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AOC speech not racist, just code switching

  • 12 April 2019


Last week Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez was accused by some of 'verbal blackface' when she addressed Reverend Al Sharpton's National Action Network. She leaned into some of her vowels, and stated, 'ain't nothing wrong with that' when talking about her history of being a bartender. She replied to her critics by tweeting, 'I am from the Bronx. I act and talk like it.' So if it wasn't racist, as many have claimed, then what was she doing?

She was code switching. Linguists define code switching as the act of moving back and forth between two or more languages, or two or more dialects and registers of the same language. I've been code switching my whole life, even if I didn't know the exact term for what I had been doing.

Growing up with multiple languages floating around in your house and your head influences the way you see the world. My parents have varying degrees of fluency in English, Mandarin Chinese, Fuchow (a dialect of Chinese), and Bahasa Melayu. They can also understand Cantonese, Hokkien, and Bahasa Indonesia. Conversations at home would be held in a mixture of Mandarin and Fuchow, with the odd English word or phrase thrown in. It means I became very comfortable with switching languages mid-sentence, but also that my languages are a little mixed up.

For example, I don't know the phrase for garlic in Mandarin, but I know it in Fuchow. I thought the Fuchow word for bread was lo-di until well into my teenage years, until my parents told me it was actually part of Bahasa Malaya (roti). I don't know the word for cheese in Mandarin. My sister jokes that the only phrase she knows how to say in Fuchow is 'have you practised the piano yet?' simply by virtue of the number of times that was asked of her.

Because I have these gaps in my Mandarin, I code switch quite often — sometimes without even really thinking about it. If I don't know how to say something in Mandarin, I will switch to English and then back again. If I can sense my grammar start to waver in Mandarin, I will try to finish the sentence off in English, because I don't know how to correct grammatical errors in Mandarin. Sometimes it's because I've tried to translate something directly from English to Mandarin, even though I know I shouldn't, and I've gotten stuck halfway through.

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