Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00
0:00
Available On Air Stations
Local News

Some BIPOC Vermonters say they're done code-switching, because they want to be themselves

A graphic with multicolored silhouettes of Black people.
smartboy10
/
iStock
Some BIPOC Vermonters say they're done with code-switching, and want to be themselves.

For those who have never heard this term before, code-switching is changing from one language or vernacular to another.

We all code-switch. For example, the way that we talk to children is not the same way we speak to other adults. For BIPOC communities, it’s different.

Racialized code-switching occurs when a group of people change the way they sound to be understood and socially accepted. This can happen in different situations such as job interviews, college campuses, and professional environments.

It may sound something like this:

“Hi, my name is Casey Ellerby. I am the event planner for the racial equity inclusion and belonging department."

Versus:

"When my friends have been asking me, what do you do? Right? You know, I'm like. I'm the event planner for the racial equity inclusion and belonging department like, right, so my accent is heavier.”

Not only does Ellerby's accent become more noticeable, the speed of her speech changes as well. Black and Brown people have used this technique for generations. Some more than others.

Sometimes when people of color are speaking "properly," it comes to the judgment of someone saying they sound white. In Vermont, code-switching can feel like a burden.

“I think it's something that is useful, but also something that can kind of convey and show and perpetuate harm. So I hope that we figure out how to have a world where we don't have to code-switch, and we could just do what we got to do [and] say things how we want to say them."
Belan Antensaye, innovation and strategy manager for Burlington's Racial, Equity, Inclusion and Belonging Committee

“I think it's something that is useful, but also something that can kind of convey and show and perpetuate harm. So I hope that we figure out how to have a world where we don't have to code-switch and we could just do what we got to do [and] say things how we want to say them,” said Belan Antensaye, the innovation and strategy manager for Burlington's Racial, Equity, Inclusion and Belonging Committee.

Her family left Ethiopia for Vermont just before her first birthday. She says she’s tired of shedding her roots to be understood.

“I think that a lot of that is the older I get, and the more community I'm able to build here, and the blacker that Burlington gets, and all these things, the more that I feel at home to just be myself and speak in the way that I want to speak," Antensaye said. "That being said, growing up here, it wasn't always the case."

More from Brave Little State: Why Is Vermont So Overwhelmingly White?

According to recent census data, from 2010 to 2020, Vermont gained almost 3,000 people who identify as Black. Alongside the numbers, there have been more events celebrating diverse identities around the state.

Demographics are changing, and people are starting to make the choice to sound how they want to.

“Me as an artist, I don't do code-switching. I don't do that. Like, I don't like to dilute myself."
Noorto Mohamed, poet and writer who lived in Burlington until recently

“Me as an artist, I don't do code-switching. I don't do that," said Noorto Mohamed, a Burlington resident until she recently moved to Rochester, New York. "Like, I don't like to dilute myself, I'm not doing that for nobody. I don't care if you're on the stage. Me being a poet and an artist, being on that stage with that mic. That's when I can be truly myself."

Mohamed is a poet and a graduate of the University of Vermont. She lived in the Somali Bantu community here for 17 years.

She turned to the art of poetry to find and amplify her voice.

A black woman in a red shirt smiling outside in front of trees.
Noorto Mohamed, Courtesy
/
Noorto Mohamed is poet and writer who lived in Burlington's Somali Bantu community until recently. Her family came to Vermont over 17 years ago.

Noorto has been participating in the Black Artist Showcase, a monthly celebration of BIPOC artists, authors, and poets, for over a year now. Performing her poetry on stage has empowered her to be her true self, and sound like it too.

This is Noorto reading a poem titled “Culture”:

“There's essential oils under this durag. Don't let the attire fool you. Soulful in all parts, we got food on the grill, chicken in the fryer, watch your step, you might step on this prayer rug. But don't worry, we give nothing but hugs and handshakes beyond the looks. You thought separating the soul from his motherland would deprive his gifts, but there's nothing but lift-ing each other. Productivity under the snow sky. Ain't no turning back. Culture is bloodline. Ain't no mistake. You got disrespect. Come, I'll give you a handshake.”

She believes that the more we stand up and empower other people of color to sound how they want to, the stigmas will begin to fade.

Have questions, comments or tips? Send us a message or get in touch with reporter Marlon Hyde @HydeMarlon.

Related Content