The air rushed out of our palms created a popping sound. The language of a handshake.
“Wassup yo.” I said.
“Wassup. You good?” Said Will. We were standing in a hundred foot hallway packed with kids waiting for classes to start. The walls were blue and yellow.
“Yeah, I’m chilling, tired.” I replied.
“True I got like three hours.”
“Bo’ you a nut cuz that history jawn due.” The bell rings and the slow crowd yawned and moved down the hallway as a mob. Then the hallway filled with lockers slaming, songs being sung, basketballs bouncing, students yelling, and teachers yelling. I move towards the door of my home room. A forty year old man in a button up shirt and khakis stands tall greeting students.
“ How you doing, Luke?” He asks.
“Morning, Mr.Schere, I’m pretty good.” I move into the room with more blue walls and a brown carpet covering the floor.
“Nigga luke” A voice calls out from across the room. A skinny girl with bright orange sneakers and short hair is sitting in one of the chairs arranged in a circle.
“Wassup Ki” I took a seat in the circle and shook the person next to me’s hand.
"You know my manz Luke an inside out Oreo." She joked. The mood was light and humorous. From the other side of the circle I hear a angry voice at a loud tone.
“I’m just trying to be out, like, teachers trippin.”
“Right Cort, imma boobop the ish out them.” A laugh rippled around the room.
Later in class I raise my hand to answer the question my teacher asked; Why was the industrial revolution the perfect time to put new ideas into practice?
“Yes, Luke?” The teacher called on me.
“Well, the industrial revolution was a time where there was a lot of innovation. Because of this the acceptance for new creations was very high, anything was possible if you could sell it to the public.”
“That’s good, Luke.” He moved on, placing white papers on everyone's desks.
That night at my cousin’s house my aunt asked me about my day.
“Well, it was pretty good. I have a project and some homework to do. But I like my classes and teachers and today was fun.” With that I wiped the side of my mouth with my napkin.
Those were examples of how dialect or language changes given who I’m talking to. My school was all black. Plus me. I came from a middle class white family. All my classmates were middle class or working class black. So, when I got placed in Wissahickon Charter school in kindergarten, I had no idea that over the next nine years of my life I would undergo ignorance, culture shock, resentment, and then adaptation in that general order.
When I started noticing differences it was later than my peers. I realized I was white at the ripe age of 8. I had already been affected and shaped by black culture but in more subtle ways. Emerging from ignorance I noticed the differences. I started noticing black culture versus white culture. From there I became resentful. I hated that my parent sent me to this school, that we lived in this house, that we had this lifestyle. But I was brought up with values of justice and right versus wrong. So that I saw the beauty and necessity of how we lived. Throughout it all I was learning how to be black with white skin. The most important part of this was probably the language. How black people talk is very different from how I talk to my family, how I talk to family friends, and how I talk to extended family.
Language, in this sense, is just how you talk. The way you say your words and what words you use is language. This holds much more weight that we normally give it.
James Baldwin addressed this in his article “If Black English Isn’t A Language, Then Tell Me, What It Is?” In this article he’s defining language and arguing that “Black English” meets its criteria. “It goes without saying, then, that language is also a political instrument, means, and proof of power… It reveals the private identity, and connects one with, or divorces one from, the larger, public, or communal identity. … in such a way that one's antecedents are revealed” This quote shows how much language affects perception of your identity. Language shows where you came from (accents/slang) and that area has some sort of stigma towards it. For instance, if I said I was from Philadelphia people would, without knowing Philadelphia, associate me with a urban stereotype they’ve made up. Language reveals how you were raised, who you are, and how you view the world with the same process. All of these judgements are subconscious and in each one of us there is a small part that analyzes every word people say.
This quote comes from a bell hooks’ article titled “This Is The Oppressor’s Language / Yet I Need It To Talk To You.” In this article she talks about how African slaves had to learn this English language (which was the language of the oppressor) and how this language was shaped by oppression to be a new black English. She tells the story of black English and how we relate to it today. “The very sound of English had to terrify. I think of black people meeting one another in a space away from the diverse cultures and languages that distinguished them from one another, compelled by circumstance to find ways to speak with one another in a ‘new world’.” People always look at the new world slavery system and say the color of skin was all they needed to define your level of power in the system. But really, it was also language that was a definer of who you were.
She goes on to talk about how blacks have created a dialect of their own, continuing the different two languages or dialects (black and white). Language is a definer of African Americans in this country. And yet the “Oppressors’ language” and “fear” talked about in this quote still exists. White english. White English has as much slang and as many sayings but is held up as how the actors of movies and the media talk. It is basically held up as the “right” way to talk. This is because white culture has been, since the beginning of America, the dominant culture. When Europeans discovered America there was a mindset that western culture was the best. This resulted in the construction of a white society where skin color spoke the loudest. A clearly defining feature of this system and culture was language. This form of cultural racism (language being a part of that) means to be successful and not white means you have to “act white”, or assume the culture.
My situation was pretty unique especially given my skin color. Many white people will come into contact with at least two cultural dialects, but one is much more dominate. But, I was getting such large portions of two cultures (middle class white liberal and black working class teen) everyday that I needed to adapt to survive. So over time I learned black speech. Then I was aware of codeswitching saw how useful it was in different situations. I saw and see how easily I can change my dialogue to match others or connect with others.
But, I graduated in 2013. I could have dropped the codeswitching. “Survival” was no longer necessary. But codeswitching is something that allows connection. It allows people to view you in the most positive light. It feels wrong in some ways to put on a front, but different language is just a part of the diversity of the human race. Code switching lets other feel comfortable around me and allows me to feel comfortable around others. Because, unlike other white people, I know how to code switch, I can be friends with a more diverse group of people. So I will never “talk how I talk”, never “just be me”, but I’m ok with that if it also helps me to strengthen bonds with people, lets me relate to more people, be the best I can be to people, and make people comfortable. So I will build bridges and reach out to all with how I use my voice.