The hidden toll of ‘code-switching’ on college campuses

Seeking access and acceptance, many Black students feel pressure to change their speech patterns on college campuses “so heavily saturated with white peers, professors, and standards of academic excellence,” writes Teen Vogue. But prolonged periods of code-switching—or shifting between dialects depending on the setting—can tax Black students’ mental health and hinder their academic performance.

‘You don’t stand a chance if you don’t speak their language’

Students interviewed by Teen Vogue say they have learned that acceptance and success at majority-white institutions often requires foregoing African American Vernacular English (AAVE) and performing a “white voice.” As Robinson Cook, a Black senior at the University of Wisconsin-Madison puts it, “you don’t stand a chance if you don’t speak their language.”

“Black English is often not recognized as a distinct dialect in the United States,” says Preshuslee Thompson, a training and development specialist at the Kirwan Institute for the Study of Race and Ethnicity. “This causes people to assume that it is broken or less-educated English, which is not the case.”

‘Code-switching is exhausting’

Amid biases against AAVE, many Black students conform to dominant white speech patterns in the classroom. “Code-switching can often be a way to let white people know that you can navigate a space, or even that you belong in a space,” Thompson says. But constantly monitoring what you say and how it will be received “is exhausting,” says Cook. The burden of weighing one’s internal thoughts against external biases can distract students from learning and fuel self-doubt about whether they belong on campus. In addition, hearing students who are not Black appropriate words from AAVE—“without judgement in a way that African Americans are not afforded” and often without understanding the terms’ origins—further contributes to the othering of Black students.

‘Having a community on campus who speak as I do erases a layer of stress’

Over time, self-monitoring “can become very traumatic for a person,” says Nanika Coor, a psychologist in Brooklyn. Furthermore, students often find insufficient mental health services available to them, especially if a college lacks counselors of color. Finding a student group or club that embraces Black students culturally and linguistically can help their wellness and sense of belonging.

“There are very few people at school that I can talk to in a normal way,” says Precious Davis, a senior at Vassar College. “But having a community on campus who speak as I do erases a layer of stress off the conversation and makes me feel at home.”

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