Short Take: Breaking The Code

The gravamen of the op-ed is about discrimination in housing, a phenomenon that’s gone on officially and unofficially for a very long time. Much as it’s prohibited by law, it still exists in the hands of folks who assume black folks are going to either steal from them or just can’t afford to live in nice white neighborhoods. As Karyn Lacy says, “Black people expend daily energy to counteract racial stereotypes and get fair treatment.”

In support of this indisputable reality, however, Lacy proffers a curious point:

When I talked two decades ago with more than 50 middle-class blacks who lived in the suburbs of Washington, I learned that their awareness of racial stereotypes led them to take on what I call “public identities”  meaning they would strategically deploy cultural capital, including language, mannerisms, clothing and credentials in ways that brought their middle-class status firmly into focus. From their experiences attending integrated high schools, many of these people had come to believe this was key to managing racism in interactions with white people. They hoped it would tip the balance of their public interactions so that class would trump race and persuade white people to treat them fairly.

Is there anyone who doesn’t have a face they keep in a jar by the door? Or wear to work. Or when they go out on a first date, or meet a real estate agent? This isn’t a black or white (or brown) phenomenon, but a human one. Everyone has a face for themselves, for their family and close friends, and another for people with whom they interact from a polite distance.

This is an idea related to “code switching,” a term used to describe the temporary shift from black English to standard English that some black people use to signal their appropriation of white, middle-class norms. But the public identities of the middle-class black people I studied involved more than language: They spanned everything from dress to conversation topics to the small details of workplace conduct.

Again, we all “code switch” when speaking to friends and family as opposed to people we don’t know. We may curse. We may make inside jokes. We may use vernacular. After all, our friends and family know us and at least tolerate us, if not love us. People we don’t know don’t.

More to the point, we use “standard English” because it enables communication. It allows us to engage with others without confusion or offense. That’s why it’s called “standard.” But what it is not is “appropriation of white, middle-class norms” (not that there’s anything wrong with that), but just plain old norms. Black people don’t “appropriate” it, as they’re just as entitled to communicate clearly, to use “standard English,” as anyone else.

There is no question but that middle class black people are compelled daily to navigate around racial bias by demonstrating that they’re the “good” kind of black person, the kind of black person that white people find “acceptable.” But that black people engage in the same conduct as everyone else, putting on their “public identities” and “code shifting” to publicly acceptable language isn’t the problem, isn’t “exhausting,” isn’t a racist. It’s human.

Racism and stereotypes persist alongside the desire of black people to be treated as well as whites — so the exhausting work of performing public identities will persist, too.

Racism and stereotypes do, indeed, persist, but the work of “performing public identities” is neither exhausting nor a black phenomenon. It’s just being a person in a world filled with other people who don’t know who you are until you tell them. Fighting racism is certainly a worthy goal, but being judged by strangers is what happens to everyone. If it’s too exhausting, then take a nap.


15 thoughts on “Short Take: Breaking The Code

  1. Richard Kopf


    I’m exhausted.

    My inner self ( Freud might say my “id”) constantly compels me to think bad thoughts. My outer self forces me to act like the “good German.” There is good reason why anti-anxiety meds (like the the discussion of the business opportunities with plastic in The Graduate) is booming.

    Anyway, please don’t judge me. Although that is exactly what I do to other people.

    All the best.


    PS Ms. Lacy should read the olden Greek plays where one actor with two faces (masks) was common. Unfortunately, those ancient Greeks did not have Xanax.

      1. Bear

        Naps are good and have the advantage they don’t require a prescription from an m.d.

        But maybe The Graduate should be remade with a businesswoman telling Ben: benzodiazepines!

  2. Sacho

    Dr. Karen Lacy demonstrates the stereotype of ivory tower academia being out of touch with how people function by providing us with this extremely solipsistic take. What I can’t figure out is whether she realizes how racist her conclusions are. Not only do all black people have a certain way they act and *must* “code switch” to a “public identity”, as if they couldn’t possibly integrate seamlessly into their local community, but also, everyone else is a homogenous blob of conformity who interact in perfect harmony with each other.

    This is the kind of lazy thinking I’d expect her to criticize her first-year students for, yet here it is promoted on the NYT. What a clown world we live in.

    1. SHG Post author

      You mean some black people can speak standard English and wear suits for the same reasons as white people, and aren’t exhausted? Who knew? Isn’t it required that all black people speak jive and dress like a gangster?

      The other day, a point was made about the soft prejudice of low expectations, but always with the best of intentions.

  3. Hunting Guy

    Bill Callahan.

    “I feel like you come in under a cloak of someone else’s skin for a while, but then you can shrug it off – you have to find your own voice, if you want to keep doing it.”

  4. B. McLeod

    Once I heard a story about some guy who dreamed he was a butterfly, and then became uncertain whether he was a man who had dreamed he was a butterfly, or a butterfly, dreaming that it was a man. I heard another story about a camel that tried for so long to get its nose under a tent, it forgot that it was a camel.

    In our modern times, when everyone but Nkechi Amare Diallo is allowed to “identify” as what-the-Hell-ever, such stories should cease to be seen as relevant.

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