Each and every one of us is a complicated prism; our inner-selves shine through it and equally true versions come out dependent on the context. In our professional contexts we present in one hue, with our siblings or close friends another, and yet a different prism perhaps when we are with acquaintances or in mixed company. We certainly shine ourselves through different prisms when we are with those we like or dislike, wish to impress or know are impressed by us. Coming up, I lived in many spheres; my entire life could be separated into wide circles like a Venn Diagram that never overlapped.
As a child of separated, and later divorced, parents–an issue compounded my multi-ethnic background–as a student in a private school who primarily socialized with local friends where a class and race disparity was prevalent, and later yet as the new kid in a third school context away from my hometown, I found myself constantly fragmented. I was in something similar to a diglossic situation, and as a matter of social survival I found ways to be an appropriate and authentic “me” in each context, however, I wasn’t totally aware of it.
Later on, I would come to know this term as “code-switching”, though I understand that this is something most commonly associated with blacks switching back and forth from “talking white”, what I would be accused of was switching back and forth from “talking black”. Once, that is, the phenomenon was called to my attention in a meaningful way. Now matter where I went I was always “talking white” or I was “talking black”. These kinds of definitions are troublesome to begin with, as we weren’t all black or all white but were all speaking the same language in either or any case. It was even more difficult for me because as a Jew and as a Puerto Rican I wasn’t really either in earnest anyway.
In my twenties, I was in the car with the woman who would later become my wife and she witnessed a clear case of code switching while I was on a phone call. I had heard it before at times when my world’s collided, but seeing as this woman had considerable more sway than my friends in any context had I started to wonder if its deployment was any longer necessary. Was it ever necessary? Was I, as Howard Giles suggests, trying to limit the social differences between my peers and myself? That seems reasonable, but then which sphere was I code switching for?
The adolescent’s mind is a funny thing, and (as I state as a theme in my book) it strives to “Strike out, be different, and fit in” all at once. As a minority that can easily pass for white until my name is checked, the code-switch, it was assumed, into that street slang upon which the title of “talking black” fits.
I wondered then if I was appropriately representing myself when I code-switched in any context. Was it a need on my part to fit in, or was it an expression of my proper persona? Was it possible that I was more than one person or was I multifaceted? Was I a phony? Much like the prism we all shine through, there was a bit of each of these was true. I did of course want to fit in, but also reflect the social groups that I was a part of. But the more I considered it the manner of speaking in which I was most fluent was “speaking white”, that form of English that is slandered with the term “standard” much the same way as heterosexual marriage is glorified by bigots as the only respectable option with the word “traditional”. Was there a “proper English” or a “proper context”? In a world where I already felt separated, I was even more separated because I started to question my ability communicate- the definitive experience of alienation.
The issue was that the “full me,” that total authenticity wasn’t coming out and there are a variety of reasons for that. Was it self-confidence, or lack there of? A concern that sounding or presenting a particular way would be ostracizing in one group or the other? Was it a fear of being considered unintelligent or too intelligent, depending on the way I spoke? Essentially, was I scared that I wouldn’t be “down” or “cool” due to the way I spoke? Was I trying to be something I wasn’t or was I trying to be a chameleon, adaptable to any situation? Even in retrospect, I’m still not entirely sure.
Eventually as I matured I managed to focus all those worlds that I lived in, to bring them all into alignment in a way that broadened the overlapping areas to far outweigh the isolated ones in terms of real estate on my Venn Diagram. I was able to, unfilter light from the prism.
Some might argue that I was attempting to appropriate, or socially survive, as an outsider…but what exactly was I outside of? Some argue that code switching comes from the need to create social situations, however, I was already a part of each social setting I was participating in. What my use of language reflected was my inability to defragment myself. In fact, that process was something that I struggled with throughout my childhood, adolescence, and even in many degrees in my adulthood. But I was able to bring it all together into a coherent me. Through maturity, which for me came through academic study in American Urban Studies and Childhood Education, as well as growing into the roles of husband and father, I was able to define myself and develop a language that reflected that definition.
Now, it turns out I have a fair degree of control over the English language (whatever that is), but I account several important factors to that; the four most influential ones I believe are comic books, inappropriate movies and television, small class sizes, and code switching. Each of these important aspects of my education in the English language allowed me an exposure and opportunity to experience the full depth and value, as well as the inadequacies and short comings of words.
Words have this phenomenal ability to describe abstract ideas and fail to convey the simplest emotions.They fly out of your mouth carelessly when drunk and you lose them in the most sobering moments. But most of all, they have a transmogrifying ability to change meaning when uttered into an intended underlying meaning via vernacular, idiom, metaphor, simile, hyperbole, irony, and humor.
In a way, code-switching became my many styles of Kung Fu. I was like Chia-Hui Liu in the Fist of the White Lotus, having to unexpectedly employ unorthodox styles to hit an elusive target. I moved past overt code-switching and entered into the realm of linguistic borrowing, a developed a lexicon that was unique to my needs. Your style of communication, I figured, should be unique if your thoughts are your own. As I progressed as I was able to absorb what was useful, discard what was useless. What was left, as Bruce Lee said, is uniquely my own. Now, I am not going so far as to say that my style of speaking is unto Bruce Lee’s mastery and development of the martial arts, but only that which was uniquely my own was that expanded region in the Venn Diagram, that unfiltered light out of the prism. What was uniquely my own…was me.
Now, I may employ some code switching still, but certainly not in any way that might alarm someone…perhaps more like those “acceptable” sorts that we label as professionalism or familiarity. But it flows like water, my linguistic Kung Fu is strong, and while I may not speak foreign languages very well, I am confident that I can master many Englishes to hit the elusive targets…most of the time. And when I can’t, I know I can switch among my many styles, if necessary.
Brandon is the Editor-in-Chief and President of Maglomaniac and a contributor at Polite on Society. He is the author of the Eat Your Serial title Ten Years Gone: Pomp and Circumstance, as well as several columns at Maglomaniac. Brandon writes about education, politics, pop culture, and the human experience at large.