So, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (AOC) got some heat – shocker – for allegedly using a southern, “Black”-tinged drawl while speaking at Reverend Al Sharpton’s National Action Network event last week. Atlantic Editor John McWhorter wrote an interesting piece defending AOC, saying that she slipped into a pattern of speech that is likely entirely natural given her upbringing in close proximity to Black Americans in the Bronx – that basically she was code switching.
If you don’t know what that is, look it up. It’s a reality for people of color – a price of doing business I like to say, especially for those of us who work in corporate America. I’ve done it before, sometimes I still do it, and it often happens quite naturally. At its root, it’s a way to connect with people who you may not have intimate knowledge of – or a marked connection with – having perhaps grown up in a different neighborhood, cultural setting or socioeconomic bracket.
For a long time, I thought code switching was coat switching. I misheard the common phrase, but my version made perfect sense because when you do it – and many people of color do it regularly – you are essentially shaking off one mantle and donning another, however briefly, in order to communicate effectively with a particular audience.
People of color may do it multiple times each day as they navigate between professional and personal life in a bid to retain some of their original self and still get ahead in environments where that authentic self is deemed unfamiliar, or more precisely, less than. White people do it too. The problem appears when non-black people do it because they’re trying and failing to connect with black people in an authentic and truthful way.
We should not forget that language is a fluid construct, and while I would abhor any person who deliberately tries to use BS ebonics to connect with Black audiences, I’m not sure that we can hit AOC with that tarred brush for two reasons: her background and the fact that she did exactly what people of color do in a similar situation: she peppered her speech with little bits and pieces that helped her to connect to her audience.
From the clips I saw, she didn’t overdo it. She wasn’t trying too hard. It didn’t seem particularly forced or unnatural. Code switching – or coat switching as I like to call it – is a fact of life for people of color, and AOC is a person of color from a certain background where such speech patterns are not unfamiliar. Granted, I didn’t watch her entire speech, but from what I read, her audience didn’t react negatively. If they had, that would have been a telltale sign that she was out of order.
I’ll be the first to say that far too many high profile people in positions of influence make the mistake of trying to use ebonics, or whatever their inauthentic version of “talking black is,” in order to connect with black audiences. That’s sad. It’s pathetic, shallow and completely unnecessary. To do so assumes that a black audience won’t understand their message if they speak in their normal cadence with their usual vocabulary. Or, more baldly, that black people are too dumb to understand normal speech that’s not sprinkled with slang, broken English or curse words. Or, that speaking that way is all that’s needed to sway us to your side of the fence. Um, no.
Based on what I saw of her speech, I think AOC slipped into a slower, drawling cadence that mimicked the pulpit rhythm she’s likely observed Reverend Sharpton and others like him – or those in her Bronx stomping ground – use. And for those who want to say oh, but she didn’t grow up in the Bronx; she grew up in Westchester County. Listen. For minorities, shuttling between two places because you’ve family and connections on the low end, but your parents moved to a new area so you could go to a better school and perhaps avoid violence or other negative influences, is not a new thing. That very situation is one reason that code switching exists, and AOC understands code switching. Look at the tweets she sent around April 6th:
“Next time you‘re told straight hair is “unprofessional” & that speaking like your parents do is “uneducated,” then you can complain about code-switching. Code switching is a tool communities learn when they’re told their voice, appearance, & mannerisms are “unprofessional.”
“We see the perceived “costs” to not code-switching all the time. Can’t tell you how many young people in our community don’t have the confidence they should bc they didn’t grow up learning secondary speech. Their talents get stifled by “respectability,” despite enormous gifts.”
Make no mistake, AOC would get my serious side eye if I thought she was talking down to her black audience at Sharpton’s event. It would cast a seriously false and disrespectful light on her working class, I’m for the little guy persona. But this time I think conservatives and critics are reaching, trying a little too hard to make an issue where there isn’t one.
The whole thing seems like yet another an excuse to attack a young woman of color who is unafraid to be vocal about her beliefs, and who is gaining the oh so valuable currency that they have failed to garner – attention. AOC’s an even bigger threat if she can relate to many different audiences, but specifically the large minority populations who will hold tremendous power if compelled to cast their votes in a direction that does not suit an agenda that considers and acts in minorities’ best interests.
It’s like McWhorter said: “Public language in America is becoming less formal practically by the week, and Black English is increasingly a lingua franca among American youth. In our era, as politicians are minted whose only memories of the 20th century were formed as small children, we will hear ever more use of Black English in public, with its warm, demotic flavor.”
I may change my mind, but right now I’m gonna give AOC the benefit of the doubt because I understand code switching – and so does she – and I too have likely cast a potentially false note or two myself here and there in an effort to relate, to be heard, and to connect.