discussing music with a co-worker, code-switching has allowed me to be “everywhere with everybody” and present my most relatable self regardless of the group I am interacting with. Not until recently did I recognize that I was actively giving up a piece of my identity in the negotiation between what I knew about myself and what I knew would appeal to others. Because I was often the only Black person in the room, I pushed the pieces of me away that might define me as Black. And while that may have led to material success in school and work, I now feel like I am alone, seeking out anything that can connect me to the culture that I neglected for years.

I am working to reclaim my identity independent of what my environment is pushing me to be. If I could go back to 8th grade and pass on advice to my 14-year-old self, I would explain that the stress loneliness places on an individual as you code-switch is not worth the perceived reward. It is exhausting, and it is always better to be yourself and learn who you are separate from the expectations of others. I would tell him to challenge his friend instead of taking the other path and to call out disrespectful jokes and behaviors. And that if he feels he does not fit into the world as it is, to build a new one based on the respect and compassion he deserves.

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Writer & dancer working in education. I can be found writing on race, culture, media, and politics. Twitter/IG: @jaredfgiles

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