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Code Switching: A Black British Fairy Tale

Ella McLeod is a writer, poet, performer and graduate of Warwick University. She has worked as a spoken word poet and actress and as an Assistant Producer for Somethin’ Else. Ella also created and narrated Celina and the Spider, a series of three family-friendly storytime sessions with HOME Manchester. Her debut YA novel Rapunzella was published in July.

Rapunzella cleverly weaves contemporary urban life with traditional fairy tale in a story that celebrates Black hair and identity. Ella has some interesting insights into code-switching and we invited her to share them with us in this guest blog.

Everybody code switches. Whether it’s addressing your friends differently from your mother-in-law or debating with a teacher differently to how you’d argue with a parent, the act of modifying your behaviour depending on the context is one we are all conditioned to partake in as we develop socially. For marginalised peoples, however, the stakes are higher. Failure to assimilate correctly won’t be seen as a charming quirk but could have serious repercussions. While code-switching as a term originated to describe how people change their language- perhaps softening or heightening an accent or using different slang- we now understand it in a much broader sense, alongside an implied power dynamic. Code-switching is synonymous with assimilation: when members of an oppressed social group adopt the characteristics of the hegemony to survive and, ideally, thrive. In reverse, we call this appropriation. There is a privilege in being able to adopt the behaviours of oppressed peoples without the associated prejudice and persecution.

            In Rapunzella, Or, Don’t Touch my hair, I draw on my experiences of being a scholarship kid in a private all-girls’ school, and the conflict of identity that such a role presents. It felt like coming across the right way would entirely dictate whether or not I maintained my place there. Getting top grades, staying in teachers’ good books, being considered a valued part of the community were vital for my education, and, therefore, some kind of conformity also became a vital part of my education. Ironically, amongst the other students, I struggled to fit in. I had little in common with the group of white girls who dictated the social hierarchies. They weren’t as overtly cruel as my Monica French (the queen bee, mean girl and nemesis of my protagonist), but I sometimes felt their resentment of my hard work bubbling beneath the surface. Middle-class white people have often told me that I “don’t sound black”, that it is uncommon for black girls to like Shakespeare, and the unspoken “for a black girl” often hangs at the end of compliments. To those people, my code-switching was an offensive attempt to occupy a space that was, apparently, not meant for me.

            I felt alienated from the other black girls too. They saw my code-switching as a betrayal, not a survival technique, and were baffled by my “white person voice” and my love of the school library. My insistence that I occupy spaces that weren’t made for us made me “a coconut.”  I understood and do not blame them for this, but of course, it was hurtful and has been a painful reckoning. Naturally, this criticism wasn’t levelled at the wealthy white girls who adopted the slang typically associated with POC or working-class communities. Their appropriation made them cool. In Rapunzella, the consumptive landlord Richardson exemplifies this, cherry-picking the elements of black, working-class culture that enable him to perform an edgy, down-to-earth persona while revealing his callousness. Monica French fetishises Baker, my male love interest, but his blackness is “sexy ‘til it’s not”- when Baker is exotic but still respectable, he presents a thrilling option. But when he fails to code-switch and loses his temper, defending the protagonist from racist “jokes”, he is suddenly too aggressive, too much the “thug.” This distinction is something I have always understood, even before I could articulate its nuances. 

            The most complicated thing about code-switching is that, like all social conditioning, after spending your whole life assimilating- both consciously and unconsciously- while also wading through the thorny thicket of your own identity, you become unable to distinguish between those differing versions of yourself. Part of my journey was accepting all of it as me. I have no idea at what point I stopped sounding like the rest of my family and started sounding like someone who went to private school. I am not sure when I began publicly diminishing my anger so as not to be classed as the aggressive black woman or the trouble maker. But I do know that when I straightened my hair, aged fourteen, I was doing it to conform to a standard of acceptability that was modelled on whiteness. It wasn’t just a beauty standard- it was standard. Slick, straight hair, I had been told my whole life, was neat and professional and practical. It didn’t get in the way or obscure people’s view or need braiding and wrapping before bed at a sleepover. 

            The journey my protagonist goes on in Rapunzella has a contradicting sort of duality, which mirrors the contradiction of being a black woman in Britain. I love Shakespeare- but can understand why many black students feel fatigued with the stale male pale curriculum. I love language, am a grammatical pedant, studied Latin, am eloquent and articulate and am proud of those things- but can also recognise that those things are born out of a privileged, classist, elitist education. I love playing with my hair- but can also see that no choice I make about my appearance is free from the negative messaging about beauty I’ve received all my life. And so even the form of Rapunzella, Or, Don’t Touch My Hair, shifting between poetry and prose, different places and people, exists to shine a light on the nature of code-switching, it is, at times, quite fun. Fitting into different places, playing with variety, changing your appearance, your language, your mannerisms. But it’s the having to that hurts. In my book, King Charming’s curse is forced assimilation. It’s not the act of straightening the hair of the witches that enables him to steal their magic, it’s that he does it without their consent. And Rapunzella, her magic strong and defiant, is a character whose exile and imprisonment serve as a living, breathing example of what happens to those who don’t conform.