The Art of the Code-Switch: Obama Morphs for His Audience Just Like You Do

When I was a young boy my father's best friend, Art, lived in Alabama, and every now and again my family and I would travel from Arizona to spend a week visiting him at his lake house. On one of those trips, on the way back from an errand to buy ice, my dad and I pulled over for a quick bite at a roadside shack advertising catfish fritters. At that point, most of my life had been spent in Saudi Arabia and Arizona, where I could count the number of black children in my elementary school on one hand, and without using my thumb. Alabama was different. Black people were everywhere, though not in Art's neighborhood, and on that day, on the back patio of that fish shack, I recognized code-switching for the very first time.

Sweating through our shirts while waiting for our food, my dad and I took a seat next to a black man about his age, who struck up a conversation with us. I can't remember exactly what we talked about, but I remember that as my dad put away one beer, and then two, his speech as I'd known it my whole life changed before my eyes. My father hails from western Ohio, and though he'd always done strange things verbally, like say "warsh" instead of "wash" and call vacuum cleaners "sweepers," for the most part he spoke the way one might expect any middle-aged, suburban lawyer to speak. But that day something changed. He started dropping his Gs and saying "ain't." He referred to other human beings as "cats," and he said the word "motherfucker" more than I'd ever heard him say it before. His body language followed the looseness of his audible language, and he leaned back and spread out his limbs the way people do when they're relaxing around friends. At the conversation's funniest moments, my father and the man would reach out and slap hands through giddy fits of laughter.

When the catfish fritters were gone and my dad had taken the last swigs of his beer, we said goodbye and got in the car. On the drive back to the lake, I asked him why he'd talked to our dining companion "like that."

"Like what?" he asked.

"I don't know," I said. "Like in that weird voice with all the swearing."

He laughed, and then he said something that was cryptic to me at the time but which now makes total sense: "I wasn't always a lawyer who went to sleep at my white friend's lake house, son."

Last night, on Fox News, Sean Hannity and Tucker Carlson attempted to squeeze new life out of an old video of Barack Obama addressing some black pastors at Hampton University in Virginia. Though the video had been scrutinized and decried since it was filmed in 2007, the two conservative pundits claimed "unrevealed" portions of the tape warranted a new inquiry. Those portions turned out to contain nothing damning at all, unless one considers acknowledging that racism exists a particularly controversial act. But it wasn't just the content of the speech Hannity and Carlson disliked, it was also how Obama said it. Specifically, they didn't like his "accent," which was their shorthand for the twangy and casual way of speaking Obama adopted in the speech. "This accent is absurd," Carlson told Hannity. "This is not the way Obama talks. It's put on, it's phony." Hannity would later call Obama's ad hoc vocal inflections "pandering."

This has been written about and discussed before, but it obviously bears repeating: Yes, Obama speaks differently in front of black crowds than he does in front of mostly white audiences, which includes the American public at large. The linguistics term for the practice is "code-switching," and Obama code-switches so consistently that he directly addressed the practice five years ago in an interview with NPR:

I think that there's a certain black idiom that it's hard not to slip into when you're talking to a black audience because of the audience response. It's the classic call and response. Anybody who's spent time in a black church knows what I mean. And so you get a little looser; it becomes a little more like jazz and a little less like a set score.

Lots of politicians code-switch, from Hillary Clinton, who sometimes takes on a drawl when speaking in the South, to Isaac Fromme, a 19th Century New York City politician who would pepper his speeches with Yiddish to assure voters he was Jewish, not Irish.

You don't need to be a powerful politician to code-switch. For most people, it's an unstudied habit. My dad didn't understand what I had meant when I asked him about talking like that because it just came naturally to him. Have you ever heard someone living in America but from, say, Scotland speak to relatives back home? It's like hearing them mutate into a completely different, unintelligible person in a matter of seconds. You probably code switch when you tell the same story differently to your grandmother than you do your college buddies, and it's likely you don't even realize you're doing it.

This is not abnormal or offensive behavior; these are the things human beings do in order to establish familiarity with one another. Nevertheless, Obama's code-switching is unacceptable to people like Hannity, Carlson, and Matt Drudge—celebrities who no doubt code-switch themselves when going from public to private life—because they see it as part of the president's responsibility to never remind the country that he's black. In order to feel more comfortable, they'd like Obama to diminish his blackness as much as possible. Unfortunately for them, Barack Obama wasn't always a lawyer who went to sleep in the White House.

[Image via AP]