Code Switching–Do Asian Americans Do It?

I first heard about “code switching” five years ago from a Black Christian social worker. Before that, I remember reading some articles about how Black professional women had to navigate two different worlds—one at the workplace where they are expected to be assertive and professional and another one at home, where they are expected to be submissive while coping with a variety of domestic issues. At a recent event celebrating the late Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. honoring his challenge to achieve racial justice in America, a light skinned (that’s code for light skinned, oftentimes biracial Black American) pastor again spoke about how Black people tend to code-switch depending on which environment they are in. According to him, they have a certain way of behaving and speaking at the barbershop than when they are with white people.

 

Code switching means that people tend to use different language, mannerisms, and behaviors depending on which situation they are in. There is the default culture (mainstream white American) and there is black subculture. When the pastor spoke of code switching to the multicultural audience, I reflected on this phenomenon from my own Asian background. Do I code switch? And generally, do Asians code switch? No, we don’t. And what about Latinos and Hispanics, how come I never hear them talking about code switching when they are around white people?

 

So why is code switching a nonphenomenon among other ethnic minorities in America? I can’t speak for brown people, but for olive skinned people, my observation is that the second and third generation Asian Americans have adapted to western culture so well that that “whitewashing” becomes a term to describe them.

 

Why is assimilating to western culture known as whitewashing but not blackwashing, you might ask? Both speak English and both have been here much longer than Asians. Well for one, whites have been and continue to be the majority in America. No matter what generation of immigrants they are, majority whites have been in power since the revolutionary founding fathers, and financial and social success are still tied to white American culture. There will always be exceptions to this but they are just that—exceptions. You might make the argument that there’s been a reversal trend the last few decades with affirmative action policies and rising immigration from brown and yellow (Asian) countries. But the fact is that even in 2016, white Americans make up almost 66% of the country’s population.

 

The African Americans who were born here (some who are descendants of generations of enslavement by wealthy, white slave owners) don’t have the luxury of accessing a rich, proud history of ethnicity and culture. Their story has been hijacked by their masters and the masters’ compatriots. Their personhood, value, and dignity have for so long been subjugated to a lesser than status, to put it euphemistically. So in order to survive in this white dominant western culture, they have to operate in the way white Americans find relatable.

 

Ever since desegregation, Blacks have had to make up for time lost. When associating with the dominant culture, they are far too aware that they can’t appear too lazy, threatening, ungrateful, or uneducated or else they might lose their chance at being treated as an equal in white American society. From a history of having no education opportunities to having no voting rights to having no property rights, to being discriminated against and excluded on many levels socially, Black Americans have had to fight for acceptance in many aspects of communal life that white Americans take for granted. Even pets of white people seem to get better treatment than what is given to black neighbors.

 

Although the 1960s civil rights movement has done wonders to restore the value of an ethnic minority’s personhood, legally equalizing the rights of black Americans and other people of color in America to that of white Americans, socially and psychologically, the change has been slow. Therefore, black Americans have resorted to functioning one way at home and in their predominantly black neighborhoods and another way in their predominantly white workplace.

 

Yellow and brown skinned Americans as a people group, unlike their black counterparts, have never been enslaved in this nation. Though there’s been a long history of racism because these immigrants look different, talk different, and are competitors for a piece of the American pie, they also have a long established culture to fall back on should they wish. Unfortunately, this is not true in the case of transracially adopted kids (but that is a topic for another day).

 

What Blacks call code switching, Asians and other recent immigrants (including from Africa and Europe) call assimilating or acculturating. We have our own language we can use at our disposal to empower ourselves. We have a rich history of ethnic foods and traditions that have served our ancestors well for millennia of years. And when we adopt western culture, it does not mean that we hate ourselves or believe our ethnic cultures to be inferior. Furthermore, only 5.7% of the American population are Asian Americans, so naturally most of us have chosen to assimilate to the mainstream culture here rather than to stand out and differentiate. Can you blame us for employing a survival mechanism?

 

The fact is that we don’t have to overcome a deep seeded mistrust of the white man, or even white American’s version of Christianity. We are grateful to be welcomed to America, oftentimes sponsored by relatives or by Christian Churches, to be issued green cards by the Immigration and Naturalization Service agency (now broken into three agencies), and given the opportunity to become naturalized citizens. We love the kindness and hospitality of our Black, Brown, and White American neighbors. We believe in American exceptionalism because we know what hardships our ancestors experienced in order to come to America to experience more freedom and opportunity for success. The American Dream has not been tainted for us. We don’t have to suppress our true feelings, go along to get along with our white neighbors. We don’t have to code switch.

 

Reflecting on my own biracial kids, offspring of a Caucasian dad and Vietnamese, Chinese mom, I realize that in some ways they are less bicultural as they try to fit into the larger subculture of their middle class suburb in the South. In other ways, they are more multicultural as they sound a lot less patriotic than their democracy loving, constitution embracing mom.

 

And I remember the nostalgia my parents struggled with, forsaking their homeland and culture to start all over in a land prized for her freedom. I remember the conflicted look on Dad’s face as his children became more fluent in English than in Vietnamese, even though he was the one to encourage us to assimilate in order to have a successful life as Americans. Racism was rarely discussed in my childhood. Instead, Mom and Dad preached, like Ben Carson’s mom believed, where there’s a will, there’s a way. If this is not true in the blessed land of America, then where would it be true? So I went along and got along.

 

Today, I’m grateful to be Asian in America. I’m grateful that America has been so good to me, an immigrant, a woman, and person of color, embracing me, and allowing me to be gainfully employed as a social worker therapist. I refuse to judge those less acculturated or envy those who are more successfully established. And also for that, I’m sad for fellow Black Americans who feel like they’ve been left out of the land of freedom and opportunities merely because of their dark melanin. It makes me sad that a majority still feel that they have to code switch when I don’t. I wish each person could meet lots of white allies, even people of color allies—empathic folks who can meet them halfway, are humble listeners, can provide understanding, and also hope for a more genuine connection.

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  • CelestialChoir

    I read your insightful article with great interest–I hope it starts a discussion among Christians of many different ethnic groups. Here are a few thoughts from my perspective as an
    African-American Christian professional female born and raised here in the USA:

    1. CODE-SWITCHING–There are many types of “code-switches,” employed by many ethnic groups here in the United States.
    The Black pastors you’ve heard probably only “scratched the surface” of the myriad of behaviors and linguistic strategies African-Americans STILL have to use
    to successfully negotiate a civilization that has historically been built upon genocide and the Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade. We do not “feel” we have to use
    code-switching (of many sorts!) in order to survive; we KNOW we have to code-switch in order to survive.

    2. OTHER ETHNIC MINORITIES–Most other ethnic minorities in the United States ALSO “code-switch,” and this is certainly true of Asian-Americans, Latino-Americans
    and Native/Indigenous Americans. I have certainly witnessed this among colleagues and friends in the workplace and in academia. You can read about
    their experiences in internet websites and blogs, and in books. You also need to know that in the Caribbean and the Americas, slavery and plantation economies
    were THE defining organizing principles of New World societies exploited by the Portuguese, Spanish, French, English and Dutch “merchants.” The indigenous
    peoples of the Americas WERE enslaved along with Africans. The entire period of the European colonial expansion into the New World–from the 1500’s–1900’s–
    is the history of displacement/genocide of native populations, the importation of Africans for cheap labor, and the CONTINUED SYSTEMIC DISENFRANCHISEMENT
    OF ALL PEOPLES OF COLOR, including Asians. There is a reason Asian professionals–and especially Asian FEMALES–are NOT represented in UPPER MANAGEMENT
    in most New World corporations, including tech industries. You might enjoy reading articles from this website: http://www.diversityinc.com

    Better yet, spend some time seeking out and talking with Native American, Latino-American and Asian American workers from differing social classes and
    professions, and ESPECIALLY those who work in allied health fields, academia and business/commerce. You will hear first-hand their experiences and how
    they, too, employ various code-switching strategies to survive and keep their sanity in a Euro-centric society that believes them to be innately “inferior.”

    3. AFRICAN CULTURAL CONTINUITY–Although the Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade brought tremendous hardship and fracturing of communities and ethnic groups,
    Africans in the New World did draw upon a richness of heritages and cultures and faiths, which they brought with them in those wretched slave ships. In the United
    States, our cultures thrived in our churches, which we started during the slavery era (1600’s–1800’s). We created our own creole of American English–known as
    African-American Vernacular English (AAVE)–and we reproduced the worship patterns of our families of our various African ethnic groups. It may be helpful to
    remember that thousands of Africans were Jews, Judeo-Christians, and Muslims in addition to the various polytheistic faiths some had. The Hebraic traditions
    of African-American churches retain these ancient connections in our worship patterns and customs. The awareness that we were descendants of African Hebrews
    was ALWAYS inculcated in our preaching, liturgy and catechesis. Our churches organized here in the New World are 500 years old, but the faith they represent extends
    back 2000 years, and reflects much of what we did in our homelands prior to the disruption of the Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade. We did not get our Christian faith
    from European slavers and human traffickers, or from plantation overlords–slaves were FORBIDDEN to read the Bible or organize their own churches.
    WE DID IT ANYWAY, and secretly passed our Judeo-Christian faith down by teaching each other to read the English Bible, integrating didactic material in
    our songs and hymns, and baptizing new members in secret, under cover of darkness.

    4. THE ENSLAVEMENT OF YELLOW AND BROWN-SKINNED PEOPLE–This is well-documented in the entire history of the European colonial expansion
    and conquest of the Caribbean and the American continents, North, Central and South. The first Chinese who arrived in the 1800’s were horribly treated
    by Euro-Americans. But in more recent history, Vietnamese boat people and other Southeast Asian refugees have experienced HORRENDOUS treatment
    here in the United States in various states, at various times, since the 1970’s.

    5. MELANIN AS THE “CAUSE” OF SYSTEMIC DISCRIMINATION–Although it is true that many Euro-Americans dislike the multiple shades of
    ivory, tan, olive, brown and black skin possessed by African-Americans, the REAL reason we are so despised is two-fold:

    A. Our very continued existence in this society–after 500 years of oppression–is a persistent REMINDER of how we arrived here, and how horribly
    we were (and continue to be) treated. That is why White supremacists/Neo-Nazis/Neo-Aryans/Alt-White groups are constantly screaming about
    wanting to “send us back to Africa.” THEY KNOW THEY ARE GUILTY OF RACISM AND WANT TO REMOVE THE “EVIDENCE” OF THEIR EVIL
    BY REMOVING THE VICTIMS OF THAT EVIL.

    B. We are descendants of AFRICANS–the fact is, most African-Americans also have Native and European DNA and genetic heritage. But many
    Euro-Americans despise our AFRICANITY. That is why the “one-drop rule” STILL applies in the United States–if you have any sub-Saharan
    AFRICAN DNA–despite your looks or fair skin–YOU ARE STILL DESPISED AS AFRICAN. In fact, that’s how it works in the Caribbean AND
    throughout ALL the Americas. Latin America societies and nations ALSO have a “one-drop rule”, even though they do not have the formal
    “legislation”–the more AFRICAN you appear, the less opportunity you will have for decent education, employment or housing. This entrenched
    racism and colorism has persisted in all the Americas and the Caribbean since the 1500’s, and is the DIRECT RESULT of the European
    slave system practiced by the Portuguese, Spanish, French, English and Dutch colonizers.

    Euro-Americans constantly boast about, and try to obtain, their “tans,” but they do not EVER want to be confused as Black or seen as
    African-American. Other Euro-Americans will use the services of surgeons to imitate African-American physiology, including bust and
    derriere implants and fat “plumping”; some also will attempt to get fuller, more African-shaped lips. Still others resort to extreme measures
    to alter skin color. But most resent anyone comparing them to African-Americans–because “Blackness” is still seen as instrinsically inferior.

  • Very good points, and I did not talk about all the variations of code switching employed by other ethnic groups (as you’ve pointed out) as well as groups defined by profession or socioeconomic class because it’s too long for this short blog. But yes, I hope it spurs discussion.

  • CelestialChoir

    A few more thoughts–

    1. Perhaps you can invite Christian bloggers of other ethnic groups to comment on their experiences. I know from friends who live out west that Native
    Americans are treated like African-Americans; their history is JUST as horrific and they had children removed from their families and placed in
    government boarding schools, and they were FORBIDDEN to use their native languages. This occurred in the 20th century. Forbidding people
    to use their native languages still continues today–this is too often a school policy, and students can be punished for speaking their L1. If you Google some
    articles about tri-lingual Luxembourg, you will see how Portuguese-speaking students were mistreated in their public schools for the last decade or so.
    Not only were Portuguese students forbidden to speak Portuguese, their ethnic Portuguese-speaking TEACHERS and Para-professionals were ALSO
    forbidden to assist any child/adolescent in Portuguese, speak/teach in Portuguese or even translate ANYTHING from French, German and/or Letzeburgesch
    into Portuguese for the benefit of the Portuguese-speaking students! Students were forbidden to use Portuguese on the PLAYGROUND of these public schools.
    Only recently have these policies been reversed and more rational, educationally-sound practices have replaced the harsh “don’t speak Portuguese” policy.

    You could probably contact some Christian Latino professionals who can detail to you their own code-switching experiences. Having worked with
    Latino professionals and clientele, I can tell you how they, too had to extensively “code-switch,” even with potential employers whose ads stated that
    “bilingual” workers were sought. I’ve seen highly-qualified Latino colleagues turned down JUST because a slight Spanish accent appeared in their speech–
    in spite of their grammatically correct English and excellent diction.

    2. I taught ESL for one year, and my policy in the classroom was that ALL languages EXCEPT profanity were welcome in the class. People do NOT
    learn English any faster by the suppression of the native languages–but unfortunately, much language teaching worldwide believes in this false
    idea of “immersion” as the only way to successfully acquire the target language. At any rate, I and my students “code-switched” quite a lot,
    and this linguistic practice is actually a fairly sophisticated one, common to all multilingual speakers. You can find entire treatises and articles on the
    linguistic aspects of code-switching, pro, con and everything in between! Some of these articles equate code-switching and code-mixing to
    “back-sliding” and admonish language teachers to not respond to students in other than the target language, among other recommended practices.
    I reject imperialistic and colonial practices in language teaching, and frankly, these practices actually create a “disconnect” for the language learner.
    “Total immersion” is fine if you’re a tourist on vacation, with the leisure to go to class daily and study on your own time. However, for those learners
    who must learn the target language, “total immersion” can place the student at a distinct psychological disadvantage and create problems for the instructor.

    3. I have heard from Asian patrons at the library (when I was a reference librarian) that they were always discriminated against on the job, and they
    had to do the “code-switching” you’ve referred to. Asians are stereotyped as being “smart” and “quiet,” but in the workplace, they, too have to decide
    how to handle the microaggressions against them, that spring from racist notions among management and co-workers. Their languages are ALSO
    NOT WELCOME on the job, and the darker-skinned the Asian, the more harassment and systemic discrimination they face.

    4. “Code-switching” as a BASIC SURVIVAL MECHANISM can best be illustrated by what African-Americans do when pulled over by police or
    other law-enforcement officials. We have but ONE goal–TO SURVIVE LONG ENOUGH TO DRIVE AWAY FROM THE ENCOUNTER UNSCATHED.
    African-Americans of all social levels and walks of life know that COMPLIANCE TO AN OFFICER’S DEMANDS DOES NOT GUARANTEE SURVIVAL.
    It does not matter what our socioeconomic class, education, profession, gender, age, religion or manner of dress; as far as MOST (not all) police are concerned,
    all African-Americans are GUILTY OF SOMETHING. We have but 10–15 seconds to assess the officer’s gender, age, education, and most importantly,
    EMOTIONAL STATE. We read the officer’s BODY LANGUAGE and listen CAREFULLY to the officer’s speech, and even more carefully to WHAT THE
    OFFICER DOES NOT SAY, reading between the lines and assessing the general tenor of the message. We then have only a few seconds to
    craft a survival strategy, based upon past successful strategies AND our current assessment of the officer at hand. We typically MUST “code switch,”
    at this point, speaking slowly enough in a pleasant tone, in neutral-accented Standard American English, projecting a calm demeanor, etc. During the
    entire encounter, WE ARE CONTINUALLY MONITORING THE SITUATION AND IMPROVISING SURVIVAL STRATEGIES ON-THE-SPOT. If we perceive
    that the officer is “on edge,” nervous, tense, fearful or hostile, we may decide to LET THE OFFICER SAVE FACE; “relaxed deference” MAY be of benefit
    because the goal is to GET THE OFFICER TO STAND DOWN by assuring him/her that we are NOT A THREAT. However, if the officer is extremely
    hostile, we may have to QUOTE THE LAW and QUESTION THE OFFICER WHY we have been pulled over. At that point, we often try to TALK THE
    OFFICER INTO COMPLIANCE TO THE LAW–again, we are crafting survival strategy on-the-spot. If we are asked to “exit the vehicle,” we know that
    WE MAY NOT SURVIVE THE ENCOUNTER. We COULD be arrested; or, we COULD BE EXECUTED WITHIN SECONDS OF THE REQUEST. At
    this point, we’d better have a CELL PHONE RECORDING EVERYTHING and WE BETTER BE PRAYED UP AND CALLING ON JESUS FOR HELP.

    This whole description may be describing a “routine” stop, that may take anywhere from 10–45 minutes, depending upon the situation.
    But now you understand how we feel and WHY we code-switch throughout the encounter. Our very survival depends upon it.
    You can watch YouTube videos and watch carefully for the code-switches done by the drivers, as they interact with law enforcement.
    Most Euro-American Christians have NO idea what we experience as African-Americans in so-called “routine traffic stops.”

  • CruisingTroll

    Three points:
    1) Everyone “code-switches”. If you think it is limited to minorities, then you are sadly mistaken.
    2) Jesus died on the Cross, there were only 2 others beside Him. Why, pray tell, do you and CC and so many others feel compelled to nail whites onto new crosses?
    3) Thank the LORD God Almighty for the blessings that you do have, rather than … this.

  • 1) Agreed. But the urgency varies depending on power differentiation of different groups of people.
    2) Not nailing whites and not a SJW, and I apologize for coming across like that to you (and possibly others).
    3) Amen.

  • CelestialChoir

    CRUISING TROLL–

    1. Since Sister Parker’s observations were from her unique perspective and experiences as a Vietnamese-American in this Euro-centric society, I shared my
    own perspective as an African-American Christian in this society. There was no mention of limiting the code-switching only to populations of color. Rather,
    it was a comparison of various populations of color and their respective experiences of code-switching, including linguistic code switches. You should share your
    own unique experiences of code switching and perspective with this discussion. It is always good for Christians to hear of other’s experiences.

    2. No one is nailing whites to crosses–we are nailing RACISM and specifically WHITE SUPREMACIST NOTIONS OF SUPERIORITY to the cross.
    If you are not guilty of racism or racist behavior, then you are not included in the “crucifixion.” Actually, this discussion is really more focused upon
    how Christians of color live out their calling in a society that was founded upon genocide, colonialism, the Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade, the plantation system
    and sustained systemic disenfranchisement for people of color in the United States. Code switching is specifically mentioned as a series of survival
    mechanisms that people of color employ on various occasions and in various contexts.

    3. We thank Yahweh Elohim for all He has provided, and thank Him for the intelligence and resourcefulness He provided to us to not only
    survive 500 years of sustained horrors, but to thrive and pass down the blessings of Judeo-Christian faith to our offspring! And we thank Him
    for forums such as this, that enable believers to “bear one another’s burdens and so fulfill the Law of Christ.” (Galatians 6:2)

  • Glad2BGodless

    I appreciate your interesting and thought-provoking article. Thank you for sharing your perspective.

  • Glad2BGodless

    You don’t owe an apology to Cruising Troll. You didn’t insult him or injure him. You have every right to express your sincere views, just as he feels free to express his.

  • Glad2BGodless

    I enjoyed reading your comment.

    Speaking as a Euro-American of chiefly Irish extraction, I do not boast about my tan. I wouldn’t mind neutralizing some of the blue, though.

  • Glad2BGodless

    Nor does this Euro-American atheist. I can tell you that during traffic stops I do whatever I can think of to assure the officer that I am not a threat.

  • CelestialChoir

    Glad2BGodless–Are you saying that, as a son/daughter of the Celts, you may
    just be slightly melanin-challenged? LOL 🙂 Actually, the “whitest” person I ever
    saw was a young woman from Iceland. I had NEVER seen anyone who had
    what I call a “glacial beauty”–she really did resemble ice, sea and sky…her hair
    was soooo blonde, it looked like almost transparent flax! Her skin was Alabaster
    White–almost like living marble–and her eyes had that deep blue ocean color.
    Her appearance was so striking, I remember it 30+ years later.

  • CelestialChoir

    Glad2BGodless–Thanks for sharing your perspective….it’s good to
    hear from others who express their own discomfort levels when stopped
    by law enforcement.