Linguists who study the language of African Americans, commonly known as African American Vernacular English (AAVE), Black English Vernacular (BEV), or Ebonics often talk about the way most Black language speakers learn to “code switch” so they can fit more easily into so-called standard English spaces. But has there ever been a conversation about how White people “code switch?” No, I’m not talking about White people learning to talk like Black people but rather the coded language Whites use when they talk to and about Black people. Here are a few of the codes I’ve picked up:
“I don’t even think of you as Black” – This is code for, “you are better than the rest of them. You have enough education, money, and “class” to fit in with me. I can feel comfortable around you.
“What if we…[insert some action]?” – This is typically code for either some action that the speaker intends to take on him or her self OR some action the speaker is committing you to. For example, “What if we turn in this report?” This is NOT a question. This is someone deciding that THIS is the report s/he plans on submitting. It may be work on which you’ve had no input or work you did all by yourself that will be submitted as a “group” effort.
“I think I could learn so much from you.” – This typically comes in a relationship where the Black person really is the more accomplished person and it comes across as a compliment. However, this is actually an incomplete sentiment. The coded part of this statement is, “and when I learn it I plan to take your job or eventually be your boss.”
“You’re wearing your hair differently, aren’t you?” – The direct translation of this statement/question is “What the hell happened to your hair?” Black women have the most versatile hair on the planet and we regularly go from straight to curly, short to long, and changes in color. These changes both baffle and fascinate our White friends and the only way they make sense of it is to offer a question that appears to express interest.
“What do you do?” – Now to be honest, Black people ask this too, but we’ve learned to ask it as a result of moving back and forth in Black and White linguistic spaces. This is the nosiest of all White middle class questions and it’s all about getting in your business. It is also about determining whether or not you fit in their circle. I hear this question at White social gatherings with a kind of high pitched, “And…what do YOU do?” A couple of times I have replied, “I live…what do you do?”
“I don’t mean to offend you, but…” – Rest assured whatever comes after that opening WILL offend you and the speaker knows it. Somehow s/he believes that by prefacing the offending statements by “I don’t mean to offend” gives them a pass. My quick comeback to this one is, “Then don’t!” It catches them off guard, mouth open even and sometimes (not always) prevents them from proceeding. If the do continue you are obligated to say, “Yep, I found that pretty offensive!”
“What’s up my N-word?” – Now, this phrase is only said by White people who are attempting to be cool, hip and part of an in-group with Black people. “Liberal” White people would never say this to a Black person. But those who say it believe they are in solidarity with Black people and want to tell you how they are not robbing the N-word of its power…Excuse me?
“I think we need to stop talking about race.” – Ostensibly, this statement suggests that we are not getting anywhere by talking about something that is making everyone so nervous and uncomfortable. The actual translation is “Shut the f… up!” but then saying it that way would “offend” us!
“You have a [insert some luxury item]?” – This is never a compliment. It is a question steeped in suspicion. You have a Mercedes? …a vacation home?…a kid in private school? …a nanny? The questions always imply a sense of wonder about how you can have something they don’t have. I travel extensively and because of multiple airline delays I learned to invest in an airport lounge membership. Once when traveling with a White colleague I offered to take the colleague into the club during our layover. “Wow, you belong to this club?” The amazement was palatable, almost as if Black people are not permitted to join airline clubs.
“How you doing…[insert shortened name]?”—Over and over I have heard Black people have their given name shortened by White colleagues and associates. William becomes Bill, Theodore becomes Ted, Richard becomes Dick (note NEVER call a Black man Dick unless he tells you to), Patricia becomes Pat, Pattie, or Patsy, Beverly becomes Bev, or Deborah becomes Deb. This name shortening is code for a familiarity that may or may not exist. It presumes that the speaker has the right to rename you and re-define you. Rarely is the name shortening a result of someone FIRST asking, “What do you like to be called,” or “Is it all right if I call you…?”
“Let me suggest?”—This code switch is one of my pet peeves since I have never known it to actually refer to a SUGGESTION. This is stated by someone who is either your superior or perceives themselves to be so. It is never a suggestion. It is a direct order. If you ignore it you may lose your job. But of course, the person making the statement will insist they were making a suggestion…that you had the good sense to take.
These are just a few of the White code switches Black people negotiate every day. Words like “articulate,” “urban,” “aggressive,” “poverty,” “affirmative action,” “you people,” are all examples that most of us are familiar with. Over time we grow immune to the twisting and shifting use of words that mean something totally different from their literal definition. Thus, the work of being Black in this society involves incredible linguistic gymnastics to ensure that we clearly understand how words said with a smile can actually be daggers aimed for our backs.
Stay Black & Smart!