African American children, who grew up in middle class neighborhoods or who had to wake up extra early to be bused out to those “good schools” in far out areas probably, on more than one occasion, have heard the “you talk like a White person” comment. In other cases, it might even be coupled with the “you think you better than us” from your “friends” in the hood.

At first you were probably hurt. Feeling like in that instant your Blackness was just snatched away causing you to never be able to fit in with the cool kids; and at that age fitting in mattered more than anything (you might’ve even blackened up your dialect, when around them). But as you got older, you probably began to view your curse as more of a blessing.

Somewhere along the line between high school and college, between sixth period science class and your first job interview, sounding White, became equated with sounding proper, educated, and capable.

Now of course that in itself is a tragedy–that somehow, the more ignorant, uneducated, and incapable you sound, the more Black you sound. I guess that’s why the definition of a n**ger is “a person regarded as contemptible, inferior, or ignorant.”

Similarly, when a White person speaks Ebonics, cussing, “acting ghetto,” and dressing in baggy clothes, they get criticism from their peers, and even from us, saying they are “trying to be Black.”
However, in some cases, we may even embrace these people, saying that they are “down” or giving them a metaphorical Black card, as if to say “we are so impressed with your overdone impression of us, that we are going to make you an honorary n***a.”

It’s sad that we could be so blind to not see that when we do this, we do ourselves a disservice. We add to the already overwhelmingly negative stereotypical image of what it means to be African American.

But, that is not the whole picture. Historically Blacks have lived in two worlds, and have learned to navigate them not only physically but also linguistically through a concept called code switching.

“Thank you for calling Our Weekly, this is Juliana.” “Dang gurl you sound White on the phone.” “Oh, waddup gurl you know I’m at work watchu need?”

The code switch is almost second nature. Code-switching is a linguistics term denoting the concurrent use of more than one language, or language variety, in conversation. Multilinguals–people who speak more than one language–sometimes use elements of multiple languages in conversing with each other. Thus, code-switching is the syntactically and phonologically appropriate use of more than one linguistic variety.

Many times we code-switch without even realizing it. You don’t talk to your pet cat the same that you talk to your boss, and you probably don’t talk to your best-friend the same way that you talk to your grandmother (if you did, it would probably influence some very interesting situations).

The trick is to be able to speak in a way that it situationally appropriate, and people who have grown up in a very diverse environment, have the advantage of being able to adapt to the way they hear others speak.

According to a study called, “Code-switching: Black English and Standard English in the African American Repertoire” by Charles E. DeBose at the University of California, Hayward, “The extent that frequent switching between Black English (BE) and Standard English (SE) occurs in in-group situations, the notion of situational switching does not adequately account for all instances of code-switching by African-Americans. It may be the case that among certain African-Americans it is normal and acceptable to speak either BE, SE, or both in certain situations, and that frequent code-switching in such situations is the unmarked choice (Scotton, 1988). The working hypothesis is that members of the African-American speech community consider SE appropriate for communicating with outsiders.”

So, next time someone says you sound White, correct them and say “No, I just sound educated.” Then, take it as a compliment.