As the days grow shorter and the weather grows colder, it’s time for coat-switching! What, you may ask, is coat-switching? It is a term, according to movie critic Peter Howell, “which means deliberately shifting cultural traits and vernacular to suit different circumstances”.
If you’re repeatedly re-reading this, it’s because the term used here is actually code-switch, as in Code Switch by NPR. Code-switching is something practically every minority does, but it’s perhaps best known within the Black community. To be more technical, it’s a linguistic term for switching between languages; think Spanglish. And increasingly, it’s being used by educators to help Black students view Black English as a legitimate language and not as “slang”. To quote Dave Chappelle, “every black American is bilingual. We speak street vernacular and we speak job interview.”
You don’t consciously learn it, but by living in a White-dominant culture, you learn workarounds to a system that devalues your own background. This affects minorities across the board–“Your English is so good” is something many Asian Americans and Black Americans have heard in life, although usually for different reasons. The assumption here is that the Asian person’s English is good for an immigrant, the Black person’s English is good for a Black person. Both assumptions are as harmful as they are ignorant.
Peter Howell’s mistake was hearing code-switch (a concept practically every person of color is aware of, at least subconsciously) as coat-switching. In fairness, it does make sense–you’re changing coats/identities depending on who you’re with. The editor of NPR’s Code Switch weighed in too, tweeting this last night:
In fairness, Howell edited his article after realizing his mistake. But the error connects to the larger idea that White America is really out of touch with what minorities see and experience; Fusion ran an article yesterday about this exact issue, focusing on white youth and youth of color. Until we can get people on the same page about what’s going on in the country, we’re going to keep having these major divides.
Slate’s Lexicon Valley has a great podcast episode exploring the history of Black English that’s worth a listen.
Stanford’s Geoffrey K Pullam wrote on Black English being seen as a language back in 1999–so no, this isn’t a Millennial “Everyone’s special” thing.