Tuesday, October 21, 2014

There Will Be Shade: Adventuress in Code Switching

No matter how diligently we attend to the clarity and precision of our language, the meaning of our words can and will be misunderstood. Those times can be frustrating. Consider the many arguments, the times when friends were hurt, and relationships shattered because someone thought you to be insensitive or something or someone other than who or what you are. I'm a rather kind individual, slow to anger and eager to please, and I don't know how many times I've had to apologize to others for hurting their feelings. Words can hurt far more often than we intend, but it doesn't mean that we should stop trying to be vigilant in our attempts to be compassionate.

We may not have control over how people take our meaning, but we take comfort in meaning's collective nature, seeing that different groups of people derive meaning in regular and predictable ways, gleaming knowledge from each other's attempts to be seen and understood. We can learn to be better communicators through the experiences of others who have been misunderstood. When we are systematically misunderstood by an individual, when we're doing everything we can to be properly interpreted, conforming to the rules of the culture around us, it is the individual who misunderstands who is denounced as being obtuse or overly sensitive. This is because we need to share meaning with each other. But all of us don't see the world in the same way, so how do we form collective meaning? We tend to form subcultures that we often move in and out of on a daily basis. We need to be able to share our experiences within each of these subcultures and understand the boundaries and limitations when conveying meaning to others with diverse life contexts and experiences.

I still make an effort to be understood all while knowing I don't have control of the interpretation of my words. My interest in language must have begun when I moved to the south from Chicago. I was 11 years old, in the midst of an emotional separation from friends and family, constantly being misunderstood by my classmates day in and day out. It got to me at times. It wasn't just my midwestern dialect; there were entire aspects of my vocabulary that my peers couldn't understand. Being a child who desperately needed to fit in, I quickly changed my way of speaking to fit the people around me, sometimes consciously, at other times completely outside of my awareness, and to this day the process of transformation impresses me. I'm not sure that it's something that I could do today. My experience with dialect and culture shock led me to find code switching interesting, not just with regionalism but within and between races as well.

In Chicago, I went to a nearly all-white private school. For most of my early childhood, my white friends were just my friends, and while I understood the significance of ethnicity and race, it was something that mostly only concerned the adults. It wasn't until I moved to the south that race became an issue in my life. And it wasn't the discrimination of southern whites to a northern black kid, it was my new black friends who didn't think I was black enough because of the way I talked. My black classmates told me repeatedly that I was mixed race, half white, or in some other way questioned my legitimate claim to being as black as they were. Mind you, I am fairly light skinned, but in the final analysis it had nothing to do with the way I looked and everything to do with the way I sounded. In the end, it was because I had picked up the speaking patterns of my white classmates in Chicago that made people think I wasn't fully black. It had become a characteristic of my identity as much as skin color only it was something that I was able to change. I barely had a grasp on the English language when I then had to figure out the nuances of white and black English simultaneously. I learned code switching at a fairly young age and because of that I've found language to be one of my primary interests in life.

I was introduced to the term shade late in my gay identity. My best definition of the term as I've seen it used is disrespecting someone in complementary or a sneaky way, often while seeming to give advice or a compliment. And while many gay black men actively engaged in throwing shade, often I see many gay men thinking they have been dissed when nothing of the sort has ever happened. I've been accused of this as well as many of the people I know who had no such intentions. I attributed it to the fact that many gay men are often on the defensive, deflecting shade at every turn, ever vigilant for the backhanded insult they know is about to come their way. But is it really helpful to be so vigilant and looking to be insulted when so such insult is intended?

I know many people who have genuinely been insulted by something I've said that was in no way intended to hurt. And yet, I can't say that their defensive stance is unwanted because I don't fully know the context in which that stance was developed. Maybe it serves them well in their daily lives. Maybe it makes them feel more in control to sniff out the sly putdowns at every turn and to defend themselves against the crafty bitches who throw shade. For me, ignorance is bliss. I'm glad I don't recognize shade most of the time, and if you want to talk behind my back while in front of of my face, go ahead, I won't care, for the most part.

I have a friend who doesn’t like people using the word faggot around him. We'll sometimes play competitive games, and we both hear trash talk that often involves using the word. I am not like him. I'm not offended by the word at all. I’m not sure why it doesn’t offend me, maybe I should feel offended, and what does it say about me if I’m not? He thinks it makes me a self -hating gay, that deep down I don't accept the offensiveness of the word because I’m deeply in denial about that term referring to people like me. And maybe he's right. Maybe I deny the word any power over me because I don't think it refers to me at all. I cannot say the same about other offensive words.

I am deeply offended by the word nigger. Anyone who uses it is suspect to me. Even if they use in a non-threatening way, saying the word only to illustrate a point about its use, quoting a person who once used the word, using it in a comedy bit or in some ironic way, I still get a little twinge of anger and pain at the sound of the syllables, immediately questioning the motives of the person who used it. I'm left to wonder, why the disparity between the two words? I still don't know for sure, but I think it has a lot to do with my personal experiences with both words. I've seldom seen anyone belittled with he word faggot in the way that I've seen the word nigger used. And when I saw the word faggot used to belittle someone, I couldn't be sure the person was gay of if he were just an effeminate straight guy. With the word nigger, there was no such ambiguity.

George Carlin is one of my favorite comedians and authors. He has a famous comedy routine in which says aloud the words one cannot say on television. It's made more hilariously ironic that he is on television saying the words you cannot say on television. In his bit, he claims that words in and of themselves don't have the power but it's the content and the intent in which the words are spoken that matter. I agree with everything he said except for the word nigger. I felt something different when I heard that word as he listed a long line of racial slurs one cannot say in public, and I suspect that others might have felt a certain way when they heard racial slurs used to humiliate members of their respective groups as well.

I know I can’t make everyone happy, and I don’t try, but when I speak I try to avoid saying things that I know will upset people. Unless I’m trying to make a point that can be made in no other effective way, I abstain from using profanity and harsh language. The reason I would forgive George Carlin for what he said is because I genuinely feel as though he was attempting to make a valid point in his routine. It was pretty funny and insightful, and I think the guy has put a lot of thought into the language he was using. I often disagree with him even as I think he’s making a smart argument, but I was still taken aback by the sound of the word coming out of his mouth. Even if we disagree about the use of such words, there should be some common understanding about the way it can make people feel.

I wanted to write about code switching, about how black people speak differently than whites, gays from straights, and the social implications of language because I think the idea that language in itself that is bad and language that is good shapes a lot of our social discourse. It's something that needs to be discussed openly because even if it's not a part of the conversation it will always be in the background. I’d rather be the guy who attempts to be too nice than the one who goes around pissing people off simply to make a point. If we lived in a world where people were a little too concerned about the feelings of other people, it would be preferable to a world in which everyone could care less about other's feelings. So if someone is offended by something you said even if you didn't intend to hurt them, try not to be frustrated. Try to be compassionate, apologize, and consider if what you said could have been said in a better way.

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