Stef (firecat) wrote,

Wiscon Panel: Code-switching

[The Twitter hashtag #Codeswitching has GREAT notes about this panel. Other people also use the hashtag so scroll back or search for #Codeswitching and #Wiscon40 or #wc40.]

Code switching

A discussion of how, why, and when a person code-switches — i.e., changes their language, words, accents, and thoughts depending on their audience. As fans, activists, writers, family members, and friends, how do we use code-switching to communicate? Can code-switching be useful in communicating across cultures, or is it disrespectful?

[My notes definitely don't use the actual words of the panelists. I welcome corrections. My comments and additional links in square brackets.]

Nisi Shawl
Andrea Hairston
Isabel Schecter @MsUppityness
Shareef Jackson

[Arrived 5 mins late, missed some intros]

Nisi Shawl said that her specialty as a writing teacher is "conscious code switching." [Nisi and Tempest teach a class called Writing The Other. A description of the class is here, although this particular class is full:]

Andrea Hairston is a theater director and professor of theater. She said that in theater there is no standard language. "We are all always code switching."

Nisi said that code-switching isn't just about your words, accent, and thought, it's also about how you use your body.

"AND HOW LOUD YOU ARE," shouted Andrea.

Isabel Schecter, who is Puerto Rican, talked about Spanish, which has two forms of second person (tú and usted) pronoun depending on whether you're speaking to an intimate or an acquaintance or stranger. [T-V distinction–V_distinction] Isabel said there are multiple layers to this distinction—a person might use tú with a friend but usted with an acquaintance, someone in a position of authority, someone older, or someone to whom they wish to show respect.

Isabel also mentioned that there are regional variations in Spanish, and that can create complications even among people who all speak Spanish. She recently made a mistake at an event where a lot of people spoke Mexican Spanish. She used a word that means "take" in Puerto Rican Spanish but means "fuck" in Mexican Spanish. She also needs to change her accent when talking with Mexican Spanish speakers and consciously pronounce some words and sounds that aren't pronounced in Puerto Rican Spanish. She said this is hard work, but she doesn't judge people and think "They should speak Puerto Rican."

Shareef Jackson said that he works in corporate America and when he meets another POC it's a question whether they will interact as people who share a culture or as people who don't know each other.

Amanda talked about Yat []. She said that when you pass someone you are expected to say "how ya doing" and the standard reply is "how ya doing". If someone replies, for example, "I'm well," that is an unexpected response and can be confusing.

Isabel discussed the sitcom Black-ish, which includes an episode called "The Nod." The nod was what you used to do when you noticed another black person in a white environment, but it's not used as often now.

[See also The Nod: A Subtle Lowering of the Head You Give to Another Black Person in an Overwhelmingly White Place" by Musa Okwonga]

Andrea said that growing up in 50s, doing the nod was important because you wanted to know who was on your team — it could be life and death. By the 80s, no one was nodding, because the attitude in the 80s was "We're all in it for ourselves."

Andrea talked about her novel Mindscape, in which one character spoke black English and was a physics major. People criticized the character saying "she sounds stupid" — certain language can mark you as stupid. But most thoughts aren't in words. Thinking and language are separate. Nevertheless some people think nonstandard language is "stupid" even if they speak several languages.

Nisi said that you can have problems getting published if your characters speak nonstandard English. So she mostly hasn't written characters like that, but she is currently collaborating with Nalo Hopkinson on something.

Andrea mentioned Nalo Hopkinson's book Midnight Robber, which uses three different vernaculars.

Amanda talked about living in Boston, where her neighbor never spoke to her, except one time when the local team won the SuperBowl. Then her neighbor hugged her and they talked. They haven't spoken since.

She said she grew up in the 80s, when people believed in individualism and thought "we're post racism," and there was a move away from the nod, but now there is a shift back, depending on how much oppression you're aware of. She described herself as a "baby writer" and said that she hadn't written in black English, because she likes to keep that close to her heart, except when she writes about her feelings.

Nisi said that in her new novel, Everfair, which is "Belgian Congo steampunk," there are eleven viewpoint chars, and each chapter is in a different narrative style.

Andrea talked about how language helps certain thoughts; for example, you can't think the same ways in English and German; you name and order the world in different ways. She also mentioned how minstrel shows used fake "darkie dialect" language to signify stupidity. Some people confuse AAVE (African American Vernacular English) with darkie dialect.

Isabel talked about living in Barcelona and encountering someone who assumed Puerto Rican Spanish isn't Spanish. She also encountered colonialist attitudes about Spain being superior and its former colonies being corrupted. It often didn't occur to Spanish people that she could be from someplace other than Europe, so everyone thought she was from the Canary Islands. The dialect Puerto Ricans speak is similar to the dialect of the Canary Islands because that's where Columbus left from and a lot of his crew were from there.

Shareef talked about a project he did on "how hip hop can teach you to code", which included AAVE. Some people didn't understand his choice to use AAVE, but his target audience said it was helpful.

Amanda said that power/oppression lines determine whether vernacular is accepted or not. Vernacular is a form of resistance to oppression, but sometimes we're punched for resisting. And everyone has a right to create in-group safe space.

Andrea called for reclaiming language in public rather than leaving it inside safe space. She said we have to change what is safe, not just find space that is currently safe. AAVE has changed English. Language is of the people.

Nisi talked about doing a reading in which characters were speaking in black English, and people kept laughing even though the scene was not supposed to be funny. They had learned that dialect was for humor. She remembers how as a kid she would make fun of white standard speech, e.g., by singing "I can't get any satisfaction." She said that people who want to treat code switching respectfully should practice, listen, research, ask for feedback, and acknowledge their privilege.

Isabel said that she has light skin privilege and sometimes hears people making fun of dialect because they don't realize she is Latina. She used not to speak up about it, but now she does speak up; she uses her privilege to challenge them. She pointed out that language creates reality, and you create a world thru language. If you say it enough times it becomes true. So be the voice who says no.

Audience member from Texas commented that her vernacular is not her safe space because her politics are different from those of most of the people who share her vernacular.

Question asked: Is code switching a privilege?

Andrea talked about how code switching creates a cognitive load because you have to think more about what you're saying.

Isabel said that she used to try not to have an accent, and when I stopped doing that, it felt like a big burden was lifted.

Nisi said that everyone can code switch, but some forms are easier than others.

Andrea said that we are all capable of multiple languages, but there is additional cognitive load when some language is valued over others socially.

Shareef said that it's sometimes a privilege to be able to code switch, especially in business or professional work.

Question asked: [I didn't hear this question. On Twitter @sqiouyilu said it was "does the trend in the 80s of not head-nodding and code-switching have to do with integration?"]

Amanda said that in the 80s people believed that if we assimilate, we can achieve more, but that is a lie. Losing our language is not worth the sacrifice and it doesn't work.

Andrea said that language is one thing, but who you are perceived to be also matters. She brought up studies that show if a name that looks black or female is on a resume, that resume will get less interest. She said that we are a pluralistic society, not a "beige mush".
[Article about the study: "‘Whitening’ the Résumé" by Michael Luo]

Isabel said that there are different definitions of success. She was poor, and was the first person in her family to go to college. She now has privilege and success, but she can't cook her own culture's food, and said she considers herself "a failure as a Puerto Rican."

Someone said that we haven't figured out how to educate ourselves as a pluralistic society. We "keep trying to standardize away our differences".

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