I grew up in a white suburban town in New Jersey called Basking Ridge. My family was one of the very few African American families in town.
When I was growing up, basketball became a big part of my identity. I often found myself traveling from my suburban bubble to cities and playing for teams where, suddenly, a white man would find himself in the minority.
For most of my life, it seemed that my entire existence was not “black” enough for my peers nor “white” enough for my all-white city. I’ve talked to other black friends with similar backgrounds since then and remember calling them “Oreos,” a crude and offensive reference to being “black on the outside and white on the inside.” In my own experience, I always remember feeling confused, angry, and sometimes angry.
It’s a natural human reaction to try to adapt to your environment when you feel awkward. While it was confusing at the time, code-switching in my youth eventually helped me develop a skill that I see today as a superpower.
The term “code-switching” has always felt like a negative thing—the way you look and act to impress or fit in. But it’s really a tool that I can choose to use whenever I want. To me, code-switching isn’t about “fake” or “act out”. It’s an ability you acquire through years of customization and high sensitivity.
I want to challenge all of us to rephrase this phrase as “culture coding.” To me, culture coding describes the ability to assess a situation, understand what it would take to survive and/or potentially thrive within it, and then decide how to engage (or not ). no one wants passed It’s up to the culture-code to feel like they fit in or move on, but a lot of us do it. It’s worth unpacking where the root term “code-switching” comes from to understand the culture-code pressures, the anxiety many people feel around it, and ultimately why it’s such a powerful tool.
“code-switching” is actually basically a linguistics term used to describe multilingual people. But when we talk about it in the context of everyday life, we are really talking about assimilation and cultural power.
In the United States, we generally refer to “American culture” as the dominant culture—the one that defines what most individuals can be expected to have in common. Speaking English, celebrating the Fourth of July, knowing a little bit about American civics and history, eating hamburgers: all of these can be said to be key features of American culture.
Due to the ethnic composition of this country, as well as the racial hierarchy imposed on it from its inception, many of those characteristics have historically been determined by white people.
What is “American English”?
Let’s take language as an example.
Language helps human beings to communicate, learn, work together and establish a sense of community. And in modern civilization, being able to “do the right thing” gives you a job, education, status, social circle, and of course, a sense of personal belonging.
But what exactly is the “right thing”? For most of American history, it has been generally assumed that Modern Standard English—the kind you read in newspapers and textbooks—is spoken by everyone. It’s what you use at school, at work, in the Senate, on the pulpit, and on the evening news.
But there are other dialects spoken in this country and we don’t always agree on what Modern Standard American English looks like. In the 19th century, soon after gaining independence, Americans began to debate how to differentiate our rapidly growing national dialect, American English, from its British parent. The two were and remain different: this is why we Britons have a noticeable difference in the way we speak and write. It remains a powerful differentiator of national identity even today.
But when Noah Webster was writing the first American English dictionary, white legislators across the United States ensured that enslaved black people were denied the right to literacy. Many planters and politicians in the South feared (correctly) that the rising tide of abolitionism in the North would reach more eyes and ears if black people learned to read and write. ,And a short-lived 1831 rebellion, led by enslaved Virginian Nat Turner, eventually proved them right.,
For centuries, white people barred black people from “talking” their Talking.” Imagine a world in which a nation’s culture, government, and religions share wisdom—all the stories in the Bible, all the news about changing laws and raging wars—filter primarily through the words of white people. White Americans established a society that largely excluded black people from one of the nation’s most powerful tools: a shared language.
White Americans founded a society that largely excluded black people from one of the nation’s most powerful tools: a shared language.
At the same time, over the centuries, we as a black community developed our own unique ways of engaging, bonding, and communicating with each other—as well as the ability to “turn it off” or “on” when we choose to. developed.
Nowadays, of course, reach and risk have evolved. But the legacy of what is linguistically “appropriate” or “correct” remains strong. For underrepresented communities or people from non-white backgrounds, this heritage creates pressure to code-switch and assimilate norms of the dominant linguistic culture.
Coding Culture as a Superpower
But that capacity of a culture-code could be a superpower. I recently chatted about this with a friend of mine, Sebastian, who identifies as gay and works in advertising. I asked him what his experience, if any, had been with “code-switching” and his answer sounded similar to some of my experiences. He said, “It depends on the context, but I’ve definitely used gay slang and slang to make people laugh or make people feel comfortable. In [the advertising] Industry, it’s all about being connected to the culture, so customers like to see that authenticity. Plus when they know more about me and laugh with me, we develop a deeper relationship.”
Of course, not every professional environment creates these opportunities. And wherever possible, it should be called out and challenged.
When we accept that we all live in a society that privileges Western cultural norms and American or European standards of style and beauty, we can see how code-switching can prevent large numbers of people from feeling Prevents that they themselves can be in a public environment. Wearing natural hair, speaking the native language, dressing in a traditional style – these are some of the most basic things that humans do every day. We should never worry about whether they will be perceived negatively.
If we want people to feel like they belong, we have to challenge whether what we’ve been taught is standard, right, or appropriate. ,
We live in a multicultural and multilingual society. It is inevitable that culture-coding will occur. But when it comes to the places where the system of power operates – such as at work, school or any “official” community space – we need to be aware of the very human, unconscious bias that affects how we see, speak, and act. are in favor of. We. Or to put it in other words: people unconsciously understand Seeing, speaking and acting in the “right” way.
It all comes down to empathy and the understanding that, if we want people to feel like they belong, we have to challenge what we’ve been taught to believe is standard, right, or proper. We have to make room for and protect diversity in language, expression, dress and self-expression.
At the same time, we must celebrate that culture-coding is not the only strategy to survive or grow. It is an elevated form of situational awareness that taps into the multidimensional nature of our true selves.
Being able to speak multiple languages or dialects, understand different codes of behavior and expression, feel authentically connected to multiple styles and forms of art – all of these abilities equate to an incredible social and cultural versatility that we must have in our lives. It should be celebrated in the society. These differences should make us feel like we are our own More-Because they do.
I always go back to this post I wrote a few months ago about my daughter, Mia was 15 months old at the time, yet she was unaware of the distinctions of race, ethnicity, or that sick phrase I’d used earlier: “dominant culture.” We passed a musician and she started dancing in the street like no one else and everyone was completely watching themselves in that moment.
Ultimately, those are the environments we want to build. Places where our linguistic and cultural differences enhance our sense of authenticity, help us feel like we are our own, and enjoy the respect they deserve: Difference,