Members of many minority groups feel they must “code- switch” to assimilate properly 


When she was in middle school, Dolly Lostaunau, now a 22-year-old student at the University of Colorado at Colorado Springs, avoided speaking Spanish in front of her peers. She was afraid of being ridiculed. No one else in her class of mostly white students spoke Spanish and she had already earned the “new kid” label, having recently moved from Connecticut to Falcon, Colorado, with her Peruvian parents, who don’t speak English.

“I remember that when my parents would come to get me [from school], I would like be very quiet and spoke Spanish very quietly,” Lostaunau says.

It became her mission to make the other students understand that she was “just like them.” She had seen the disapproving glances fluent English speakers threw at her parents for being unable to communicate in English.

She spoke only English at school and adopted a Western American accent to blend in. But at home, Lostaunau’s speech changed to full-volume Spanish sentences with a Peruvian lilt.

Lostaunau’s ability to glide seamlessly from English to Spanish is one linguists have aptly labeled “code-switching,” which originally referred to the mixing of speech patterns or languages in a conversation.

But the term also takes on a broader definition, such as how a person uses different forms of speech — dialects, accents and nonverbal gestures — to fit the environment, says Jeffrey Montez de Oca, associate sociology professor at UCCS.

“Typically, when we talk about code-switching, we’re talking about people of minoritized groups moving from their communities into dominant communities... and being fluent in either context,” he says, noting the term often described black Americans’ shift from African-American vernacular to standard English.

But racial minorities aren’t the only code-switchers. Women in male-dominated settings can change their speech and so can working-class whites in upper-class environments. In Lostaunau’s case, and in many others, code-switching offers a way to assimilate. Those who successfully navigate different language may be rewarded with economic and social upward mobility.

I’ve seen my Nuyorican mother code-switch so regularly that it seems like she is two different people. Around co-workers, she’s a reserved person who speaks standard English. Then there’s the woman who shows herself when my aunt calls to talk about family drama. She’s full of animated hand gestures, a “New YAWK” accent and snappy Spanglish statements.

Sometimes the upward mobility that code-switching provides can produce internal struggles, Montez de Oca said. Lostaunau says she often feels she has lost touch with her Peruvian heritage, especially when family members criticize her Spanish. My own mother has been accused of “forgetting where she came from.”
During a visit to Pikes Peak Community College on Sept. 20, Ron Stallworth, the real-life character behind the film BlacKkKlansman, opened up about straddling the line between being an employee at a white-dominated police department and being a black man, particularly when it came to his voice. “I can talk in Ebonics if I had to, but I don’t find it complimentary to say I sound like a white man. Keep that comment to yourself,” Stallworth told the audience.

I can relate to Stallworth. Kids of all kinds at my high school never failed to tell me that I “talked like a white girl,” earning me the nickname Oreo and leaving me feeling “less black.”

But code-switching is not abandoning one’s culture. If anything, it’s an attempt to preserve it, keeping both the norms of the dominant culture and one’s own background. Plus, failing to code-switch as a minority can be potentially worse than the ridicule one faces for code-switching. People can be misunderstood by authority figures like the police, face harassment or be denied opportunities, Montez de Oca says.

There’s one thing majority populations can do to create a more inclusive environment for others: Listen to their stories, he says.

“Here’s the power dynamic: If you’re in a minority group, you have no choice but to learn about the majority group,” he says. “If you’re in the majority group, you have the privilege of ignoring the minorities around you.”

Code-switching is not going away. It has existed longer than the term has been around. The most we can do is make institutions more accepting spaces. Easier said than done.

Lostaunau has found a more tolerant environment at UCCS and feels comfortable speaking Spanish in public and even at work, she says. But she encourages others to not feel like they are “selling out” if they have to code-switch.

“The way you feel about your culture and your heritage, that’s your own personal feeling.”


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