Code-switching is a behavior people of color in the United States are all too familiar with doing. Code-switching for black LGBTQ people tends to have a much higher stake. I understand why a lot of Black LGBTQ people feel a need to code-switch: because it could be critical to our success and survival.
Some of you reading this piece may ask, “What is code-switching?” Code-switching is the practice of alternating between two or more languages, or language varieties, in the context of a conversation. It’s important to remember that all people code-switch. If you think about going to a formal dinner versus going to a basketball game, there may be language and behavior modifications.
Code-switching is exhausting.
For LGBTQ people of color, we know that our blackness, sexual orientation and gender identity may not be accepted in a lot of spaces. Oftentimes, we have to put on a mask to dilute our authentic selves. We learn to simultaneously exist in multiple spaces. For us, it’s all a part of who we are. You give your best “Valley girl” voice when the bill collector calls, for example.
When a black LGBTQ person cannot effectively code-switch, the consequences can be catastrophic. Young black gay men and trans women of color who get pulled over or stopped and frisked by the police can be used as an example. If they are not able to quickly conform and appear nonthreatening to the officers, it could cost them their lives.
People of color are oftentimes classified as “trouble” in most heteronormative, white spaces. This is why white people call the cops when they see something as benign as a black person waiting for a friend at Starbucks or a little black girl selling bottled water on a sidewalk. Black bodies, especially queer black bodies, should be loved and respected like all bodies and not forced to walk through the world riddled with anxiety.
I feel this anxiety every day because I want to be accepted where I live and work. Code-switching helps me navigate spaces but, I know at the end of the day, it’s not enough to overcome racism or homophobia.