7 October 2018
Code Switching and the Youth of America
The changing of one’s behavior to fit and conform to the cultural/societal norms laid out before them is what “code switching” can be defined as. The practice of code switching is a deeply explored topic in Angie Thomas’s realistic-fiction novel, The Hate You Give, which revolves around Starr Carter; a teenage, African-American girl who witnesses the death of a childhood friend at the hands of a police officer. Among Starr’s many struggles is her connection to two vastly different lives which she believes must be separated until events cause her to come to grips with who she really is. In today’s America, the practice of code switching is very apparent for a surplus of reasons, but when relating to our youth, the action is more commonly performed in instances that allow them to fit in, hide something or as an inadvertent action. The Hate You Give is able to express why teens feel it is necessary for teens to code switch when they are a part of what feels like two different worlds.
The Hate You Give is able to accurately portray why a teenager such as Starr may feel the need to code switch among different groups of people to escape judgement and the feeling of being inferior. Starr Carter was removed from her intercity schooling at Garden Heights by her parents at age ten when her friend Natasha was killed in a drive by shooting. Starr was enrolled at Williamson Prep where she began a new life, with new friends while still being a part of her intercity roots. Throughout the story, Starr will repeatedly refer to herself as either, “Garden Heights Starr” or “Williamson Starr”, because she believes she must be two different people if she wants to fit in with the two different groups that are most prevalent in her life. A specific instance of Starr’s code switching is her vocabulary which changes depending on the Starr she is trying to be. For example, when Starr is around her Garden Heights friends as well as her family, she will use words like “ain’t”, “gonna” and “finna” which is very common language for people living in Garden Heights. These words are a contrast to Williamson Starr who is frequently making sure to talk and act like that of her mostly white peers and so that her “ghetto accent” isn’t noticed by her friends and boyfriend. To many American teens, it is difficult to fit in especially when bullying and cyberbullying are at an all-time high. In a study conducted by Stage of Life, 95% of students surveyed said to have felt inferior in some way, shape or form and in order for many teens to fit in, they feel the need to change something about themselves that can somehow make them seem less inferior to their peers and we see Starr perform this action because of her fear of being judged by her friends for being an intercity girl.
American teens today are very concerned with hiding aspects of their lives that may lead to people thinking less of them in certain situations which is yet another reason for our youth code switching. During a pivotal scene in the book, Starr reveals to her boyfriend, Chris, the darkest and most life-alerting secrets she has kept hidden from him and her Williamson friends. Starr explains to Chris the death of childhood friend Natasha and Khalil who was recently killed by a white police officer (Thomas 296-301) which the basis of the book revolves around. At this point in the story, Starr has the realization that she has no need to keep secrets from her boyfriend anymore because he loves and cares about her in more ways than she thought. Up until that very point though, Starr feared Chris finding out about her other life. For most of Starr’s relationship with Chris she was too afraid of telling him about her other life in fear that he would see her as a totally different person and decide to not be with her anymore. This moment is very important for someone who code switches to attempt to hide something about themselves from people they know. The fear of prejudice and judgement from one’s peers is something many teens are facing, so they feel it is right to hide certain aspects of their life to escape said fears, but something good can occur when a situation like in The Hate You Give arises, which is when the need for “code switching” is no longer necessary and teens can begin to feel comfortable being themselves and not changing who they are just to hide things they think need to be hidden.
The final reason the teens of America code switch is because something clicks in the brain causing code switching to become an inadvertent action or “Our lizard brains takeover” as comically described by NPR. In the book, Starr is enjoying her brother’s graduation party where it so happens her “worlds collided” (Thomas 359). While having fun and dancing, Starr shows codeswitching in a way she wouldn’t even had noticed. Starr is showing her boyfriend how to dance along with all the songs her and her Garden Heights world are playing (Thomas 360). Starr doesn’t even realize that she is codeswitching in front of her own family because dancing to certain music and having fun like that isn’t something Starr frequently does in front of her Williamson friends and so she is acting as “Garden Heights Starr”. Starr naturally defers to how she acts around her family even though her Williamson friends are present. For someone who has had to code switch for as long as Starr has, moments will have clicked like the one discussed where someone will just automatically change their ways without putting much thought to it just because they don’t think through what they are doing, they just do what their mind is telling them to do. The repetition of such actions like code switching and in such a long period of performing these actions can cause for people to just automatically act out such actions without internalizing.
Our American youth will do anything to fit in with their peers even if it means throwing away aspects of their lives that make them who they are. Throughout The Hate You Give, Starr Carter code switches to fit in, hide personal secrets, and because this is the way of life she has become accustomed to from living two different lives. Hiding, keeping quiet and conforming is the life of our American teens but we are left with the question of what can we do to ensure our youth is comfortable being themselves?
Thomas, Angela. The Hate You Give. First ed., New York, HarperCollins Publishers, 2017.
Thompson, Matt. “Five Reasons Why People Code-Switch.” NPR, NPR, 13 Apr. 2013, www.npr.org/sections/codeswitch/ 2013/04/13/177126294/five-reasons-why-people-code-switch.
Stage of Life – Changing the World, One Story at a Time, Multiple. “High School Main Page.” Statistics on High School Students and Teens, 2009, www.stageoflife.com/StageHighSchool/OtherResources/Statistics_on_ High_School_Students_and_Teenagers.aspx.
“Statistics on Bullying in the United States.” Statistics on Bullying in the United States, SoundVision.com, 2007, Link to Statistics on Bullying in US: https://www.soundvision.com/article/statistics-on-bullying-in-the-united-states.
Essay by Bradyn Wood is licensed under a Creative Commons International 4.0 License