American politician Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (AOC) was recently filmed giving a speech to a mainly black audience in a ‘fake accent’ that was accused of pandering. She hit back at the claims and said she grew up in the Bronx, one of the most diverse places in New York, and her passion led her to talk in a way that some have said is ‘black-sounding’.
In sociolinguistics, this can be called style switching – though it may be referred to as code-switching – when you alter the way you sound to suit your audience. Many people defended AOC, saying she was merely style switching because she felt more comfortable with her crowd and didn’t need to put up her usual work facade.
Others said she was doing ‘black speak’ and sounded like she was trying to imitate Martin Luther King. But whether AOC was wrong or right, is she alone in altering tone when talking to minority groups, specifically black people, whether to gain kudos, solidarity or just to appear ‘cooler’? This might include using words like ‘girl’ in conversations with black women or borrowing terms such as ‘bye, Felicia’.
For people of colour, code-switching is often about survival and not being othered. Non-black people who alter their language to ‘sound more black’ are style switching to fit in with black crowds and gain kudos from them. Sometimes this is for profit, such as when celebs adopt a ‘blaccent’ to enter the hip-hop scene and find a new audience.
While white people might gain popularity for ‘speaking black’, black people commonly have to tone down their blackness to fit into mainstream circles. It’s not just white people who are guilty of style switching when talking to black people. Other minorities can be guilty of style switching, sometimes doing so under the assumption of shared trauma and experience. Take non-black people believing they’re allowed to use the n-word, simply because they are not white, for example.
Writer Tasha Pierce says she hates the term ‘talking black’ as it ascribes certain ideas of blackness. But regardless, she doesn’t want non-black people doing it. Tasha tells Metro.co.uk:
‘”Talking black” is not a privilege that everyone has – black people can’t even “talk black”, and have to code-switch to the “norm” just to avoid harsh assumptions. ‘Code-switching is a natural adjustment to sound like the accepted norm and it is something I do daily just to survive. It is something I was taught in school by teachers who told me that I would not be able to get far in life if I “spoke black”. ‘It taught me that sounding like an “urban Londoner” was less than. ‘So of course, if somebody [non-black] switches up their accent and uses phrases that they clearly don’t usually use to address me, I feel irritated because whether they know it or not, they are telling me that I am unable to comprehend English. Style switching is very different from code-switching.’
When people style switch, it’s often done without malicious intent. Instead it’s an attempt to connect and show empathy. Tony Thorne, a linguist at King’s College London tells Metro.co.uk:
‘Whatever the reason for style-shifting I would say that it should almost never be criticised. It would only be questionable if it was condescending as with a posh person adopting a “working class” accent when talking to tradespeople for example. ‘It can be overdone or done inappropriately. Some people might accuse style-shifters of appropriation but it all depends on the speaker’s intention. If it’s to claim the other’s identity to exploit it, it’s bad. if it’s in order to form a bond, it’s good.’ When you match someone’s style of speaking, it can foster connection and confer kudos.
But when we assign a certain way of talking to black people and then attempt to imitate it when engaging with them, we reduce and other them. Style switching in this context can be seen to suggest that we have to ‘dumb down’ by speaking in language familiar to black people, as though listeners won’t be able to understand our normal way of speaking.
We cannot forget that black people are berated for being black while we are free to pick parts of their culture that we deem acceptable. Before we take on another person’s style of speech, we have to be aware of our position of privilege and question why we feel the need to switch up how we speak. Remember that for people of colour, code-switching can be a means of survival. If your natural style of speaking brings you privilege, why would you need to change it, and what does it suggest when you do?
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Written By: Faima Bakar