The Code of Higher Ed; Code switching to get ahead by Nathan Olmeda

Summer time is no vacation for Practitioners in Student Affairs. It is a time of preparation, transition, and most importantly reflection. I have recently been involved in multiple hiring processes that have caused me to reflect on my professional journey thus far, and what factors have contributed to its progression. This blog post is the result of that reflection.

I think we all have those days when we look at where our lives have taken us, and think, “How did I get here?” We tend to thank/blame our upbringing, education, or specific life events for creating opportunities and circumstances that somehow shaped how our lives manifested themselves. Of course my brain looked at things a little differently. I came to the conclusion that at some point in my life I developed the skills necessary to navigate through certain systemic issues (political, educational, societal, cultural, institutional, etc.) that always seem to benefit dominant groups of which I do not belong. As a person of color in higher education, this pilgrimage can often become more of a series of battles in a seemingly never-ending war. Vijay Pendakur, Ed. D. (2013) describes the all too familiar conversation that Student Affairs Practitioners of color have surrounding these battles by stating, “The whole dialogue comes to a morbid crescendo when your group concludes that there are no answers and that hegemony usually wins” (para. 3).However, I seemed to unconsciously develop a skill overtime that helped me navigate those hegemonic structures in ways that would benefit me.

*FLASHBACK ENSUES*

I was seven years old when the movie Clueless starring Alicia Silverstone came out. This romantic comedy was a look into the life of a rich, White, teenage girl from Beverly Hills. It was the first time that I remember being exposed to economic affluence beyond my imagination. Clueless is probably most known for its memorable valley girl vernacular, which popularized phrases like “As if” and “I’m Outty”, and the overuse of “like” and “totally”. Needless to say, growing up in an inner city consisting mostly of low-income Puerto Rican families like my own did not expose me to speech patterns like this before. For years I believed it to be something that Hollywood created. It was not until I went to high school on the other side of town that I realized it actually existed.

The ethnic demographic of my high school seemed to be White, Black, and Me! As soon as I walked in on the first day I heard a girl say, “Like, Oh my God!” I laughed in the way I had done so many times before when someone quoted Clueless… but this was no quote. It was her. She really spoke that way, and so did all of her friends. As I matriculated I learned that most of the cultural elements of my Puerto Rican ethnicity were not represented in that high school, and if I wanted to relate to others and fit in I was going to have to adapt. Little did I know that this would eventually become a skill that I would call upon for the rest of my life. However, it was not constant. I eventually came to the realization that certain speech patterns were considered acceptable or appropriate with certain groups. If I used the wrong speech pattern with the wrong group one of four scenarios would usually play out.

i.     I was told that I sounded uneducated.

ii.    I was complimented on my articulation.

iii.   I was told I was not really Puerto Rican

iv.   I was just not understood and asked to explain what I meant.

I did not realize it then, but that exposure to the “valley girl” speech sparked my understanding of what it meant to code switch. Code switching is the idea that one can call upon and utilize two or more linguistic varieties in order to match that of whatever in-group is present or dominant (Koch, Gross, and Kolts, 2001). Johnson (1941) postulates that the reason for code switching is to benefit from the prestige of identifying with a dominant group by utilizing what that group deems the “correct” speech. The ability to code switch allows members of minoritized groups to use what some scholars have called “Standard English” when interacting with dominant groups while maintaining that minoritized identity. In other words, it’s the skill that allows me to speak Spanglish (a mixture of Spanish and English) with family, slang with friends, and “standard English” in professional settings in a seamless and usually subconscious fashion.

Now I know what you’re thinking. Why would I possibly consider code switching to be a skill? Although, some might argue that the ability to code switch is nothing more than a learned social response, I think of it as a skill because like any skill, it takes practice. Advancing through my post-secondary, and advanced education provided me with plenty of opportunities to practice code switching. Communicating with my White peers was only the beginning. Communicating with the White Professoriate, with heterosexual men, with women, with those of religious (usually Christian) affiliation, with those of different Fraternity/Sorority affiliation, and with those with hiring/firing power all became opportunities for code switching practice. As aforementioned, this is a mostly subconscious process, but as it occurs repeatedly throughout one’s lifetime it inevitably moves passed the precipice of natural response and into the foreground of one’s thoughts. Once that happens it is easy to see how calling upon code switching can be thought of as a practiced skill.

Higher education is a system originally intended for wealthy, White, able-bodied, heterosexual men. There is no denying that the demographic has undoubtedly diversified since the dawning of the American academy. However, the original intent to favor the dominant group has shaped the way that underrepresented groups must navigate the educational system in order to gain the benefits of the educational system. Thus making code switching a necessary and ubiquitous component of higher education. Please do not mistake this statement as a promotion of code switching. Truthfully speaking, code switching is the product of systemic oppression that has forced me and countless others before me and after me to question their authenticity; to mimic; to make due with what is available. If equity is the idea that everyone has shoes that fit, then code switching is like trading my shoes in for the same shoes that the dominant group is wearing in the hopes that I will be seen… heard… respected long enough to get ahead in this world. Code switching does not change the system, but rather is the act of succumbing to the system. “For the master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house. They may allow us temporarily to beat him at his own game, but they will never enable us to bring about genuine change” (Lorde, 1984, p. 2).

Questions

  1. What role has code switching played throughout your education and/or career?
  2. What do you think would happen if people no longer code switched?

References
Johnson, C. S. (1941). Growing up in the black belt. Washington, DC. American Council on Education

Koch, L. M., Gross, A. M., Kolts, R. (2001). Attitudes toward Black English and code switching. Journal of Black Psychology, 27, 29-42.

Lorde, A. (1984). “The Master’s Tools Will Never Dismantle the Master’s House.” Sister Outsider: Essays and Speeches. Ed. Berkeley, CA: Crossing Press. 110- 114. 2007.

V. Pendakur. (2013, November 19). Supervising grads and new professionals of color: Teaching strategies to survive and thrive in white institutional culture. [Web log comment]. Retrieved from http://vijaypendakur.com/?p=111

Nathan Olmeda is the Coordinator for Greek Life at a large public institution in Southern California, and has been involved with Fraternity & Sorority Life at various institutions for over 5 years. He graduated from Bowling Green State University with a Bachelor’s of Science in Human Development and Family Studies in 2009. He then worked as the High School Admissions Representative for Remington College in his hometown of Cleveland, Ohio. Realizing his passion for student engagement, Nathan decided to pursue his education at Iowa State University in the Higher Education, Student Affairs Master’s program where he advised the National Pan-Hellenic Council, Order of Omega, and other Greek affiliated groups. Nathan expresses his love for music through singing, dancing, stepping, and strolling. He is excited to be writing for the CSJE Blog, and is thankful for the opportunity to share his experiences as a new Student Affairs Professional.

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