Updated: Feb 22, 2021
We wear the mask that grins and lies,
It hides our cheeks and shades our eyes,—
This debt we pay to human guile;
With torn and bleeding hearts we smile,
And mouth with myriad subtleties[...]
When Paul Laurence Dunbar wrote, “We Wear the Mask,” he was not describing a carnival scene. He was rhythmically relaying the life of Black folks who find code and mode-switching a necessary means for survival. While code-switching refers to adapting one’s linguistic practices as a means to minimize the discrimination we often suffer, I dubbed mode-switching to more fully reflect the bodily and engagement choices beyond language we adopt for the same purpose. It is not only Black people who wear the mask or code-switch, but with respect to sustained and even codified discrimination, Black people have the most to lose by opting not to do so considering that we are regarded as more animalistic and less innocent than our white peers and thereby targeted for a range of abuses.
There is a burgeoning body of work that both acknowledges assimilationist practices like code-switching and rallies against them with good reason. Code-switching and similar tactics like passing have undoubtedly prolonged the physical survival of Black folks - the former by assuring whites that we “remember our place,” and the latter by visually disappearing altogether. Yet, critics argue that by linguistically suppressing the deepest parts of our culture, we are dying slowly by disconnecting from the communal spaces that offer healing and belonging within a discriminatory society. Further, code-switching specifically calls for us to contort our culture and deny both our understanding of and expression within the world causing a psychic isolation in addition to the physical one.
So what happens then to those deep cultural and linguistic parts of our identities? As we displace our true selves with the very violence from which we are retreating, we in effect hasten our own mortality.
What is best, then - to code-switch or, nah?
The answer is not and should not be so clear. There is no single story for how we show up in our survival as people who have miraculously survived a brutal dehumanizing history. I argue that we must avoid this binary thinking about the survival of our people currently, linguistically, geographically and across time.
What it takes for a person to survive may look different from one person to the next, in different areas of the state, across the country or even throughout an era. Who is to say that I can any more withstand the psychic abuse of rejection, isolation and gaslighting than my ancestors could take the threat of physical violence? The same offense which might cost me a job or a social connection, may cost the next Black person their bodily safety. Admittedly, physical violence is still a threat for all Black folks, but each individual alone is left to decide how to weigh the price of their freedom. Standing in judgement of those decisions becomes an additional form of oppression within the Black community which further divides and isolates our members among ourselves.
In fact, both historically and currently, other forms of non-linguistic passing such as ascribing to respectability politics have also done significant harm to communities of color. Take for example the toxic chemicals used to relax hair and the way it both medically impacted folks as young as 5 years old while also causing folks to choose ‘camps’ between what kind of beauty was preferable in Black people (primarily for women). Or, the light-skinned Latinx folks who fail to acknowledge the harmful effects of erasing their Afro-Latinx siblings. Within Asian communities as well, many young people report feeling disconnected from both their home and U.S. cultures due to their elders discouraging them from speaking their mother tongue as a means to better “fit in” and avoid discrimination. These are all forms of passing or as I call it ‘mode-switching’ that with prolonged enactment distance many from both the white and home communities and in a perpetual purgatory of disconnection.
There is space for all forms of survival and our acceptance of one another in the various ways we show up in a white supremacist society is more important than comparing those methods for the purpose of critique. As we individually navigate how best to embody our authentic selves, the best way to strengthen our community is to work towards it together while acknowledging the pace will vary between us.
We wear the mask!