Staff Ed: Code-switching is a professional technique in a dialect-defining world
By THE BLUE AND GRAY PRESS EDITORIAL BOARD
On Friday, April 5, congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez attended the annual convention of Reverend Al Sharpton’s National Action Network. There, she spoke to a predominantly black audience about how she’s proud of her past job as a bartender and how there’s nothing wrong with being a member of the working class. “I’m proud to be a bartender,” Ocasio-Cortez said. “Ain’t nothing wrong with that.
There’s nothing wrong with working retail, folding clothes for other people to buy. There is nothing wrong with preparing the food that your neighbors will eat. There is nothing wrong with driving the buses that take your family to work. There is nothing wrong with being a working person in the United States of America and there is everything dignified about it.”
The congresswoman was later criticized by various Twitter users, who claimed that the Bronx accent she used while giving this speech was fake, as she had never used this particular accent while giving speeches before, and it appeared she was only putting on the accent to ensure that the predominantly black audience at the convention understood her message.
Many people claimed her actions were racist, and some even labeled them as “verbal blackface.” Many of these people also believe that Ocasio-Cortez used the accent because she believed her audience would not understand her otherwise, implying that the audience was not intelligent enough to understand her more sophisticated speech.
Many journalists have come out in defense of Ocasio-Cortez’s use of the accent, referring to it as “code-switching,” which is essentially the act of switching between different languages or dialects during a conversation. Many Americans use this practice every day for various reasons, and it is often unintentional. The congresswoman’s defenders point out that she grew up in the Bronx, meaning that her accent probably isn’t fake.
Ocasio-Cortez herself was quick to defend herself from these accusations on Twitter: “Folks talking about my voice can step right off. Women’s March & Kavanaugh speech, same. Any kid who grew up in a distinct linguistic culture & had to learn to navigate class enviros at school/work knows what’s up.” It is tragic that many individuals feel the need to use code-switching to appear more educated in professional settings for fear of being profiled.
No one should be criticized or labeled as “fake” because of what dialect they choose to speak in, or if they use a practice such as code-switching. Slipping into their natural accent is not pandering to an audience. People should remain true to themselves and honest with others, and not be afraid to present themselves as who they are, especially people in power, so that the people who follow them may know that they are supporting a person of honesty and integrity.