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Slice of Life 13: Code switch

I‘ve been in a bit of reading drought this year. As much as I encourage my students to make time to read for pleasure, I find it really hard to make the time to do the same. There’s just always something else to do—papers to grade, lessons to plan, blogs to read (and write).

This weekend, however, I forced myself to make time to read Angie Thomas’s debut novel, The Hate U Give. I’d been seeing a lot of positive press lately, and despite having a half dozen or so other books waiting on my nightstand, I started The Hate U Give on Friday and by Sunday, I was finished. It had everything that I love in a reading experience—complex characters, thought-provoking plot, and a compelling voice—oh, the voice. Ever since I put the book down, Starr’s voice has stayed with me, her words in my head as I’ve been turning over so many passages, wondering, thinking, questioning . . .

The Hate U Give is also a book that’s important in that it captures the spirit and tensions of the times—no, it interrogates them. You can’t read Thomas’s novel and not ask questions—of yourself as a reader but also of us, as a society. I read a reviewer refer to The Hate U Give as the book for the “Black Lives Matter” movement. Immediately, another book, All American Boys, came to mind, which I read last summer. Yet as much as I liked All American BoysThe Hate U Give touched me in a way that the former didn’t.

What I didn’t realize until I read The Hate U Give was how much having a female narrator mattered. I don’t say this in any way to disparage All American Boys. That book is powerful and important in its own right. Its dual narrative structure is one that forces the reader to question—and doubt—what he knows and doesn’t know. But for me, Starr’s voice had an intimacy, a familiarity—it was a voice that drew me in because in some ways, that voice was one that reflected my own experiences.

Early in the novel, Starr reveals her struggles navigating her life in Garden Heights and the world of Williamson Prep School:

I just have to be normal Starr at normal Williamson. That means flipping the switch in my brain so I’m Williamson Starr. Williamson Starr doesn’t use slang—if a rapper would say it she doesn’t say it, even if her white friends do. Slang makes them cool. Slang makes her “hood.” Williamson Starr hold her tongue when people piss her off so nobody will think she’s the “angry black girl.” Williamson Starr is approachable. No stank-eyes, side-eyes. none of that. Williamson Starr is non-confrontational. Basically, Williamson Starr doesn’t give anyone a reason to call her ghetto.

I can’t stand myself for doing it, but I do it anyway.

There is so much to unpack here: the burden of what W. E. B. Dubois termed the “double-consciousness,” the constant need to code switch. And as the novel progresses, Starr finally admits to herself how exhausting it is to be two people. Here she is later in the book:

Being two different people is so exhausting. I’ve taught myself to speak with two different voices and only say certain things around certain people. I’ve mastered it. As much as I say I don’t have to choose with Starr I am with Chris, maybe without realizing it, I have to an extent. Part of me feels like I can’t exist around people like him.

I read these passages and thought of my own experiences growing up. How I often found myself code switching before I even knew there was a term for it. The first time I had ever read anything that spoke to these experiences was when I read Amy Tan’s essay, “Mother Tongue.” Like Tan, I became increasingly aware of the different Englishes I used, the different Englishes I accessed when the situation called for it.

So at my 95% white, mostly Irish and Italian Catholic school, I had one English. It was the English that earned praise from my 8th grade English teacher, Mr. Giusti, who read my stories to the class. But at family gatherings, I often adopted an ever so slight version of Taglish (Tagalog English). Without meaning to, I responded to aunts and uncles with the English I heard at home, the English that my parents used.

For all its complexities, code switching is really just a smaller part of the bigger process of assimilation—of finding a way to belong. The late Bharati Mukherjee wrote of “two ways to belong in America.” I know what she meant, more now than when I first read her essay years ago. Likewise, Mukherjee’s novel Wife is another haunting portrayal of what happens when we try to belong. And how I longed to belong. With some regret and much more sadness, I think about how many times I longed to be “Irish,” if even for a day—to celebrate St. Patty’s day with the same kind of joy that my freckled classmates did. It’s not that I wasn’t proud to be Filipino, and I still don’t think I was ever ashamed of my heritage. Or maybe I was—or maybe my middle school self was. After all, I remember saying nothing one night as one of my best friends joked about my grandparents’ accent and lack of English. Back then, I didn’t think it was a big deal. She meant no harm, I told myself. It’s only a joke. Yet here I am still thinking about it.

I hope that some of my students will read The Hate U Give. As much as the book was a mirror to some of my own experiences, it was also an important window. And I want my students open the drapes and have a long, lingering look through that window, too.


slice of lifeThis post is part of the Slice of Life Challenge, hosted by Two Writing Teachers, who have created a space for writers and teachers of writers to come together. To learn more about this challenge, click here.

6 Comments

  1. Your last lines are especially powerful. I so appreciate your thoughts here. It helps me to further understand the experiences of some of my students. Always – through books and stories, we increase our understanding of others. Really enjoyed this post.

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  2. Pingback: Slice of Life 12: Code switc | Slices of Life

  3. I’ve also been reading good reviews of this book. Very powerful thoughts on code switching. I appreciated learning more from your perspective. I think about this a lot with some of my students–how the English they speak and write most naturally isn’t acceptable in the classroom. So important to have books that serve as mirrors *and* windows.

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  4. annagosborn

    Tricia, <3. Code switching for me wasn't about language. My dad told us he stopped trying to teach us Tagalog because we giggled. Knowing now how serious he is as a person, I understand. It doesn't mean I don't grieve for the language and culture I missed out on.

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    • Funny story. My boys were asking me why my dad says some bad words sometimes (they had this mischievous but concerned look on their faces). When I asked them what words, I realized that what my dad was saying was “Bakit?” but they were hearing “F– it.” I had to explain to them that my dad was just asking “Why?” in Tagalog. Lol.

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