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Talking Black: The Curious Phenomena of Reverse Code-Switching

If you’re Black, You’ve probably experienced it.

You were at a party surrounded by your caucasian friends when Tom, your obnoxious, white co-worker waded into the conversation, addressed everyone with firm handshakes and hellos until he reached you. That’s when he grabbed your outstretched hand, pulled you in for some “dap,” and then greeted you with a “whassup, bruh?”

That is the reverse code-switch, and by the way, Fuck you Tom.

Code-switching is the sometimes subconscious practice of changing one’s accent, dialect or vocal inflection to fit in with one’s surroundings. No group is as adept at the nuances of code switching as Black people. There are people from other countries and cultures who go in and out of accents or dialects, but Black people are one of the few groups of people who are multilingual in the same language. And I am not one of those people who believe in Ebonics Theory–that Black people speak an entirely different language that is separate from English. Get the fuck outta here with that neo-academic, pandering, revisionist bullshit, nigga.

*By the way, in Ebonics, “nigga” is puncutation. It is a period (as in the above sentence). It is an exclamation point (When asked how the party was last night, Michael simply smiled and responded “NIGGA!”). It is even a comma (“Come on nigga let’s go.”)

I believe Black people speak a dialect or subset of English that is no different, but just as culturally significant as a Boston accent or a southern drawl. When Black people speak to each other like this, it is not indicative of lesser intelligence. We know how to speak the King’s English, because we live in America and go to the same schools and work the same jobs as everyone else. It is like a woman walking around her home with her shoes off. She knows how to walk in heels, but she’s home, bih.

*By the way, although they derive from the same word and share etymological roots, “bih” is different from “bitch.” “Bitch is insulting to many women, while “bih” is more akin to “nigga” in its puncutative properties and linguistic flexibility.

Although Black people are masters of code-switching, you may have noticed an interesting twist has emerged lately–the rise of the reverse code-switch.

Reverse code switching occurs when someone of the dominant culture (pronounced “wyt pee’-pull”) slips into Ebonics or talking black when around Black people. Most of the time the reverse code-switcher isn’t surrounded by Black people when they do it–there is usually just one or two Black people present (besides, aside from offensive linemen and guitarists in funk bands, there are very few instances where White people are in the minority).

Reverse code-switching offends me (and a lot of other people I’ve asked), and I’m trying to figure out why. Maybe because I feel like when people who obviously don’t talk that way in real life, do it to me, it’s a form of baby talk or a subtle way of talking down to me–as if they’re saying “You couldn’t possibly understand my big White People words, so let me break it down in your niggerspeak so you can fully grasp it.” It is a thin film of racism.

Or maybe I feel it is cultural appropriation. Maybe I’m afraid that you’ll try to speak Ebonics today, and tomorrow a watered down, saccharine version of Ebonics will become the number one language in the world–except it will be called “Macklemoorish” and all the “niggas” and “bihs” will have been replaced with “my homey” (make sure you present a big, bleached, wide-toothed smile when you say it, and emphasize the “y” in “homey”). Perhaps I’m afraid that they’ll do to our language what they did to our music. They call that Kenny G. bullshit the same thing they call what Miles Davis and John Coletrane did: Jazz.

Nope that’s not it. The reason I don’t like when people reverse code-switch in front of me is anger.

It makes me mad that privilege gives some white people the confidence to waltz through our front doors and take off their shoes like this is their house, too. I get furious that chubby white girls with asymmetrical haircuts think they can automatically become part of Black culture by inserting a penis, faking a “blackccent” and shucking and jiving. That shit is demeaning to me. Whether it’s cornrows or jargon, white people won’t let us have shit. They always want some too.

But what infuriates me the most is the privilege to switch back out of that shit. Even if they nail all the nuances and accents of the reverse code switch, for them it is only temporary. It is a privilege to be hip, cool and sound semi-black when you don’t have to calm your racing heart every time you see blue lights or hold a private seminar with your son to teach him how to reach for his wallet. They can always un-reverse their dialect, un-insert penis, leave the party and blend back in to the mainstream. We don’t have that luxury.

For Black people, code-switching is not a way to “fit in” or be accepted. You have to learn how to do it if you want to eat. If you want to live. If you want to survive. It is a skill without which you can’t gain employment or escape suspicion. When we see it in reverse it just diminishes the magnitude of the struggle we face. It is the demeaning. It is linguistic blackface. When anyone reverse code-switches in front of me, I inform them that I am capable of understanding regular English. “You don’t have to speak jive to me, pahtna” is how I put it to the last person who did it to me.

I understand that it is sometimes fun to “talk black” around your black friends, wear a Sombrero on Cinco de Mayo, or dress up as a monster for Halloween. It is a privilege because you can always ease out of the accent, remove the hat and take off the costume, Just remember:

Some of us have to live with the mask on..

Nigga.

 

About the author

Michael Harriot is a renowned spoken word poet, the host of The Black One podcast and the editor-in-chief of NegusWhoRead. He is perpetually just getting warmed up because he has no chill. He is on Instagram and twitter as @michaelharriot

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  • Tomika

    One time while having dinner at a hibachi restaurant, I with my son and a female friend the Asian chef reverse code switched on us. The white family got handshakes and thank yous, but when he got to us he decided that he needed to dap us up as if a simple handshake wouldn’t suffice. I was upset and asked my friend if it bothered her, she said it did. For me, it’s not only when white people do it, it’s also when any non-black person does it to black people.

  • Nancy

    Boi, you can give Tahnesi a run with your commentary and insight. You are so right on.