Faith Witness to End Racism

Welcome to our third newsletter exploring various aspects of racism and ways we might combat it. This month, somewhat like last month's topic, microaggressions, we are examining something that different people experience and perceive differently. It also involves behavior which may be conscious or unconscious.

Diglossia is a linguistic phenomenon common in many parts of the world. It is generally thought of as a particular form of bilingualism, which is also common around the world. Since English is often seen as the common language of activities like aviation and commerce, we native speakers of it are less likely to be multilingual.

The Apostle Paul was clearly multilingual, speaking, reading, or writing in at least Aramaic, Hebrew and Greek. His ministry likely required some familiarity with many dialects because without the sort of travel and communications we take for granted, there is less need to develop commonality of language. This was a distinct advantage in Paul's work of bringing the Gospel to the far-flung gentiles.

This 5-minute video on Diglossia goes into what makes the concept distinct from bilingualism:
In a nutshell a distinguishing feature of Diglossia is that the 2 styles for speaking are often generally understood by members of a community; one is formal, codified, and taught in school, and the other(s) are vernacular and often used in everyday conversations. (These may be labeled "high" and "low" forms of the language because of the formal rules or lack of them – terms by the way, that sometime precede "church".)

Here we will look at an evolution of Diglossia to what is now commonly called "code switching".
Code Switching

Our topic this month is code switching. It is a phrase that has evolved since the 1940s. It initially referred primarily to multi-lingual people who switch between languages frequently, sometimes in mid-sentence. It was looked down on when the term first came into use. In time it came to be recognized as an asset in many circumstances. Being multi-lingual today can open opportunities to people who have this skill, especially in the United States where it is not as common as in other parts of the world. Children seem to learn this easily. This brief video shows a couple of examples:
Code Switching in Bilingual Development
The notion of code switching has expanded over the years to include not only speech dialects, such as Cockney and Appalachian [1], but also cultural and behavioral norms. In fact, in a broader sense we all code switch. Consider the difference in attire, mannerisms, and use of slang one might employ when attending a party with people one might like to leave a good impression with, contrasted with a relaxed close family barbecue or daily meal.

If you were ever to meet the Queen of England, you would find there are numerous rules about how one is to conduct oneself. [2] These rule are carefully articulated, and similar rules apply to heads of state, and diplomats must be mindful of and adept at following such rules – articulated or not.

Let us turn our attention to what this has to do with racism.  One characteristic of Diglossia is that the expectations change depending on the environment. For example, in the classroom English – "standard" English is expected irrespective of how a student may speak at home. [3] For some students of color this is challenging. If you Google "code switching" you may come across the following meme. This illustrates that context does not simply mean a physical space. It is also about culture and matching one's interactions to the expectations - beyond speaking. Here President Obama illustrates in a few seconds what such code switching looks like, as he matches his greeting to the perspective and expectation of 2 different gentlemen.
The shift is dramatic, and Obama is in a situation where he obviously is not guarded about making this rather abrupt adjustment. Often, however, such a switch doesn't occur within a single "space", but as someone moves between spaces.

Not every person of color finds it as easy as President Obama makes it appear. In late 2018 a film was released which was enthusiastically recommended by a friend (of color). The trailer for "The Hate U Give" shows the "switch Starr has to flip" when she transitions between the predominantly Black neighborhood where she lives, and her predominantly White prep school. Much of the film is about Starr's experience of code switching. 
The longer portion of the film linked below [4] opens with Starr's father giving her and her brother "the talk". To be clear, for African Americans the ability to code switch, and be intentional about presenting themselves as less threatening can be a matter of survival. [5][6]

Part of the challenge for African Americans is often that switching back to predominantly Black environment requires adjusting to that culture if one is to be accepted. Appropriateness depends on context. People of color speaking "standard English" may be chided (to say the least) as "talking White" when they are in a Black space.

Consider excerpts from interviews made for the documentary "Talking Black in America".
It mentions "African-American Vernacular English" (AAVE) [7][8], which is a "normal" and expected form of English in a Black space. There is significant pressure on people of color to code switch as they move between Black and White "spaces", sometime many times during the day.

Why not simply stay in the more comfortable Black space? Because goods, jobs, and opportunities are often only available in White spaces. Moreover the cultural biases that lead many White people to see most Black people as threatening can make code switching a matter of survival during encounters with police offices and others equipped to use lethal force. Most police departments understand the value in making officers aware of these biases.
On a Personal Note

I have written these newsletters on behalf of the WPC Peace and Justice committee. It was suggested that I share some of my personal experience here.

Since retiring several years ago I have been privileged to spend more time with People of Color than I have since college. I am grateful for the perspective it has given me because these friends challenge me when I slip into "Whiteness." One of the more convicting books I've read of late is White Fragility. DeAngelo writes that we are steeped in a culture that reinforces racist thinking, and if we're not being intentional about combating it within ourselves we easily slip back into it. It is not confined to race, but I will confess that when I hear someone with (what I think is) a poor command of (standard) English, I tend to expect less of them, frankly, thinking they aren't as smart as me. This may apply to AAVE, but for me even more so when I hear Appalachian English and similar rural dialects. Simply knowing and acknowledging this helps me check myself.

In His Service,
Bob Dilly

I welcome your feedback or discussion to peaceandjustice@westminster-church.org.
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Footnotes

[1] Most of us know that there are regional dialects of English. Here are several fun examples we Yinzers might have a bit of trouble with: YouTube: Anglophenia: How to Speak Cockney (5:31). Since Pittsburgh is in Appalachia, consider Appalachian English. (8:11)


[3] YouTube: Lucy Laney Elementary: African American Vernacular English (9:17) https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=KVZHakC1SlU

[4] The Hate U Give | Full Scene | 20th Century FOX (8:28) https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7CGeNN8NiQE

[5] Everyday Struggle: Switching Codes for Survival | Harold Wallace III | TEDxPittsburgStateUniversity (Kansas) (16:02)
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=NJy5yeBSQ7o. Also mentions microaggressions. Harold suggests, "The minorities put forth so much effort. But if the majority put at least 10% of that same effort into learning embracing, understanding and engaging the minority population, then the states could really be a utopia for us all."

[6] TED: The Cost of Code Switching | Chandra Arthur | TEDxOrlando (10:37)

[7] African American Vernacular English (AAVE) (3:32)
Traces the roots (as much as it is known) which illustrates it likely did not originate from English

[8] African American Vernacular English | Morgan Gill | TEDxYouth@RMSST

[9] White Fragility, Robin DeAngelo - https://www.robindiangelo.com/publications/

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