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Antiracist Praxis

Code Meshing and Code Switching by Jay Hardee

The “code” in code meshing and code switching refers to codes of the English language. Typically, the academy enforces the code of Standard (standardized) English, measuring prose by a single measure of grammatical and syntactical correctness in academic, public, and professional contexts. Meanwhile, other codes of English exist, codes that are raced, regionalized, and imbued with class and cultural distinctions. These nonstandard codes of English, however, such as African American English (which is also sometimes known as African American Vernacular English, Black English, or Ebonics), find themselves relegated to or deemed only appropriate in home or social contexts. In other words, the academy reinforces and reifies the notion of Standard English as the decorous language of public discourse, while other dialects--indecorous dialects--are only fit for private uses. 

Typically, speakers of nonstandard English find strength and wisdom in keeping these Englishes separate. A speaker of, for example, “Spanglish” or Caribbean patois may speak their regional and cultural dialect in their own communities, and may even develop it into art forms. The Black English Vernacular in Hip Hop music is such an example. But when speakers of nonstandard English chose to speak and write in Standard English in, say, the academy or the business world, they are said to be “code switching.” Code-meshing pedagogies, on the other hand, look at this divide between the acceptable codes of public and academic discourse versus the marked codes of home and social discourse, and contend that these multiple codes of English can fruitfully co-exist. Rather than relegate African American English and other nonstandard Englishes to private domains, code-meshing welcomes AAE and other nonstandard Englishes into the folds of public and academic spheres. 

In 1974, the Conference on College Composition and Communication (CCCC) ratified the Students’ Right to Their Own Language resolution affirming “students’ right to their own patterns and varieties of language--the dialects of their nurture or whatever dialects in which they find their own identity and style” (Perryman-Clark, et al 19). SRTOL notes that language scholars long ago debunked the myth of a standard American dialect, and asserts that any “claim that one dialect is unacceptable amounts to an attempt of one social group to exert its dominance over another” (19). Moreover, to claim a dialect is unacceptable is not only false, but also “immoral” (19). Therefore, “teachers must have the experiences and training that will enable them to respect diversity and uphold the right of students to their own language” (19). Despite this powerful statement, the affirmative implications of SRTOL were not fully and uniformly embraced. As the radical spirit of the 1960s and 70s ebbed in the face of flowing tides of 1980s Reagan conservativism, the spirit of SRTOL met with open resistance, as opponents successfully lobbied for state laws that required English-only education (6). Scholars on the left also expressed skepticism. Although sympathetic to the politics of SRTOL, critics like Allen N. Smith worried that the policy could lead to students of color and other nonstandard English speakers being left ill-prepared for the demands of the professional workforce. Smith acknowledges the myth of a correct English, but notes that the gatekeepers of upward mobility speak and write in one dialect and that is the dialect students need to master (164).

Sensitive to this concern for balancing the validity of students’ own dialects with an urge to empower students with what Geneva Smitherman dubs the Language of Wider Communication (vii), some composition instructors have developed a pedagogy of code-switching. Code-switching recognizes that dialects are not incorrect forms of English, but their own codes with linguistic rules akin to, but different from, the rules governing the Language of Wider Communication. Code-switching pedagogies then attempt to teach students to translate the codes of their Englishes into the codes of standard academic prose. 

People who speak nonstandard Englishes frequently find their “bilingualism” empowering--a tradition connected to practices of liberation and empowerment in which oppressed people could speak in ways that their oppressors could not understand. In more recent times, code-switching has been a source of pride and a practice that keeps assimilation at bay while allowing people opportunities at upward mobility. Vershawn Ashanti Young, however, provocatively describes code-switching pedagogies as “segregationist” (3). Young argues that code-switching instills a separate-but-equal idea of Englishes when pedagogies teach students that they must take pains to match the correct code of English to the appropriate context, and that nonstandard Englishes, despite lip-service to their validity, are incorrect in academic, professional, and public discourse. Young and others argue that code-switching pedagogies, also known as contrastive pedagogies because students contrast Standard English with the codes of other dialects (2), naturally suggest the inferiority of nonstandard dialects and so reify the inferior social status of nonstandard English speakers (19). 

Code-meshing pedagogies attend to these concerns by suggesting, instead of matching code to context, that students use all of their linguistic resources within a single rhetorical context. Code-meshing empowers students with knowledge of the Language of Wider Communication, but does so through a comparative rather than contrastive pedagogy (Williams-Farrier 238). Instead of placing the codes of English side-by-side and learning to recode prose to make it acceptable for publication, code-meshing looks at the various rhetorics of World Englishes as resources from a common language, an English that is rich, flexible, and adaptive to other linguistic and cultural traditions. And by pooling their rhetorical resources, combining the classical rhetorics of Aristotle, like ethos, pathos, logos, and kairos, with African American Verbal Traditions, like repetition, signifying or indirection, call and response, testifying, and sounding, students stand to write more vivid, engaging, and persuasive prose. And, most importantly, teaching students to code-mesh prepares them for the kind of rhetorically effective writing people are already producing in public, professional, and even academic contexts. For, as it turns out, the Language of Wider Communication is more malleable than some would have you expect. Young finds examples of rhetorically effective code-meshing throughout not only our contemporary political discourse, but also advertising, journalism, and even the vaunted pages of academic journals (78). 

Works Cited

Perryman-Clark, Staci, et. al., editors. Students’ Right to Their Own Language: A Critical Sourcebook. Bedford/St. Martin’s, 2015.

Smith, Allen N. “No One Has a Right to His Own Language.” College Composition and Communication, vol. 27, no, 2, May 1979, pp. 155-159.

Smitherman, Geneva. "Foreword." Students’ Right to Their Own Language: A Critical Sourcebook, edited by Staci Perryman-Clark, et. al., Bedford/St. Martin's, 2015, pp. v-ix.

Williams-Farrier, Bonnie J. “‘Talkin’ ’bout Good & Bad' Pedagogies: Code-Switching vs. Comparative Rhetorical Approaches.” College Composition and Communication, vol. 69, no. 2, 2017, pp. 230–59.

Young, Vershawn Ashanti, et. al., editors. Other People’s English: Code-Meshing, Code-Switching and African American Literacy. Teachers' College Press, 2014.

Annotated Bibliography by Jay Hardee

Bell, Sophie. “‘Whiteboys’: Contact Zone, Pedagogy, Internalized Racism, and Composition at the University’s Gateway.” Performing Antiracist Pedagogy in Rhetoric, Writing, and Communication, edited by Frankie Condon and Vershawn Ashanti Young, University of Colorado Press, 2017, pp. 163-194.

    Bell offers racial narrative writing as part of an antiracist curriculum that serves three goals: challenging all students to interrogate whiteness and the impact of whiteness on people of color; improving student writing, making it more vivid and fully elaborated; and, inspiring positive self-perception in terms of racial identity, particularly among students of color.  Bell uses Mary Louise Pratt’s idea of a pedagogical “contact zone” (167) to conceptualize the antiracist First Year Composition (FYC) classroom she proposes.  Contact zones are spaces where people and cultures collide and contest one another in a milieu of unequal power dynamics, and Bell’s goal is to allow students to navigate the messiness of the contact zone without imposing her own point of view, a task she finds most challenging when dealing with student’s internalized racism. Professors need to position themselves as audience members to students’ stories, closely reading the complicated racial attitudes expressed both explicitly and implicitly in student texts, and to exercise patience. The important work in FYC may take place in what Kynard and Nunley call “hush harbors” (185), or places of discourse where people of color gather outside the white gaze. As such, students who appear quiet or disengaged in class discussions may be doing vital work out of view of even the most well-meaning, anti-racist white professor.

 Bohney, Brandie. “Moving Students toward Acceptance of ‘Other’ Englishes.” English Journal, vol. 105, no. 6, Jul. 2016, pp. 66-71.

    Boheny describes how she implemented a curriculum designed to get her class of predominantly white, middle-class students to recognize the validity of undervalued Englishes. Boheny acknowledges the need of Standard English-speaking students to have exposure to other Englishes, given that the non-native English speakers outnumber native English speakers in the global economy. Additionally, Boheny argues the need to address linguicism, a prejudice based on language, in the classroom. Boheny demonstrates to her students that English is a flexible language that readily adapts to include the features of other languages, as well as the fact that alternative dialects of English are not degraded or “wrong” forms of English, but are, in fact, rule governed codes. 

Perryman-Clark, Staci, et. al., editors. “Introduction: Understanding the Complexities Associated with What It Means to Have the Right to Your Own Language.” Students’ Right to Their Own Language: A Critical Sourcebook, Bedford/St. Martin’s, 2015, pp. 1-16.

    Perryman-Clark, Kirkland, and Jackson establish the aims of the collection: to place Students’ Right to Their Own Language (SRTOL) in historical and theoretical context; to understand the political implications of language theories in the classroom; to articulate legitimate critiques of SRTOL; and to begin addressing those criticisms of SRTOL, in particular the critique that SRTOL does not provide clear guidance for its pedagogical application. In 1974, CCCC adopted the position that students had a right to exist in their own languages, and encouraged teachers to affirm students’ right to think, read, and write in the dialect of the student’s identity. Perryman-Clark, et al, demonstrates the academic benefits of SRTOL for students of color, noting that to succeed in the larger economy students must first succeed in college, and that affirming SRTOL better enables academic success. Moreover, Perryman-Clark, et al, warn teachers that diminishing World Englishes in the classroom risks reifying racial hierarchies in society. In other words, teachers may unintentionally reinforce the notion that Standard English and the white people who speak it are superior to other Englishes and the speakers of color who deploy them. Despite centering the needs of marginalized English speakers, SRTOL benefits not only students who speak alternative Englishes, but also the Standard English speaking students in the classroom, because everyone gains from examining the connections between standardized and alternative cultural traditions and language practices. 

Williams-Farrier, Bonnie J. “‘Talkin’’bout Good & Bad' Pedagogies: Code-Switching vs. Comparative Rhetorical Approaches.” College Composition and Communication, vol. 69, no. 2, 2017, pp. 230–59. 

Williams-Farrier argues that code-switching African American Language pedagogies amount to a form of racial segregation that privileges Mainstream American English (MAE) and instills a harmful sense of inferiority in non-mainstream English speakers; instead, Williams-Farrier offers a comparative framework that teaches African American Verbal Tradition (AVT) as a rhetorically powerful skill that can improve student writing. Well-intentioned contrastive analytic approaches to nonstandard Englishes, otherwise known as code-switching, thwart the anti-racist goals of the Students’ Right to Their Own Language” policy adopted at CCCC in 1974. Williams-Ferrier’s comparative AVT pedagogy highlights five rhetorical features of AVT (repetition, signifyin(g)/indirection, call and response, testifying/narrativizing, and sounding) to cultivate writing that is both rhetorically powerful as well as empowering for students who use a nonstandard form of English in the home.

Young, Vershawn Ashanti. “Introduction: Are You Part of the Conversation?” Other People’s English: Code-Switching, Code-Meshing and African American Literacy, edited by Vershawn Ashanti Young, et. al., Teachers College Press, 2014, pp. 1-11.

    Young forcefully argues that African American English (AAE) speakers should be allowed to blend AAE and Standard English in both academic and professional contexts. Young describes this blended approach to language as “code-meshing,” which, in terms of pedagogy, he takes great care to distinguish from “code-switching.” Code-switching is a bidialectal approach that contrasts the codes of Standard English with those of AAE, and tries to teach AAE-speaking students to translate their speech and grammar into Standard English prose. While this approach may yield marginal benefits for students, any benefit is outweighed by the corollary damage this pedagogy renders on students’ self-esteem and sense of racial identity. Code-switching sends the message that AAE is only appropriate in the home and social contexts, and it reinforces the superiority of Standard English. Code-meshing, on the other hand, recognizes the right of AAE speakers to exist in academic and professional spaces. Rather than a “segregationist... model of literacy instruction” that insists on excluding AAE from public and professional discourse, code-meshing allows us to think of “Standard English as expansive and inclusive” (3), thereby inviting students to draw on all of their linguistic resources when they write. As a result, students stand to compose livelier, more rhetorically effective prose, while developing a confident racial self-concept. The benefits of code-meshing, Young argues, make it an ideal pedagogy for the 21st century classroom (9).

Young, Vershawn Ashanti. “Code-Meshing: The New Way to Do English.” Other People’s English: Code-Switching, Code-Meshing and African American Literacy, edited by Vershawn Ashanti Young, et. al., Teachers College Press, 2014, pp. 76-83.

    Young argues that writing instructors should adopt a code-meshing pedagogy for two reasons: to reflect the fact that code-meshing is already a widely accepted practice, and to make students more effective rhetors. Young observes that politicians (including conservative Senator Chuck Grassley) employ code-meshing strategies to persuasive ends, as do advertisers, journalists, and even academics. This ubiquity of code-meshing demonstrates English to be a flexible, “global and descriptive language” that can accommodate a wide range of linguistic and cultural influences (78). Given this flexibility, and the fact that the corporate and professional world is already appropriating AAL (79), the writing instructors should encourage rather than hinder AA students from deploying the linguistic resources they bring with them into the composition classroom.