Friday, November 21, 2008
Yeah - that's right. That's a photo of some thuggish-ruggish, street-repping ASIAN youth. Kids like many I've worked with who balance the American street life with traditional "Asian" cultural systems at home with the dominant white cultural systems of the establishment. Think that's easy?
There's a term that I've heard off and on within educational circles called "Code-switching." Now, this term was initially coined in terms of bilingual people - whose brains adapted to switch linguistic coding depending on their situation: such as English at school, and a different language at home. In countries where people grow up speaking even more languages, this is even more evident as people can end up switching between three or four different languages in one social situation, depending on who is there and the circumstances.
When used by educators (and other social workers), however, "code-switching" is use more broadly as a term referring to adjusting to different cultural situations, in general (including language, but not only language). And this isn't just in terms of ethnically mixed folks (like me), but anybody that finds themselves regularly interacting with people of very different cultural backgrounds.
Specifically, this idea is used by educators to discuss the obstacles in the way of many students within the current public education system in the United States. Because, to be blunt, our schools are run within the parameters of the dominant white, middle-class culture. This means that the values being enforced are white, middle-class values - whether or not that reflects the students (or even staff) in the system. So anybody from a different demographic (whether it's by socio-economic status, race, sexual orientation, or otherwise) comes in at a distinct disadvantage; because they come in having to learn new rules of social interaction, new ways to handle situations, different ways to communicate - all on top of the academics they are also expected to learn.
The problem being, of course, that few teachers actually go about TEACHING any of these new rules or ways of communication. Since the education system is so biased towards this white middle-class cultural mindset (and usually hires those from within that demographic), it is often assumed that this mindset is "normal" - thus, kids who are not fluent in the ways of being and communicating in this system are "bad kids" or "trouble-makers," etc. Students are assumed to have an instinctual knowledge of these rules, and so nobody takes the time to TEACH it - and so the kids who come in from a background of poverty, or a different ethnic or racial culture often suffer disciplinary repercussions, as well as poor school performance.
And this is where the concept of "code-switching" comes in. Because it is not necessarily a bad thing that schools move through a white middle-class cultural framework. Nor is it necessarily a good thing. It just IS. And, realistically, most of the professional world in the United States operates from an identical framework, so it is important for kids to master an understanding of these "rules" in order to move up, economically. It's not exactly fair (since it puts kids from a different cultural viewpoint at a distinct disadvantage), but it's brutal reality.
So some educators have begun to try to actively teach students how to code-switch in order to be successful in school. What that entails is throwing out a lot of the judgments that usually come when a student isn't following implicit school rules (such as levels of volume that are "too loud," ways of interacting that are "disrespectful," or ways of communicating that are "violent" or "aggressive") and instead teaching the student how to adjust. For example, a teacher could tell a kid, "Hey - I know it's not so easy to just 'turn the other cheek' in real life, but you've got to be able to find other ways to handle it if you're going to be successful in school and/or keep a well-paying job" and then following up with some brain-storming of other ways to solve it in a way that works within the system, but also for the kid.
Because, for many kids that don't fall under the white middle-class umbrella (which, actually - are the majority) coming to school can be like playing football all their lives and then suddenly being thrown into a basketball game without ever having the rules explained to them. So when the coach tells them to keep the other team from scoring, there's one most likely outcome: the kid tackles the Hell out of the dribbler in the middle of the court, gets thrown out of the game, yelled at by coach and other players and fans, and hates the sport of basketball ever afterward. At least, that's what would happen if the coach ASSUMED the kid had seen/played basketball before. If the coach was working with a kid he knew was new to the sport - a very different outcome would result.
And that's what happens in our current education system. We have a bunch of teachers (coaches) who ASSUME that kids know all of the many implicit rules of the white middle-class cultural game because that's the framework within which those teachers have lived their entire life. And so the kids end up getting themselves in unwinnable situations that end up in tragedy.
Of course, some folks are better adapted to code-switching than others: for, instance, those who have been practicing it from infancy. Those people who learned from a very young age about the changing rules of the game. Those who implicitly comprehend the very fluid nature of cultural values and are able to read the subtle cues that can clue them in to ways to be in different cultural situations. One such group of people are mixed folks like me. And that's why I will forever be grateful for my mixed background - because it gave me this inherent code-switching ability that most people don't have.
Because I grew up knowing - when I visit my Chinese grandparents, I should act this certain way, and talk this certain way, eat this certain way, etc; when I'm with my white grandparents, I should do these other things; when I'm with my friends, I should be like this. When I lived in Tanzania, people were constantly commenting on how "Tanzanian" I became - in action, mannerisms, ways of thought. But it was natural for me, because I was born into an adaptive cultural world, so I sub-consciously adjusted to a "Tanzanian" way of living and speaking as a matter of course. I have lived my life with a given intuitive knowledge that there are a whole number of different cultural ways of being and acting, and they are not on a hierarchy of "good" or "bad" or "rude" or "acceptable" - but rather a spectrum of "how this group does things." And that will forever be the greatest gift my mixed background has given me.
The problem is, of course, that those without an inherent understanding of cultural fluidity so often peg folks like me (let's call us "Instinctual Code-Switchers" or ICS) as "sell-outs" or trying to "play both sides" because of our ability to interact at the cultural level of whomever we happen to be with. I am now able to start pegging the distinct ways I change my demeanor depending on who I'm talking to, and it's interesting to me. I completely change my body language depending on the demographic of the people around me, and it is completely automatic. I've even tried NOT to do it, at time, and it's an actual fight for me to do so. And I'll tell you this - it is NOT "fake." It is not "selling out." It's just being able to better communicate between cultures and to adapt to subtle cultural cues to get along better.
Because we all do this on a regular basis. We all talk differently to our friends in a relaxed atmosphere than with our co-workers at work (on rare occasions, we don't . . .). We act differently in a job interview. We speak differently to our elders (hopefully) than to our peers than to small children. When we go to a show, we take on the mannerisms and adjust to the expectations of the specific fan-base for the show we are watching, whether it's rock, hip-hop, or the symphony. We are constantly code-switching as we move from situation to situation.
But when we do the same thing between racial cultural situations, people get uncomfortable. POC tell other POC we're "acting white." White folks get upset when POC don't automatically adjust to a white cultural framework and wonder why "they act that way." We make jokes about how people do things in other countries, or in ethnic cultures different from our own. We make tv shows called "Bizarre Foods" and crack jokes about the people of the country we are visiting.
And why? Because we don't directly acknowledge code-switching and how it works in our society. White teachers are afraid to tell their students that, in essence, they actually ARE being asked to "act white" to do well in school.* POC are afraid to admit that we do, indeed, "act white" in order to get better jobs. We all tip-toe around it because it's so damn touchy - and, in the meantime, our education system fails the majority of our children. Were we able to simply say - "there are certain rules to every game you play, and the specific rules for the game called 'do well in school' or 'get a promotion' are like this . . ." Kids are all about rules and fairness, so when you explain it to them in these terms, it settles them. You're not telling them how they do things are wrong or bad or any other such judgement - simply that they've got to learn some different rules and adjust to them to play these particular games.
Because, again - these kids are no less skilled or intelligent than their white middle-class counterparts.** In fact, I would argue that they must be a little MORE skilled and intelligent to be able to adapt (something others don't have to do) and still be successful. And this is why I think white college kids so often struggle with all-black fraternities, or the existence of BET, or why an Asian students' coalition is NOT the same as a white supremacist group - because these are the very kids who NEVER had to learn to racially code-switch in order to survive. Because they never had to adjust their ways of thinking or being to make do. And so they are unable to wrap their heads around the concept of different cultural value systems, or how other people do things without judging it based on their own narrow views.
And, oddly enough - it's not really their fault. It's frustrating as Hell, and often makes me want to scream - but it's more a flaw in the system than anything specific to them, personally. Because nobody ever explicitly taught them about code-switching or how it works or its prevalence in our society. To them, that has never been shown to exist because we're all so scared to admit it, and so they are allowed to roll through their lives in ignorance. It's the backbone of white privilege. Tell people to "respect other cultures" by saying "that's a pretty dress" or "I really love your hair" without ever having to understand that it's just about different rules to a game, thus eliminating "normality" and replacing it with "how things are done in this particular situation/place."
And so right here represents the beginning of a movement. Whether you're white or a person of color - please start openly acknowledging how code-switching works in our society. Just be honest about it. Teach your kids about it. Talk to your friends about the different rules you all play by. And if you're an educator? Start changing the system by just being open and frank about what we're asking our kids to do to be successful - and stop assuming they "should know how to behave." Please.
* Specifically, "middle-class white."
** Again, I must stress the "middle-class" aspect of the educational culture here, because white kids coming from poverty struggle with the adjustment in the same way that their more colorful peers do.
*** Thinking about it, I should probably specify that the educational system runs from a STRAIGHT white middle-class cultural viewpoint, as I have no doubt that GBLT students must also do some heavy code-switching to have success in school.