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For Many Black Immigrants, Code Switching Is a Necessary Form of Survival

Your heart jumps when your visa finally gets approved. As you settle into the new country, you’re excited to live in a new environment. You’re adjusting from culture shock and a new way of living, but are excited to live in a black neighbourhood. One day you’re running errands when you ask a store employee for help. They respond to you in a loud, snail pace tone and exaggerate each syllable. You say English is your first language, but they don’t believe you.

Now a few months in, you’ve lost count of the number of encounters that reinforce your “place” in this country as a black immigrant. Even in black spaces, you’re often surrounded by African Americans who question the validity of your blackness, mock your accent, or ask ignorant questions about your home country. Consequently, you practice speaking like them at home. You soften certain consonants and harden others. You perfect a medley of the voices who’ve insisted you “talk funny” – a phrase you’ve heard in many forms since landing. You only speak in your native accent when conversing with trusted friends and family. As you perform your American voice, an increased amount of respect comes with it. 

Wherever black people are in the world, code switching exists to a certain degree. The act of “switching” on and off certain cadences happens as quickly as we move through different social, professional and familial vicinities. While often discussed within a black space/white space binary, like colourism, similar hierarchies exist in many black environments.