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AOC speech not racist, just code switching



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?

Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (Photo by Win McNamee/Getty Images)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.

My friends used to think it was amusing that I could switch so easily between the two while talking to my parents, but for me, it was just a fact of life. I must admit I got a thrill out of knowing they couldn't understand what I was talking about — at the same time, though, it was usually mundane conversation about when Dad should pick me up from school or what extracurricular activities I had on that day.

I know I am lucky. Many children of immigrants can't communicate in their parents' languages, and I know that as a result, there is a loss of identity that they can't ever really get back. I know there's a certain privilege in my parents having the money to send me to Chinese school in the first place. I know I am lucky — and so is it greedy of me to want more? Is it ungrateful of me to be upset that I'm not 'truly fluent', that I code switch because of a lack of ability?


"It is just another case of migrants making themselves smaller for the benefit of people who are, for whatever reason, afraid or suspicious of those who don't look and sound like them."


At the same time, I know how much language influences the way we think, the way we approach the world. Would I be a different person if I knew more Mandarin, if I knew how to write more characters, if I engaged with the language on a deeper level? Would that person be a better, wiser version of who I am now?

My parents have both been in Australia for more than 20 years. They are both multilingual, and were fairly insistent that their children would be proficient in Mandarin. Our house was a strictly non-English speaking space — my sister and I used to make our own little inside jokes that basically comprised of us combining English words with their Mandarin counterparts and chanting them so we wouldn't get in trouble for speaking English at home.

'People will look at you and assume you know how to speak Mandarin, and it would be embarrassing if an auntie or uncle spoke to you and you weren't able to understand them!' my parents would tell us — now I understand it was as much about saving their own face among their peers as it was about saving ours.

But there was still some sort of awareness, conscious or otherwise, of the racist nature of white Australians, despite claims of tolerance and multiculturalism. 'Don't speak Mandarin in front of people who can't understand it,' Dad would say, if I spoke to him in Mandarin when we were in close proximity to white people. 'It's rude and disrespectful.'

At the time, I just liked the idea of being able to speak in a language that other people might not be able to understand. But now, when I think back on it, it is just another case of migrants silencing themselves and making themselves smaller for the benefit of people who are, for whatever reason, afraid or suspicious of those who don't look and sound like them.

So even though code switching is a normal part of my life, I am keenly aware of the ways in which it can be used to demonise me in white Australian society. Similarly, the backlash in the United States over Ocasio-Cortez's speech is an indication that the wider global public has much to learn when it comes to people who code switch between dialects, as well as those who do so between languages.



Yen-Rong WongYen-Rong Wong is a Brisbane-based writer, and the founding editor of Pencilled In, a literary magazine dedicated to showcasing the work of Asian Australian artists.

Main image: Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (Photo by Win McNamee/Getty Images)

Topic tags: Yen-Rong Wong, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez



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Existing comments

I code switch also, I've always thought it was called code-phasing though. Semantics aside, I do not think this was what was happening. Was Joe Biden doing this when he adopted a southern drawl and told a black crowd that John McCain was 'gunna put ya'll back in chains'? It's basic political psychology to try to appeal to those in different electorates and regions, English speaking America is vastly more varied with regard to culture and linguistics than English speaking Australia. I can understand how AOC or any other U.S. politician might, in front of certain crowds, take on different mannerisms that might be more readily recieved. We all do this to varying degrees, nobody acts exactly the same around everybody, we do alter our mannerisms around differing circumstances and people. The way I speak at a football game is different to how I would speak at a church/funeral/retail store etc. All that aside, I do think that, after having studied the astounding rise of AOC as the left's new darling, she is devoid of any real intellect and incapable of nuanced discussion.

Matthew | 15 April 2019  

Code switching is an interesting idea, though the AOC example might not be a good one - while from the Bronx and Puerto Rican she was brought up in a firmly middle class professional household and had significant educational advantage. How authentic is it for her to engage in code switching in that case?

Bob | 15 April 2019  

AOC isn't particularly bright. That what are essentially activists (Omar,Tlaib et al) have been admitted to the Halls of power in the USA is frightening

Garry Coe | 15 April 2019  

Ah! American politics! With the triumph of Donald Trump since when have intelligence and nuanced use of language been political assets? ‘Keep It Simple Stupid’ seems to be a winning slogan as in ‘Make America Great Again!’

Uncle Pat | 16 April 2019  

A delightful refreshing article on the link between language and culture. As a monolingual individual I have always encouraged the youth to treasure the diverse languages of their families. It adds a rich dimension to their life. Language is powerful. There are racists in every society, whether European,Asian, African- individuals not the whole. To make the statement, "racist nature of white Australians" implies that it is inherent in every Australian of Caucasian origin- an indefensible statement. It would be a bonus for Australian society for all to be bilingual and hence be enriched by the history and richness of other cultures.

Kevin | 16 April 2019  

You're nae wrong, Yen-Rong, hen ;). As a brown-skinned English-speaking Indo-Australian, with a cultural inheritance of 300-years of British colonial put-uponness, as well as several years of UK residence beyond, switching codes hasn't just become a survival mechanism for me, it occasions some linguistic jokes shared between small circles of friends, and of often coruscating vulgarity, while triggering, on occasion, vast hilarity. Salman Rushdie, who in real life is as perfumed and privileged as ambergris, demonstrates this verbal 'gymnastical' legerdemain to perfection in his linguistically diverse novels. However, in one indelible respect, and like you and me, he reveals just how blind the rest of your correspondents are on this page, most of whom, I'd be willing to wager, have lily-white skins and are plainly beyond the capacity to admit the privilege it confers.

Michael Furtado | 17 April 2019  

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