Code-switching Is Nothing to Celebrate

Student at his desk

Years back I went on a double date with my boyfriend, my friend and her man. We were out late, and when you’re in your 20s and out after midnight, eating late night breakfast is a must, so we ended up at this diner where the lines were ridiculous but the food was worth it. Pancakes, scrambled eggs and a steak hit the spot.

As we ate and laughed, my then boyfriend, who had something different from what I was having, asked to taste my food. I don’t remember what I let him taste, but I fed it to him. He thought I was being affectionate. I was really making sure he didn’t eat too much of my food though.

Yesterday, while scrolling my timeline, a tweet reminded me of that night. Reminded me that what seems to be a celebration, an expression of love, an attempt at validation, is not always so. It reinforced my commitment to the skepticism and cynicism that have served to shield me from the false hope that a Black woman cannot afford to hold onto in this world.

“PSA. Your students saying “ain’t”, “finna”, etc. are cultural. Instead of “correcting” them, talk to them about code switching and how amazingly SMART they are for being able to codeswitch between the two. Valuing your students’ identities means valuing the way they speak.”

On the surface, this reads like a validation of Black children. Yes, teach our children that they have already acquired an important skill. Praise them for being able to code-switch already and understanding which dialect is appropriate in which setting. Yes, enforce that while standard American English is preferred and absolutely necessary, their cultural vernacular is valuable and appreciated as well. Who could argue with this?

I can.

That Black children have to abandon their completely valid dialect, which contains all the moving parts of any other dialect, to be respected in this world, to have value, to be heard, to be taken seriously, is nothing to celebrate. Code-switching is nothing more than survival for Black children, and championing it as some achievement ignores the reality that Black people are forced to whiten and assimilate. Code-switching is the linguistic equivalent of negotiating with terrorists.

Black children being praised for learning early that this world does not consider them enough as they are is not revolutionary. That the words they use to communicate their feelings, frustrations, joys and needs must be tailored to the ears of their oppressors to be considered worthy is cultural death. That their ability to master the language of those whose existence and flourishing depends on the continued disenfranchisement and consumption of Black people is considered preparation for adulthood is nothing more than an endorsement of the dystopian future they will face.

Black people code-switching is survival mode, and however necessary such a skill is, it is anything but an accomplishment. Even more, liberal teachers, entrusted with educating, or more accurately, indoctrinating, Black children patting themselves on the back for brainwashing them into believing that their ability to recognize that they have to switch to navigate is to be celebrated rather than teaching them to question why their success depends on their ability to mimic the very people who seek to destroy them is most certainly nothing to hail as innovative.

Black children who are cheered for code-switching become Black adults who hold up their capacity to code-switch as a trophy and use it to engage in the respectability politics that are deadly for Black people. Certainly our children understand that “I be” and “they friend” don’t belong in “formal” settings but understanding that AAVE is sinful in business and politics does nothing to question why people who came here speaking hundreds of different dialects, learned English by ear and mutated the already bastardized American English into their own dialect which lives, breathes, emotes, expresses, confesses, leaps off pages, consoles, entertains, educates and informs still believe that their dialect is a thing of shame, that when amongst those outside our cultural group, the instinct should be to speak their language to disarm them of their bias and bigotry.

The upholding of code-switching as essential to navigate both worlds is the reason we lock the people we supposedly seek to redeem out of the movements for that redemption. It’s the reason panels brought together to address poverty and inadequate education in our communities are filled with those who are neither poor nor educated. Black people who have mastered America’s version of English are viewed as most valuable players even within our own community. Code-switching is the porn for white liberal and respectable negro elitism.

If Black children’s dialect is righteous and respected, then an acknowledgement of that their mastery of it coexists with their mastery of the state-sanctioned dialect is unnecessary. We don’t need to teach Black children that they are smart because they can speak both and know almost instinctively when to abandon one for the other.  The suggestion of that tweet that opting out of “correcting” AAVE to instead choosing pat the child on the back for knowing that it is not always appropriate does not in fact validate Black children.

Validating a Black child’s use of AAVE is to accept the language the hallmarks their culture without juxtaposing it with American English. Validate Black children by not forcing pride in their ability to speak the language of their oppressors

. Validate Black children by understanding that their talent for speaking their native tongue and indulging in its decadence is enough. Validate Black children by acknowledging that they have the skill to communicate effectively with their own community in a dialect painstakingly carved out and memorialized in blood.

Code-switching is surviving. AAVE is living.

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