Code-Switching is a linguistic term that describes when a speaker alternates between two or more languages, or language varieties, within the context of a single conversation. As the great Special ED once rapped “It’s just a dialect that I select when I hang.” In Boots Riley’s debut film Sorry To Bother You, the lead character Cassius Green (Lakeith Stanfield) achieves new success in telemarketing when he assumes a more “white” voice when on the phone. His co-worker Langston (Danny Glover) explains that it is more than just ‘sounding white,’ but sounding ‘aspirationally’ white, “What they think they are supposed to sound like.”
In some ways code-switching has come to relate to more than just language, but being able to move between worlds seamlessly via changes in speech and behavior. This is closer to the concept W.E.B. Du Bois referred to as Double-Consciousness, but for the sake of this discussion 'code-switching' is the phrase being expounded on. “I think behaviorally I like the way you set it up. ‘Cause it’s not just the voice thing,” says Omari Hardwick.“Boots brilliantly went extreme in terms of the voice. But code switching in its most brilliant element is not hearing anything and just watching someone be able to [move this way].”
Given that code-switching varies across cultures and ethnicities, we asked the very diverse cast of Sorry To Bother You to share times in their lives when they have had to adjust their behavior to fit in.
That’s very real for Asian-Americans I think. I think code switching is something that Asian-Americans do really well because we’re kind of in that middle…we can kind of flow wherever and so there’s a lot of code switching going on. [My character] Squeeze code switches right off the top when you first meet him and then he gets called out on it. And I thought that was a really small delicate moment and I’m glad Lakeith leaned into it. After Squeeze says ‘We gotta get some skrill and benny’s’ and Cassius says ‘What did you just you say?’ And I’m like, oh my bad. I don’t know if I do it everyday but that’s a very real thing.
You know, this might be a little controversial, but I’ve been in circles where, you know, you feel like you don’t want to sound too smart. Which is, people always see it as the other way, like trying to sound ‘white.’ But I know growing up in Flint, Michigan…the pressure was to not look like you knew what you were talking about. It’s almost, Chris Rock brought it up [in his stand up] ‘Man, I don’t know none of that.’ And you’re like, wait a minute. I remember feeling like…I may not have code switched, but it was more like, don’t tell them that you DO know. Dumb down.
By being a middle kid I just have a tendency to ‘we’ everything in terms of pronouns. So in talking about that as it pertains to the man on my left and the my right, we, it’s impossible to be minorities and not have done that. But every character I’ve played is code switching to me. I mean the fact that I can play the character. The abilities to play different characters means that in real life I’ve had to play all the characters. Ghost obviously is 45 people in one, so.
And if the Asian diaspora of America, as Steven perfectly stated, is able to be right within this epicenter of it all, so that you don’t know left to right what’s happening, the minority of all minorities within America, that being the Black American, has had to code switch in extreme ways. You see it. With President Obama I don’t know if I would’ve voted for him if I don’t think he can hold his own walking down South Side Chicago. I’m sure you’re good at the office of the White House and you’re able to do those types of things, I know you are. My father was a lawyer, I get it. Walk down South Side Chicago and make it to that house. So we all code switch.
I’m doing it now. I’ve been doing it ever since I woke up. ‘Oh, press today. Better get ready.
I think the point that the film makes is, the necessity to code switch may be exacerbated by race and socioeconomic standing and gender, but it happens. You see Cassius’s characters code switch affect this white voice to sort of gain success. And Detroit, my character, is really sort of harsh on him about that but you see her code switch when she’s making her art and does her show. So I think the point is that we all, as humans, that’s a part of identity. It’s a construction. And we’re constantly waking up and constructing it.
Sorry To Bother You is in select theaters July 6th and nationwide July 13th.
Photo by Tommaso Boddi/Getty Images for IMDb)