The Whens And Wheres Of Code Switching And "Talking Black"

Black speak is my first language, too, the tongue I feel most comfortable chatting, even blogging, in.
Publish date:
February 22, 2013
race, language

I don’t have anything personal against The Pine-Sol Lady. She’s probably a very nice person who has made valuable contributions to society, her community, maybe even her industry during her career as an actress and product spokesperson.

But every time I see one of those commercials, I roll my eyes because for reasons known only to her, she’s been OK with years and years of scripting that have made her come off as a modern-day mammy. In order to lend extra credibility to the power of Pine-Sol, she’s had to oomph it up with a little baby-honey-sugar catch phrasing. I guess, in the minds of the advertising team over there at Clorox brands, if it’s endorsed by someone who looks and sounds like she could be an old-school domestic, then maybe consumers will believe that it really must be that good.

I’m not against the way she talks. Black speak is my first language, too, the tongue I feel most comfortable chatting, even blogging, in. By day, I’m a freelance writer and copyeditor. Though the latter is necessary, it’s certainly not the sexy, artistic, Carrie Bradshaw side of the editorial field. Where writing is creative and freeing and, if it’s good, full of turns of phrase that sparkle with self-expression, editing is like math with words: constructed, linear, exacting.

Personal style takes a backseat to the rules some grammatical superpower established as gospel long before you and I got here and, very often, there’s a conflict between what I know is technically sound and what just sounds right. I’m beholden to standards that feel awkward because lines like “With whom will you go?” come off as stodgy, pretentious and just not something anybody would say outside of a Charles Dickens novel.

My native ear is fine-tuned to the linguistic mechanics of my Black, working class background that could give a damn about a dangling modifier and instead makes me want to say, “Who you goin’ with?” And that’s appropriate -- in a relaxed, familiar, conversational setting, but not necessarily on a global platform.

Turn with me to Ecclesiastes 3 -- I rock with the New Century Version these days -- which tells us, in so many words, that there is an ideal time for everything. A time to cry and a time to laugh. A time to be sad and a time to dance. A time to look for something and a time to stop looking for it. And in that beautiful line of thinking, one could argue that there’s a time to talk in dialect and a time to talk like you’re in mixed company.

Code switching used to be one of those rote lessons of Blackness that was passed down in little handbaskets of tried-and-tested wisdom, like not eating at just any ol’ body’s house and avoiding travel through certain neighborhoods after dark. There was an expectation to know when to turn it on and off, especially as education became more accessible. So Standard American English, or at least a wholehearted stab at it, was pulled out for job interviews, classroom discussions, speaking to and in front of White folks and other situations that called for “talking proper.” But I’m not so sure that’s the standard anymore.

A few weeks ago, I volunteered to help high school students here in DC write their college application essays and prepare in-person responses to mind-numbingly pointless, but nonetheless mandatory, interview questions. Some of them came in spirited and jazzed to get their A game together. But true to the form of atypical teenager-ism, many skulked in listless and bored before I even got my introduction out. I was already expecting that, especially because I have a 14-year-old of my own and know firsthand how swiftly disinterested they can be in everything.

What did catch me off guard was their readiness to present themselves and their cases to get into a school just like they would shoot the breeze with one of their friends on the block. The concept of code switching was foreign to at least five of them and clearly, the thought of being obligated to speak in one manner with the people they love and are most comfortable with and another in front of a group of complete strangers -- college administrators and educators, at that -- never crossed their minds. Clearly, if they were taught how to switch between the two forms of English, it was a lesson they were determined not to apply.

It really made me think. Even in my advising, I was talking just like them. In conversations with random Black folks every day, like the teller at the bank, the waitress at Joe’s Crab Shack or the Verizon customer service rep, I shirk my technical training to fire off sentences with misplaced modifiers, illegal subject/verb agreement and the habit of drawling “girl” into a seven-syllable word.

So what was so wrong with being true to the way we’ve remixed English? Why was I so irritated about The Pine-Sol Lady being all sassy sistagirl when, despite the stereotyping, it’s the way my friends, my aunties, the women I grew up with in church, millions of other mothers, grandmothers and big mama-types, and I talked?

Obviously I’m guilty, at least partly, of pandering to the social convention that dismisses the way Black folks speak as sounding uneducated. But that same system of beliefs -- and, let’s call it what it is, discrimination -- allows Spanglish and other cultural dialects to be exotic or worldly, even endearing.

There’s no Rosetta Stone for Ebonics, but that doesn’t make it any less of a viable, authentic language, as undervalued as it is. So let me stop singling out the poor Pine-Sol Lady. She didn’t create the dynamic. She’s just trying to get her life and get a check.

Reprinted with permission from Clutch.