I Am Not Repeating Myself: The Life of a Code Switching Caribbean Woman
Raise your hand if you're from the Caribbean.
Raise your other hand if you've heard the phrase "Omg your accent is so cute!"
It's been about eight years since I first moved to the U.S. to start college. The culture shock of the initial experience is something that faded away with time. I'm used to driving on the right side of the road now. I can sleep in A/C. I've mastered my fear of driving by 18-wheelers.
You know what I haven't gotten used to though? Americans' fascination with the way I speak.
When I first got to Virginia in 2011 I already knew how to code switch. The U.S. Virgin Islands might be Caribbean in every way, but we are used to hearing the American accent and most of us can mimic it very well. In school we were taught that our dialect is "improper" and that to speak "proper English" means to speak like an American. Still, I didn't want to bother sounding like anything other than myself. So in my first few conversations with Americans, I spoke in my dialect. Then came the immediate need for them to interrupt me mid conversation with a stifled laugh and ask me to "say that again?"
I realized very quickly that Americans have little to no trouble understanding what we're saying. If we speak at a moderate speed, it's pretty easy to catch on and get the gist of it. When American people ask a Caribbean person (or anyone else with an accent for that matter) to repeat themselves, it seems like most of the time they're just asking for their own entertainment. They like to hear us speak or found what we just said to be "funny." Too bad I'm not a comedian and I'm not being paid to repeat myself like your Google Home speaker.
Since that initial experience, I took back to code switching to avoid the encounter altogether. I felt more comfortable just speaking "properly" to get through a conversation and going about my business rather than risk being asked to repeat myself and feeling the need to call someone a mudascunt. Eventually though, code switching can get exhausting. For me? It eventually became a conflict regarding my identity.
After being in the U.S. for so many years I'd acquired a circle of friends who I knew and trusted. They knew where I was from, but knew little about my culture. They'd never heard me speak "in my accent." So when my mother called or I spoke to a friend from home it was always a big deal, because they weren't used to it. Earlier this year I looked back at my old Youtube videos and heard myself speaking in a more "Houston-esque" accent like the friends I'd gone to college with at PV. I didn't feel good about it. It didn't feel like me. I know that's not how I speak when I'm at my most comfortable.
So this year I've tried to change that. I've taken to speaking in my dialect in all of my videos. I've catered my content to fit a mix of my Caribbean AND U.S. audience. I've begun speaking to Stephen (my bf) in my dialect so that he starts to learn it too. Still, I want to relay a message to my American friends and anyone else who may read this.
On behalf of all Caribbean people, or anyone with an accent: NO. I will not repeat myself.
We don't just have "accents." Many of us speak in dialects. We have broken words and colloquialisms that we use with other people who will understand them. We don't WANT to speak that way with you because our dialect isn't FOR you. It's a part of our culture. It's a part of who we are. We speak in our dialect to other people who know the dialect. It's something we share and something we value. It's sort of a sacred right of passage, if you will. And while we love that you are willing to learn about our cultures and celebrate certain things with us, our dialects will never be yours. Our experiences will never be yours in the same way the American experience could never be ours.
So stop asking us to "repeat ourselves."
Stop telling us that the way we speak and the way our ancestors spoke is "cute."
It's not cute.
It's not funny.
Featured Photo: Diamond Ritter (@noirediamonds)
by Sharimar Cruz
(Styled by @designsbyregal)