CODE-SWITCHING, the unspoken, but much-practiced behavior for African-Americans who must fluidly navigate between Black and White worlds. We adjust our behavior, our dress, our speech to make white America feel comfortable, to signal, don’t be afraid, I am not like the others. I am not the shifty, lazy, ignorant negro you need to fear. A necessary strategy to advance financially, to be treated with respect, and even for our physical survival in the Anglo-Centric world that rules America.
Barack Obama was the master of Code-Switching, so much so that Joe Biden unwittingly praised him for it. “I mean, you got the first mainstream African-American who is articulate and bright and clean and a nice-looking guy.” President Obama understood that we could not arrive on our terms.
As a teenager heading out of my Afro-Caribbean Brooklyn neighborhood, I had my costume change stashed in my backpack. I couldn’t leave the neighborhood dressed up and risk being called out for trying to play white. I get off the train on the Upper Eastside, duck into the bathroom at McDonald’s, and changed into suede Clarks, chinos, and a button-down shirt.
Why? Because when I arrive at my white classmate’s house his parents will look at me and say he is “articulate, bright, and clean and a nice-looking guy.”
Code-Switching is the unfortunate narrative of being Black in America and we pay for it with the loss of our authentic self-expression.