The Act of Code-Switching

By Sophie Barro

In the movie Sorry To Bother You, Cassius Green, a young black man, becomes a successful telemarketer after using his “white voice” in front of his white colleagues. This movie addresses the heavy concepts of racism and oppression by white America and reveals the dark reality of labor in a capitalist society. By using the “white voice,” the gap between race and class that society faces is expressed. This is commonly known as code-switching.

Talking differently among family, friends, different race, etc., is a form of code-switching. Many African Americans do this because they feel the need to change the way they express themselves. They also do it to diminish or hide that they are black when they are around people of different ethnic or racial backgrounds. Recently, I have noticed how often I do it along with many other minorities at B-CC. Most of us interact differently when we are with our friends compared to when we were in an interview. As a result, code-switching occurs often between black and white people.

The film Sorry to Bother You demonstrates what most African Americans may agree with; that the ability to code-switch is the way to being a successful person in a racially oppressive society. Due to the history of slavery and segregation, different cultural norms and ways of speaking to others have emerged between black and white people. I have experienced being the only black person in a room, and without hesitation, I shifted my attitude and speech. My thoughts were quickly trying to find the “right” things to say, and once I spoke, I noticed I code-switched. I have to admit I was ashamed for trying to change my attitude when speaking in front of a group of white people.

Civil rights advocate, W.E.B Debois once said, “For African Americans, it is a performative expression that has not only helped some of us thrive in mainstream culture--it has helped many of us survive.” Some African Americans view the ability to code-switch as an essential skill to move successfully all through life.

Within law enforcement, black people are three times more likely to be killed by police than white people. Because of this, many African Americans, including myself, have had the “talk” by our parents to warn and prepare us for confrontation by law enforcement. At a young age, black children are taught to “keep our hands where the officer can see them”, “not argue or yell at the officer”, “do what the officer says to do”, etc. Those conversations are a response to the main culture’s attitude towards Black people and Black culture.

In a study conducted by Stanford University, researchers revealed that Black drivers experience traffic stops at higher rates than White people. Black drivers are 31% more likely to be pulled over by police than white drivers (Washington Post). Code-switching occurs far more often than you think because Black people still feel like they have to hide themselves. Code-switching would not exist if everyone was simply accepted into society for themselves; not their culture or the way they talk. However, because of how white privilege has been embedded into every social institution in American society, Black people find the need to code-switch to be accepted into a society that is already pre-made to reject them.

Graphic by Camilo Montoya

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