EDITOR’S NOTE: This story was developed in the writing program at Youth Communication, a nonprofit publisher of true stories that give readers insight into the issues that matter most to young people. Readers can help support the future of teen writers with a tax-deductible donation to Youth Communication.
The first time I realized I was code-switching, I was making an appointment over the phone while sitting on the couch with my 14-year-old niece. My voice became higher and more gentle, and I purposely avoided saying certain words that would emphasize my accent.
When I got off the phone, she asked, “Why were you talking like that?” I didn’t immediately answer, so my mother, who’d been listening from the kitchen, answered instead. “She’s trying to sound professional.” I felt a mix of emotions; pride in myself for being able to sound professional, but also embarrassment that my way of speaking changed so drastically that it was noticeable.
NPR defines “the practice of shifting the languages you use or the way you express yourself in your conversations” as code-switching. It can include changing languages, dialects, accents, and tones of voice. Although we’ve never discussed it in my family, I have adopted this more conventional and measured way of talking that I call “my appointment voice.” I have observed my older sisters doing it when they are taking a work call or making a doctor’s appointment, because our accent is embarrassing at times and is not considered professional-sounding or intelligent.
This idea that my accent is a joke is another reason I code-switch. This summer, I was at a friend’s party and she asked me in front of some other friends that I didn’t know, “Can you talk like your dad?” I knew she meant my dad’s stereotypical Italian accent that most people find amusing. “Yeah, but mainly I just do that when I’m talking to him,” I said. “Oh my God, I have to hear it,” she said. I froze. I didn’t know what to do. I felt like I was on stage expected to perform a magic trick. But this wasn’t a magic trick; it was the way my dad talks. I felt like I would be making fun of my dad’s accent, which was occasionally my own. It felt disrespectful. Luckily another friend noticed my discomfort and changed the subject.
I also use words that make me sound more intellectual and that I wouldn’t use in my day-to-day life. In fact, I use it so much that only some of my closest friends have heard what I refer to as my “home accent,” which is mixed with Spanish and Italian words. I use phrases like bendito (which could be used in many different contexts but overall means blessed) and Ay Dios mío (oh Lord). When I’m home or with close friends, I don’t feel like I’m being judged.
Code-switching is more than changing some words that you use and slightly altering your accent. I am abandoning a piece of my identity. People’s accents and dialects often represent where they are from, and I feel like a part of me is trapped when I code-switch.
My dad refuses to do this. He was born in the Bronx. His grandparents and uncle immigrated from Sicily, and his mom’s family came from Holland and has lived in America since the 1700s. He points out the old buildings he used to work and live in around the Italian American and Latinx areas of Bensonhurst and Coney Island in Brooklyn. He has a thick, stereotypical Italian accent, one you might see in The Sopranos, GoodFellas, or The Godfather. He talks with his hands, he talks loudly, and he’s very straightforward. My dad doesn’t try to hide his accent when talking to anyone, including his boss. I always found this strange, because TV and society taught me that this was unprofessional.
My father doesn’t code-switch. One day I asked him why he talks to his boss in an aggressive tone. He looked at me and said, “That’s just how I talk.” I tried to explain to him that when you’re talking to your boss you should sound more professional. His reply was, “Why should I change for him?” I knew that he was right.
My dad says he grew up during a time where southern Italian immigrants faced a lot of prejudice. They were viewed as criminals that took away jobs and weren’t considered “white.” My father takes pride in getting through these struggles, but doesn’t like other people telling his story. I asked his permission to talk about him for this piece and he said, “Go ahead. I’m not ashamed of who I am. The way I talk shows where I’m from and I’m proud of it.”
The media has taught me that code-switching is a necessity, especially in the professional world. Examples of these play out in films like Pretty Woman and Maid in Manhattan. Lower-class women enter an upper-class lifestyle and the way they talk and dress changes. They did this both for love and respect. These movies portray code-switching as a way to climb the social ladder and appear more intelligent.
Having to code-switch is particularly sexist and racist for Black women. When any woman uses slang or a strong tone of voice, she can be seen as uneducated and hostile. When a Black woman expresses her opinion using an aggressive tone, she’s seen as an angry Black woman instead of a passionate one. When a person from a lower class uses slang, they are seen as uneducated, but when a person from the upper class uses slang, they’re hip.
These stereotypes prevent authentic self-expression. We are silencing a part of ourselves so others don’t see us as inferior. I’ve accepted that I’ll have to continue to switch between the accent I was raised with, and the accent I am expected to have. While applying to colleges, there is a lot of pressure to impress people, from admissions officers to professors and potential classmates. If changing the way I talk is going to help me get into my dream college, then I’ll do it. I can’t afford to take that chance.