Behind the Scenes: A Conversation on “Code Switching”


Back in late June 2013, three members of Culture on the Edge had a conversation on Facebook about the category “code switching” (nicely exemplified in the above Key & Peele skit, featuring Luther, President Obama’s “anger translator” [watch it below]), a conversation that later led to two blog posts on our site, referencing this conversation (here and here) and, ultimately, to Monica Miller conceiving of a workshop at Lehigh University, funded by a Collaborative Research Grant from its The Humanities Center — an opportunity that will involve Lehigh faculty members, James Peterson, Associate Professor of English and Director of Africana Studies, Jackie Krasas, Associate Professor of Anthropology and Sociology and Director of Women, Gender and Sexuality Studies, along with three of her Edge colleagues: Merinda Simmons, Leslie Dorrough Smith, and Vaia Touna — all of whom work on identity and language, but in very different domains and historical periods.

We hope that the following conversation — spruced up a bit for public consumption — helps to set the stage for some of the early thinking that may be in the background of the workshop, which takes place in April 2014 (more news on that coming soon).

6/29, 4:45pm
Russell McCutcheon
Ok, I have a query: it strikes me that, despite how many use it, “code switching” is a profoundly imperial category, one that perpetuates certain notions of race (when it is applied to studying some instances of African American English), while seemingly only describing them, yet no one realizes it.

What do you think?

My logic: much like the way the category “creole” normalizes that which is itself a variety by portraying only some languages “as” mixes (when in fact they are all mixes), “code switching” names and distinguishes a specific domain of linguistic variation but within a larger domain that is itself all variation to begin with — that is, all language (in fact, all signification) is a system of nimble code switching, making “code switching” simply synonymous with language itself, much as creole is actually synonymous with culture (though it is used to name, to single out, only some of the blends, portraying all others as, what? Homogenous norms?).

While we can debate degrees variation, perhaps (though I’m not confident with that either, since who says what end of the continuum is “the end” or is “too far,” etc.), we seem only to name some language practice “as” code switching when it is understood as non-dominant language that can be demonstrated to be different when the non-dominant agent interacts with dominants vs interacting within other members of the marginal community itself. In other words, by defining itself in reference to presumed dominance, “code switching” normalizes that dominance as reference point, “as if” it is a homogenous, uniform, stable language system (when, in fact, we all  code switch all the time, right? I speak to students differently than to my wife and my dad and my friends…), whereas only the non-dominant position is seen as being spry and witty to out-fox the master narrative… But we’re all doing it, all the time, no?

While I can understand the desire to re-agentify (what a terrible term I just invented) marginal social actors, i.e., as doing something more active and far more strategic and inventive than just “speaking English poorly” (as some might have once proposed), doesn’t this focus oddly reproduce their marginality by arguing for something unique happening at this one site that is, in fact, everywhere already?

Case in point: “My Fair Lady” is all about code switching, no?

But not just Eliza Doolittle is doing it, right? So it would be nice to demonstrate how the males here do it too, when they’re talking to her, their household staff, each other in private, in public, etc. — just that “their” switching doesn’t necessarily catch “our” ears because “we” are used to navigating (i.e., ignoring, assuming as natural, etc.) some variations inasmuch as this posited “we” identifies with “them”… Thus that very overlooking/focusing is the technique that makes groups, that makes a sense of we and not them. No?

What do you think of this…?

6/29, 4:49pm
Merinda Simmons
I think you’re on to something here, R.

6/29, 4:56pm
Russell McCutcheon
The simple question, then: Whose variation gets to count as a variation…? Surely locals here in Alabama talk differently to the other presumed locals as opposed to talking to me. (And is there even any one form of “local” talk here? Isn’t my saying that already part of the problem, a process of overlooking what others might see as distinction [“I’m from north Alabama…”], whereby I create the notion of a uniform thing called “Alabama”?!) Is that code switching or politeness? Is a multi-lingual person code switching when moving between languages or are they just “bilingual”? Thus when does what we call code switching become a dialect and when does a dialect become a language…? I’m not talking social evolution of language, here, but classification. Like evolutionary theorists who presume “species” is a real thing, that we have to then describe the right way, instead of understanding themselves, as classifiers, as being the ones who create species by making decisions on where to draw the distinctions! (Thus my problem with evolutionary theory’s presumption that it is a rigorous empirical science, in a nutshell.)

I worked for 4 months in Newfoundland, in far eastern Canada, and sometimes couldn’t understand a word — this is a great example. Is this code switching? If not, why not?

6/29, 5:06pm
Monica Miller
Good convo y’all! I too think you’re on to something, R.

6/29, 5:15pm
Russell McCutcheon
So we use “code switching” as a neutral descriptive term when, in fact — as one might predict as soon as we begin to see description as always situated and interested and thus constitutive — it is deeply normative and is itself an identification technique; for labeling just some linguistic practices as code switching, as nimble, as adaptive, as being in power situations of identification, is doing all kinds of socially formative work among possible languages and identities, presuming heterogeneous vs. homogenous, marginal vs. dominant, spry vs. ossified, intentional vs. non-intentional, subject vs. object, us vs. them, etc.

6/29, 8:23pm
Merinda Simmons
Okay, a couple of things:

First, there’s a similar point in your costume blog post, Russell, yes? In that example, the dominant (necktie wearers) are thought to be untethered (beyond?) ideology.  Thus, there is privilege in the invisible norm here. This is opposed to (or in addition to?) the way people have rightly talked about invisibility to signify their marginalization or lack of place in society — I’m thinking of Ralph Ellison‘s Invisible Man.   What ends up casting invisibility as privileged is its status as norm and thus its taken-for-granted-ness. So, with code switching, yes, the norm is thought somehow to be uncoded.  Here’s a quirky colloquial turn, by the way: I’ve always talked about this phrase we’re using as “code shifting”! There’s potentially something to think about in terms of whether the process is thought of as a switch one turns one and off or as a crafty two-step…though maybe that’s just trying to talk degrees, which I think you are right to say is a limited/perhaps even impossible endeavor…

There’s a second part of this issue at work here, too — that even though the dominant is without or beyond codification, it is somehow also the irreducible language which other codes translate back to. That is, while the dominant gets invisible norm status, it offers a very specific and governed set of rules to aid in the translation/conversion of non-dominant codes. I’m thinking here of the Standard Written English that we teach in composition courses and the debates over whether and how to incorporate other codes (specifically when I was teaching such classes, Ebonics and Spanglish) into the course content. Do we allow other modes of discourse to “count” in such settings? Should a student be able to write in her own dialect/linguistic system? By way of pacifying students, teachers often use the adage, “You’ve got to know the rules before you can break them.” But that’s just it — right there, we admit that there are rules (and again, very specific and hotly contested ones if we’re talking rules of grammar) to the dominant system but nonetheless treat it as the obvious/neutral norm.

Lots of people have said to me when I say I’m coming “from” Alabama: “You’re from Alabama? But you don’t have an accent!” I’ve often thought about the interesting implication imbedded in the notion of having no accent… It’s like the way people talk about newscasters who aim to have as “neutral” an accent as possible (to have widest appeal/resonance).

Okay, last point (for now). In relation to race theory, when you said “whereas the non-dominant is seen as being spry and witty to out-fox the master narrative…”, I start thinking of Audre Lorde‘s famously saying that “The master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house.” It’s a tricky thing, of course, because demonstration of proficient use of the proverbial master’s tools has tended to be a prerequisite for any sort of social mobility (Frederick Douglass‘s pivotal reading instruction, Toussaint L’Ouverture‘s literacy and use of ideological claims from French Revolution in order to lead the Haitian Revolution, etc). So, yes, scholars tend to see the non-dominant as crafty in the undoing or reappropriation of dominant codes…, but such acts are invariably (necessarily?) cast in light of that dominant structure, thus reifying its seeming neutral and obvious privilege.

6/30, 5:02am
Russell McCutcheon
Sounds to me like a blog post is forming here….

So yes, a dominant or non-dominant person employing a term like “code switching” to name just some signifying practices is itself a pretty crafty hegemonic technique…. I think of the term “switch hitter” in baseball, which makes obvious the norm of not doing it (that is, the switch hitter is the anomaly, for good or bad), but, in fact, no one bats the same way twice — they’re all switching and shifting around, adapting to pitchers and coaches’ signals, and thus situations, but some differences are tolerated within a zone of changeability that allows them to seem “the same” while others are, those that deviate from that norm “too much,” judged “different.” And voila, we’re back to Jonathan Z. Smith and his essay on what differences counts as a difference….

6/30, 4:16pm
Merinda Simmons
Hmm…, sounds like a blog post to me, too.

What difference counts as difference indeed… It’s been really interesting being here in British Columbia writing for the summer and having conversations with folks who are from this part of Canada. When people (whether here in BC or elsewhere, for that matter) hear that I’m a professor in Alabama, they ask specifically about the racial demographics of the classes I teach — racism is quickly and inextricably linked to the region in which I work. They shake their heads when I talk about race politics, what kinds of things we’re still working out legislatively, etc., but that disappointment carries with it a kind of “what-can-one-do?” resignation, presuming the American South to be the sole receptacle of racism in North America.

6/30, 4:23pm
Merinda Simmons
In other words, I’m thinking of that “zone of changeability”… Race “problems” (and thus, “race” at all — because if we’re not talking about problems/injustice, we’re apparently not talking about race — and then, we’re back to the privilege of invisibility) are a thing thought to only belong to a certain region. That’s where they make sense…

6/30, 4:41pm
Russell McCutcheon

6/30, 4:52pm
Monica Miller
This is an interesting conversation, and I think both of you have nailed many of the moving parts of the discourse that is code switching. I agree with you Merinda that even the language of “switching” is problematic in that it assumes some practice that comes with an off-on switch — hence why so much of the discourse around it assumes a problematic dose of intentionality — something that requires the individual to be aware of what “codes” are operative in any given setting.

For example, I’ve had some people tell me that I know how to code switch in a way that they can’t seem to do. What they’re reading as a switch that they think I subversively turn off/on is nothing that extraordinary, rather, a product of the environment in which I was raised.

What has been largely problematic for me in the discourse on code switching (and already touched upon here by the both of you) is that it’s always seen as (or assumed to be) something learned and practiced by “marginal” identities (and thus celebrated as some radical technique of mobility and access).

But I wonder if what is largely understood (and often celebrated) as code switching is just another way to talk about, say, the acquisition of various forms of social capital — what is viewed as dominant capital in particular.

6/30, 4:55pm
Monica Miller
A while back, someone showed this clip from “The Wire” in a presentation, as an example of habitus and the lack of the ability for these young people to “code switch”:

6/30, 4:59pm
Monica Miller
And then there’s the whole fiasco around Rachel Jeantel‘s testimony in the George Zimmerman trial (and her inability to speak “proper” English and read cursive writing) — this is being propped up in a similar manner.

6/30, 4:59pm
Merinda Simmons
Yowza…, this great blog post is starting to sound like brainstorming notes for a co-authored article… I’m down if anyone else is game….

6/30, 5:01pm
Monica Miller
Great idea — I’m game!

More will soon be posted about the upcoming Lehigh University
workshop on “code switching.”

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