For those who don’t know, there’s a common idea amongst many black people that forces in society compel us to be adept at adapting. This idea is captured in poems like “We Wear The Mask” by Paul Laurence Dunbar, or the different versions of a running joke (if you want to call it that) that we are bilingual with an “around black people voice” and an “around white people voice”.
The Mississippi Delta drawl I and many black people from the south and west sides of Chicago speak with is why many characterize us as being “the South of the North”. My mother’s side of the family is from Louisiana, my father’s side from Florida, and my step-mother’s from Mississippi. With every “You said what? Cain’t heah you. Prolly need to come closuh”, our ancestors brought this dialect from the South during the Great Migration. On a personal level, that drawl is chiseled into my self-identity of “Blackness”.
But whenever I’m in a classroom, a boardroom, game room, or any room where the majority of the people are white……(let me rephrase that)…….are “talking white”, I talk like them. The frustrating part is that I am rarely, if ever, able control when this code switch flicks on or off. In fact, I honestly cannot remember a time I did it intentionally.
From grade school to grad school, I’ve been both the accuser and the accused in the “talking white” witch trials. When I’ve said another Black person talks white, I never once meant to imply that I was equating being articulate to “whiteness” (or isolating it from blackness), though that is the conclusion most people reach. For me, it was an observation that they spoke in patterns more aligned with the ways I hear white people communicate (intonation, inflection, dialectics, phrases, hard consonants, types of slang, full pronunciations, etc.). I was policing them with the admittedly problematic assumption that, unlike me, they weren’t code-switching. It was a subconscious “Wait…..why are you talking like that? There’s no white people around.”
It was also an ignorant assumption about engaging in Black cultural solidarity. This may be semantics, but I didn’t assume all Black people talk the same, I just assumed all Black people don’t talk like White people. Many of the patterns of the “blaccent” (‘talking black’) stems from slavery. Newly captive Africans who were forced to learn English combined the foreign language with African speech patterns. Therefore on conscious and subconscious levels, I equated their lack of “blaccent” as assimilation (another problematic term) into “blanccent”. I mistook their “why can’t I be a Black person who talks educated?” as re-propagating the idea that talking “black” means talking dumb, not rebelling against it (since the anti-thesis is usually a condemnation of someone who talks “ghetto”). I couldn’t understand if they sincerely rejected the equating intelligence to whiteness or if they used the way “uneducated” (Black) people talk as a stepping stone for their Exceptional Negroedom.
When I was accused of talking white, the anguish came from a similarly ironic place. My frustration never came from assuming people thought I wanted to be white. I’m not one to fully equate talking “proper” with being articulate. My anguish was a convoluted response of “No, see I don’t talk this way naturally, I’m trying to fit in. Why don’t you understand that?”. The frustration stemmed from assuming that the accuser was oblivious to my code-switching.
Now before I go on, let me make this perfectly clear: Blackness is not a monolithic structure, and these aren’t the sole reasons why any one Black person would loathe being accused of “talking white”. I’m only giving an account of my logic, how I made sense of my experiences, and the way I perceive cultural signifiers of Blackness in my life.
I automatically alter my speech according to the racial makeup of my audience. This is mostly an involuntary response. But I also understand the subtle ways my diction ties into a larger narrative of both racial and class politics of assimilation. I’m aware of the historical forces that normalize whiteness, and convinces the majority of America to police the speaking of “proper English” (a concept that is ironically comical, since no one in America speaks proper English) and to equate “blaccent” to lack of intelligence. I’m aware that if I talk the way I really talk at my next job interview, the employment odds won’t be stacked in my favor, regardless of my qualifications. The reasoning behind it is not because I think saying “prolly” instead of “probably” is inarticulate, it’s because I think my potential employer might.
I didn’t grow up around only black people, but for the most part, I’ve only lived around black people. I was born in Chicago, arguably the quintessence of American multiculturalism in the midst of segregation. I went from a majority white elementary school to an almost exclusively black high school to a majority white college where I studied African American Studies. Along the way, I’ve been told I talk “ghetto” by a few of my white friends, and that I talk “white” by a few black ones. But most importantly, I’ve struggled with realizing that code-switching could only change my experience up to a point.
I’d hang at my white friends’ homes for hours at a time, though they never came down the hill to my house. No one explained to me why knocking over garbage cans, sneaking our parents liquor, or loitering on the corner was horseplay when I was with my white friends, but marks of criminality when I was “wit da guys”. I wasn’t shielded from the shame of realizing that 100% of the racial jokes I laughed at were only aimed at non-WASP minorities. I was the one the police stopped to make sure I wasn’t “messing with them” or trying to sell them drugs. No one calmed the uneasiness of feeling I needed to constantly be aware of how intelligent or friendly or threatening I came across to people, especially white people. And I was going to experience these things my whole life, regardless of how I pronounced words.
Code switching is my experience, and I’m fighting to reconcile the profound ways it has both protected and misinformed me. It has always been the latent means to a very real and tangible end, whether I choose to do it or not.
What is “talking white” anyway? Is that even possible?
These questions deserve a more definitive answer than I can give here, but honestly, I’m not sure how effective the answer will be in changing the social reality of black kids who come from similar backgrounds, raised in similar environments as I was. Because no matter how comfortable I am around family or friends, life has primed me to the benefits of code switching and the dangers of not.
We Out Here,
Joshua Adams is a journalist, writer, and music producer from Chicago, IL. He studied African American Studies and English at the University of Virginia, and currently attends the University of Southern California, working towards a masters in Journalism.