On the politics of code switching

Obama is perhaps the most recognisable code-switcher. Throughout his presidency, he maintained an allure amongst radically diverse groups: students, intellectuals, politicians, Black men, Black women, socialists, immigrants, progressives, moderates, activists and the list goes on. He could oscillate in and out of AAVE (African American Vernacular English) without sounding disingenuous, and whilst maintaining his statesmanship.

In its definitional state, code switching refers to a speaker alternating between multiple languages in a single conversation, using phrases and intonations from alternate sources. But language doesn’t refer just to words; it is the conventions, habits, accompanying movements, responses, reactions. Code switching isn’t a singular or clearly marked concept; rather, it is ‘fuzzy edged’. It is communication in its broadest form. It can even look like something as subtle as this. This video did the rounds on social media, understandably so; it is seemingly uncontroversial and heartwarming. But it does reveal something deeper: the very real expectations that Obama had to contend with daily in his presidency. How he had to navigate the multiple communities who projected onto him, and constantly be scrutinised by those he was purportedly ‘speaking for’. His position as leader of the free world and commander of the most powerful office is unique. But the balancing act that was demanded of him, as a person of colour, is not.

Growing up, I watched the way the immigrant community around me would ‘code switch’ depending on who they were talking to. Some would say this is to be expected, when moving to a new country and embracing a novel culture – of course, you have to adapt based on your surroundings. This is not something that is unique to people of colour. But I have to say that, I, as an Australian, also found myself code switching and more often than not it had a racial element to it. With my fellow Indian-Australian or South Asian friends we could joke about strict parents, cultural expectations, the ridiculousness of ‘fair and lovely’ skin lightening advertisements and why Bollywood is still so sexist. Shared bonds and history naturally progress a conversation. It steers it in a direction that encompasses all the issues that affect those involved. So why is code switching something of concern in the first place?

Code switching will often project the responsibility and expectations of multiple communities onto the code switcher. People of colour know this matrix all too well; you have to maintain and respect your heritage, you have to be the token representative of it in any given place, you have to be Indian but not too Indian that it becomes unpalatable to the majority, you have to have opinions that align with what the outsider sees as a logical extension of your identity but not too radical that it would take effort to digest for outsiders. The list of responsibilities goes on.

I am always asked why I don’t wear a beautiful sari to a formal (non-Indian) event. And I haven’t ever been able to give an answer. I love saris, I think they are beautiful, intricate, flattering and I have access to a huge collection of them. So why wouldn’t I? In short, it would take a lot of switching across and between codes. I know it would trigger much discussion around it or about it, that I would have to carry or engage in. I take pride in these discussions, and I appreciate when they happen.  But it will always be me who has to adapt rather than those around me. This is inevitable, and how well I do it here is wholly dependent on how it is received and acknowledged.

The question to be asked then is what do we gain from code switching? For Obama, it was a sense of acceptance from the communities he grew up in, a sign that he had not forgotten who he was or where his roots were. Whereas his switch back to the formal Harvard-speak was an indication that he was ‘qualified’. Either way, it acted as an identity announcement, even ‘facilitating interpersonal relationships’. But implicit in this is that his use of AAVE, or his spoken and physical style shift, was mutually exclusive with being presidential, or for mere mortals like us, just simply ‘appropriate’.

This means the burden is on those from these groups to ‘switch’ to another code; but exclusion has been built into this code by the very hierarchies it is predicated on. The ability to speak in the style and form of one’s language provides us with the tools to communicate best, and put forward the most accurate version of ourselves and our ideas. If we have to constantly switch, we could be disadvantaged in that discourse, meaning no amount of switching can compensate for those inherent gaps.

It should also be noted that we often do this subconsciously, meaning the compulsion to switch has also been built into us. It is human nature to adapt and fit in. And it is not just people of colour who code switch – politicians code switch often (the ‘pub test’ is prolific nowadays) and meeting a new social group inclines you to align with the majority’s conversation. But when race relations are imploding, when white supremacy has regressed from covert to overt and racial bias is the reality in employment, this particular strain of code switching is worthy of consideration.

Aptly named, the podcast series ‘Codeswitch’ explains that ‘Obama could speak to race and class, painting a picture of an inclusive society’ (Episode: Remix, 18/01/17).  So perhaps this is what we should strive for if we are to accept code switching as an inescapable reality. In this sense, code switching can be used as a tool by – rather than a weapon against – those who are not always represented in the dominant discourse.

But remember, what evidently ‘worked’ for Obama, in his seamless manoeuvring in and out of AAVE and his cultural roots, will not be an option for others because they don’t have the Harvard-education or oratory skills of the ex-president. These people have no other alternative than to master the switching of codes, but that doesn’t mean they will be able to successfully navigate the unfamiliar code itself.

Image: Alexis Brown

Aditi Razdan is a Law and Asian Studies student at ANU, drawn to the country of her ancestors and the stories of her people. She is particularly interested in issues of race, the politicisation of culture and religion and the criminalisation of coloured bodies.  She is a Sub-Editor at the East Asia Forum, Editor of Demos and has had her work published in Demos and The Kashmir Times.

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