Code Switching

Code switching was never a concept mentioned to me by my parents or peers. Interestingly enough, it ended up playing a major role in most of my childhood without me even realizing it.

Ever since I was a little girl, I had more opportunities than most kids around me. With my dad playing in the NFL, both my parents had the resources to put my siblings and me in the best schools in our area. When I was young, race was never a major factor I considered when it came to my friends.

To be completely honest, I didn’t realize I was any different from my peers until I got to middle school. Due to my parents getting divorced in 2010, my mom moved my siblings and me from Pleasonton, California, to New Rochelle, New York. Culture shock occurred when I enrolled in my fourth grade class in New Rochelle. Going from a primarily white school in California to one that was a complete mixture with Hispanic, white, Black, and Asian students was all new to me. My friends back at my old school in California were all white, with the exception of one Black friend.

To me, it was normal to be surrounded by my rich, white friends, and it didn’t seem to be an issue when I was a child. However, moving to New York changed my entire perspective on race and friendships. The elementary school I attended there had kids from so many different backgrounds. It amazed me.

Even though I was Black, I did not understand Black culture in the way that some of my peers did. Certain jokes and behaviors they shared resulted in me standing there, clueless, trying to understand what was going on. At the time, I thought the reason I did not have many friends was because I was the new kid. Looking back, it was probably because the culture was drastically different than at my old school in California and what I was accustomed to. My whole life, I had really only experienced being around one race of people: white.

 With the transition into my new school, I dealt with never feeling “Black enough” for my new friends in New York. Rather, I talked too properly, and I did not use or understand their slang. On many occasions, I would find myself being the laughing stock of the group.

None of these kids knew who my father was, and I would sometimes feel ashamed for being more privileged than most of the kids at my school. I thought that because I came from a more stable background than some of my peers, it would cause me to become an outsider. Instead of being proud of the comfortable lifestyle I was engulfed in, I found myself trying to fit in. I even lied about my parents’ occupations.

As I entered middle school, I was able to find a group of friends that suited my past. Most importantly, I found a group of girls I resonated with who reminded me of my friends from California. They were all white and rich. Hanging out with them, I began to feel like a totally different person. I tried to braid my hair like theirs and wear the same clothes they did because I didn’t know any better.

At the time, I did not understand that I was code switching. Depending on who I was with, I would alternate between “being Black” and trying to “be white.” As a young kid, this felt all normal to me. I thought that being friends with people meant that you were supposed to take on their characteristics and behavior.

But what I failed to realize was that I cannot be someone else, and that I should not be ashamed of my skin color. I was trying to be like people who were a whole different race, which resulted in me not wanting to be Black anymore. I wished to have lighter skin with pin straight hair because my 11-year-old self believed that straight hair was much easier to take care of and that it was more attractive than my natural hair.

Throughout my middle school years, a drastic transition would happen. The experiences in middle school would begin to mold and shape me to the person I am today, but they also took a toll on me as a child.

 In 7th grade, I was asked to join the varsity basketball team for the local high school. The high school in my town was a melting pot, and the majority of the kids were Black. There was a huge age difference between my teammates and me: girls were turning 17 and 18, and I was only 13 years old. Between me and the other girls on the basketball team, there was a social disconnect. Despite our similar skin, hair, and physical features, I felt alienated when I was around them. Getting made fun of because I talked too properly, or because I did not come from the same background as the other girls felt so isolating. This made me feel like no one around me could relate to what I was going through. I had to learn to be comfortable in my own skin and to appreciate the different races and cultures I was exposed to as well as my own.

It wasn’t until high school that I realized the importance of understanding and appreciating my authenticity. The way I wear my hair, the way I was raised, and my background all played a part in molding me into the person I am today. I was not born in a Black neighborhood, instead moving around from state to state. Thus, I found myself engaging with people of all different races, even if I did not necessarily bond or connect with them. These opportunities and experiences taught me a lot about myself, but more importantly, they taught me that race is a huge factor in the world we live in. 

Code switching was never a concept mentioned to me by my parents or peers. Interestingly enough, it ended up playing a major role in most of my childhood without me even realizing it. Code switching has a correlation to misunderstandings about race. Many don’t recognize that it is harmful to think less of one’s own race due to what society tells us as children and even as adults, which is alarming.

I believe that race is a subject that everyone needs to learn about regardless of age. It will help people learn about the importance of being yourself, and, more importantly, being comfortable being authentic. An incorrect and distorted ideology regarding race can take a real toll when no one talks about the many untrue beliefs surrounding it.

When I was a child, I firmly believed that I was never “white enough” or “Black enough,” when in reality there was nothing wrong with me. In society, many view race as the decision maker, and it puts restrictions on people’s ability to be friends with different types of people. For instance, some people believe that having all Black friends means you’re “ghetto,” or having all white friends means you are “bougie” or “too proper.” In reality, we can be friends with whoever we want, and we deserve the freedom to do so without a label being put on us.

Children especially need to be taught to stand firm in their culture and to be true to who they are. Just because you are friends with people of one race, does not mean you have to conform to everything that they do. As the next generation, it is our job to inform the kids after us to be proud of their own identity, and learn about race for what it truly is, and not what society makes it.

Copyright Dom Darius 2020

Dom Darius

Dom took Race in America as a junior. She is a member of the class of 2021.