On Being Black Enough: Teaching Our Kids to Code Switch

November 7, 2014  |  

photo courtesy of: twitter.com/ceejaywallace

Our kids won’t always be around kids who look or were raised like them, and that can be a problem. A recently published article by a University of Buffalo Professor found that black girls who show stereotypically urban attitudes and behaviors when at their predominantly white high schools are  viewed as “loud” or “ghetto”, while their male counterparts are viewed as cool, masculine and athletic for exhibiting some of the same behaviors. Our kids have to learn code switching, an important skill that tells them how to speak in different settings. However, from my experience, code switching works both ways. There are some kids who aren’t able to make the adjustment when they are in more structured settings and then there are some kids who have a more difficult time adjusting to urban settings. My kids would fit into the latter category.

When my husband and I decided to purchase our first home in the same urban community we grew up in, we knew there would be both pros and cons to the decision. We made this choice for a few different reasons, the first being we wanted to remain close to our family support system and the second being that we wanted to reinvest in the community that incubated us when we really didn’t have much. Yes, we could afford to move to the suburbs, but we felt a sense of responsibility to become a part of the solution in bettering our community and not give in to urban flight. We found a great house on a picturesque street with a lot of suburban appeal. While our bet is finally paying off and we see the community being revitalized in numerous ways, the choice to “stay local” has had some drawbacks.

The local public schools in this area are failing, so we’ve had to enroll our girls in Catholic and charter schools.  In addition, our kids take dance classes, art classes and belong to junior sororities–all of which we have to go outside of our community to take advantage of. Since we’ve always stressed the use of proper grammar, enunciation and elocution, our kids do not have to necessarily code switch when they go to other communities with people of other backgrounds. They seem to fit right in. However, they don’t find it as easy to fit in when they encounter more stereotypically black/urban youth in urban settings, who have on several occasions, accused them of  “talking white” or not being “black enough”.

When we chose this neighborhood, we anticipated it would be a challenge to ensure our kids would get everything they needed right in their own community. The thing we didn’t’ expect them not to get was acceptance. I have very little patience for this kind of thinking, and really think we need to stop teaching our kids that white people have a monopoly on the accurate pronunciation of words and the use of good elocution – because they don’t.

My  husband and I have unapologetically raised our girls to communicate to the mainstream standard. We feel it is our job to ensure they can demonstrate a command of the English language just as well as their counterparts of other races in order to  remain competitive. This does not mean we walk around speaking all professorial, because we don’t. We’ve just made an effort to communicate with our girls in the manner that they will be expected to communicate in when they enter the real world.

However, how my children present and speak has proven to be a challenge when my kids attend a function or socialize in our neighborhood. For this reason, we’ve begun to teach our girls to be more relatable in their manner of speak when they’re in urban settings to keep them from becoming targets. This doesn’t mean we encourage them to totally deconstruct the way they speak, but we’ve made them more aware of urban vernacular should they need to add it to their lexicon, or to be able to understand what other kids are talking about when they’re in those settings.

My older daughter deals with the challenge more, since her school is comprised of black kids who range from across the socio-economic-spectrum. On one end, she’s expected to perform academically and interact with teachers according to the mainstream standard to make the grade, but she also knows she has to be relatable to the kids who might at times confuse her correctness as weakness. It’s a delicate dance, but through it all, she remains true to herself and is doing quite well.

Our  younger daughter attends a pre-dominantly black Catholic school, but we find that there are fewer issues there,  because the family structure and socio-economic status of those students are more similar to hers.

Although our kids have had to learn to reverse code-switch, they know they don’t ever have to prove to anyone that they are black enough or good enough. They just need to be themselves. Our primary concern remains making sure that when our girls are in situations where they need to elevate their language and demonstrate strong presentation skills they can do it with no problem. I am always proud when I see them rise to the occasion.

Do you teach your kids to code switch or worry about the other kids saying they’re not black enough?

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