On code switching.

The other night saw yet another in what is shaping up to be an endless series of right-wing efforts to find something that’ll stick to the President and reveal him as (make him look like) an evil no-goodnik. Given that last night’s effort involved a speech given in public, five years ago, before he was even President, which had already been covered multiple times in multiple venues, both print and broadcast — it was, shall we say, a particularly weak (if loudly trumpeted) effort.

That didn’t stop Matt Drudge, The Daily Caller (Tucker Carlson’s joint), and Fox News/Sean Hannity from reallyreally trying to go all-in, though. Like, to the extent that Hannity briefly performed his version of what he believes to be Al Gore’s version of sounding “like” a Black preacher, and just – wow.

It would all be quite comical if it weren’t so damaging. I think that we tend to forget just how much air gets taken up by this kind of bloviating, how much effort and energy that could be better spent elsewhere, not to mention how exhausting I can only guess it must be for that 12-18% of Americans who happen to be black and for whom this kind of dehumanizing nonsense is part of their daily lives.

As I understand it, the outrage that Drudge, Carlson, and Hannity were attempting to gin up is rooted in the fact that our black President (who, I don’t know if you’ve noticed this? Is black) speaks like a black man when speaking to black people. His vocabulary changes, his cultural touchstones and references, his cadence and rhythm, are not quite what they are when speaking to groups that are not made up entirely or mostly of African Americans. In the argot of our day: He code switches.

And that drives them nuts.

Because no black person should ever say anything that a white person (/man in power) can’t understand.

No black person should, let’s see, reference a Common song, or the jokes told at their last family reunion (oh, the black folks and their family reunions, mirite?), or, I don’t know, make any direct reference to the fact that their experience in this country is not the same as that of white people and in fact has been objectively more difficult than the experiences of most white people. What with the slavery. And the segregation. And the Jim Crow. And the being targeted disproportionately by police. And the being expected to not be as smart. And the being presumed lazy. And the voter suppression. And your whatnot.

So yeah. Black folks code switch. When speaking among themselves, they make reference to ideas and experiences to which white people often have no access, switching to a more white-friendly mode of discourse when the audience changes. In the not-very-distant past, code switching was, in fact, a survival mechanism, both in the sense of “I need to keep this job,” and in the sense of “I’d rather not be killed.” You know how many years passed between Emmett Till’s murder and the birth of our current President? Six. Six years. Do you think the knowledge of Emmett Till might still be ringing in the ears of some African Americans today? Maybe?

But here’s the other thing: In attempting to ding our first black President for code switching, not only do people like Drudge, Carlson, and Hannity refuse to acknowledge a reality that is everywhere before them — they are continuing to indulge in an essential dehumanization of this country’s black citizens, from the President on down.

Because you know who else code switches?


Every single person on earth who is in a society of more than one is required to code switch in the course of his or her day if they are to stand any hope of successful communication.

As a woman, I code switch with men. As a Jew, I code switch with non-Jews. As an adult, I code switch with children.

But people like Drudge, Carlson, and Hannity feel they have a right to demand the access to everyone’s code. They have a right to over-write and nullify code they don’t like. And if you continue to insist on your unalienable right to your humanity and autonomy, they will deny that right to the heavens. Because they don’t like your tone.

The good news is that the African American in question today is in the White House, and not a 14 year old boy, beaten and drowned in the Tallahatchie River. And that those who would deny his right to the same humanity they enjoy are widely perceived as having thrown a tantrum — trolls, who over-reached.

That difference is of almost incalculable importance.

But it clearly hasn’t ended the problem.

We need to continue to stand up to and reject the racist, dehumanizing tantrums thrown by the likes of Drudge, Carlson, and Hannity — and the indulgence they are offered by people who continue to nod their heads.

There’s a fair bit of perfecting that we still have to do in building this union. And an entire class of people who aren’t particularly interested in seeing that happen.



  1. Bob Jones' Neighbor

     /  October 3, 2012

    I’m a serious code switcher! When I’m talking to my family up north, I speak my native Ohioan. When I’m talkin’ to folks ’round here, I talk kind of generic Southern.

    So why is this story even a story? Wait! Let me guess! NEGRO!!

  2. I was a preternaturally bright child. I learned to code-switch so I could make friends, since very few children besides me could keep up with my vocabulary. I still run into that as an adult, albeit less so. While black people code-switching carries different social gravity, as this moment in foolishness amply demonstrates, the fact it’s something so many other people do merely enhances how foolish they’re being.

  3. suburbancorrespondent

     /  October 3, 2012

    Oh, wow, why haven’t I been here before? Tweeted this post…

  4. zenobiajo

     /  October 3, 2012

    As usual, thanks Em. You always say it better than I ever could 🙂

  5. watson42

     /  October 3, 2012

    I think part of the Drudge-Carlson-Hannity thing is to drum up fear i.e. the scary black man who is out to take your hard-earned money, rape your daughters, etc. Perhaps not conciously, but on a visceral level. The whole he-pretends-to-be-normal-but-is-really-out-to-get-you meme that goes on when someone who isn’t “supposed to” succeed does. The whole “they’re out to get us” thing one hears. As a matter of fact, I remember hearing those very words out of the mouth of a Nobel Prize winning scientist talking about “those people” at a board dinner.

    • Intelligence never being a guarantor of non-ignorance….

    • Bob Jones' Neighbor

       /  October 3, 2012

      I heard a similar speech from possibly the same scientist, around 1964. Took a while to realize that this was B.S., but then, I was 17 years old.

  6. socioprof

     /  October 3, 2012

    I was a communications major in undergrad and the one thing that I learned in my classes–whether from the rhetoric side or the organizational side and whether it was done through written, oral, or nonverbal means–is that communications must always be tailored to one’s audience. Being able to speak to and connect with one’s audiences and being able to do this across multiple audiences was what I was told was the mark of the best communicators. I suppose that those fine communicators at Fox, Drudge, and the Daily Caller never took any of those courses or got any of those messages.

    • I certainly seems that way.

      Or, it’s just possible that they have a very narrowly-defined audience that doesn’t require them to any of that hard work….

  7. baiskeli

     /  October 3, 2012

    Everyone code switches! Mitt Romney does it too. When among humans, he speaks English. When among compatriots, he says things like


  8. Want2no

     /  October 4, 2012

    “The good news is that the African American in question today is in the White House…”

    I am not too sure, Emily, how much longer he will be in the White House with a debate performance like last night’s. That will matter more than any “code-switching.” In fairness, Obama was did not do worse than he did against McCain in 2008. That is also the problem. He wasn’t very good then, but did not have to be. This time, he had a record to defend and was up against a very well prepared venture capital partner who is adept at giving, concise and presuasive presentations to potential investors.

    Obama shares one trait with Ronald Reagan–he is not very good with unless scripted. His people, who know all of this, should have seen it coming.