What exactly is code switching? I do not have an academic definition for you, what I do have is my own life experiences and fears.
Children learn at a young age what is safe and what is not safe. They act out in ways that will keep them safe—and loved—and avoid things that will put them in danger—and rejected. You learn that “being in trouble” equates to not being loved and you act accordingly. It is why when you are a kid and you begin saying your first cuss words, you do not say them around your mom who will either spank you or wash your mouth out with soap.
When I was a child my mother ran a daycare out of her home. She was good at her job and the wealthy families in our small town all trusted her and left their kids at my house five days a week to be babysat while they were at work. This meant that I shared my living space with almost all the wealthy kids in town growing up. Since I was a small child I thought that meant that all these kids were my friends.
It was not until I was in the 6th grade that I realized, and maybe they realized it too, that I was not their friend but the daughter of the help. Suddenly these kids with whom I’d spent my early childhood acted like they did not know me. They were all teenagers by then and no longer in need of a babysitter so they no longer knew me either.
Being a 12-year-old and not really understanding class and race, I just thought that I did not act right and so they no longer loved me. That is when I began to act out. I had a lot of other issues going on at the same time, all of which made a hot mess of my teen years. It all came to an end when I got pregnant with my first child.
I became a mother at age 16.
That brought back a lot of things I had learned while in the houses of the wealthy families for which my mother babysat, when they would extend an invitation here or one there to spend some time with them on their ranch or to go swimming in their pools. None of those invitations were for anything real like birthday parties or family functions, just random weekends and summer afternoons.
They taught me how to “have manners” and “be polite”. Also how to sit still and not draw attention to myself. How not to answer questions with long monologues (which comes naturally to me). I was told over and over to sit down, be still, don’t talk too much and do not be so loud. It conditioned me to be very aware of how I presented myself in certain situations.
I shared my living space with almost all the wealthy kids in town growing up. Since I was a small child I thought that meant that all these kids were my friends.
That may sound normal, but that’s the point. For me, it was part of a long, slow process of learning to be ashamed of my loud, exuberant culture and put on the behaviors and attitudes of a culture in which being nice and quiet is prized. I was learning to inhabit “White space”.
I was not allowed to speak Spanish in school after the second grade and I was sent to speech class to get rid of the lingering Spanish accent making it clear to me that I had to rid myself of anything that remotely sounded or looked or felt un-American. Those lessons all followed me into adulthood. This is code switching.
It is when you make yourself safe for White people so that you, as a Brown or Black person, also stay safe. One wrong move and you will make White people angry and that is dangerous. I was also taught that growing up. Angry white people can be deadly. All you have to do is read a history book on lynching in this country. And in Texas, where I was born and raised, it was not just Black people but Mexicans who were the target of White Rage. It almost never looks like lynching though in my life.
In my life it is tears, it is shame and it is the everlasting need to perform.
When I show up to a White space, which is every single space except my shower, since I am married to a White man and have three half-White children, I have to show up holding a lot of myself in. I have to speak clearly and correctly. I have to make sure I am using the right words in the right places. This is one reason that I can write well even though my grammar sucks. I’ve spent a lifetime making sure that I use words in the right way to convey the right things.
I also have to make sure not to dress too sexy (which could mean anything really, depending on what size I am at the time). If I am thin and have been working out then I might as well wear a tent because anything I wear will be too much. I am not ugly but I have gained a lot of weight just so I do not have to worry about looking “too hot” which always means having White men speak to me in Spanish, the language stolen from me when I was a child.
[Code switching] is when you make yourself safe for White people so that you, as a Brown or Black person, also stay safe. One wrong move and you will make White people angry and that is dangerous. I was also taught that growing up.
I also have to control my passion for any given subject, especially Selena because it gets looks—looks you only know if you are “one of those Mexicans”. If you pass the test then you get the award of being told just how much “not one of those” Mexicans you are and it feels like you betrayed something deep inside.
I can’t be too loud, too happy, too cheerful, too gloom and doom or too much of anything.
When I walk out of the shower or my car (if I am alone) and step out of the space where I can just be me, into the White space that is everything else, I have to put on so much that it feels like I am putting on a whole other person and carrying her around with me all day. That is code switching to me. The carrying around of the person who is acceptable all day long until I can find my way back to my own space and peel her off me so I can breathe.
Leticia Ochoa Adams writes from Texas, on life, death, grief, suicide, faith, motherhood, doubts and whatever (else) happens to be on her mind.
This page is available to subscribers. Click here to sign in or get access.