DIANE URBANI DE LA PAZ: Change perception to switch the code

Of hoodies and humanity

We all code-switch. Whether it’s a tricky work situation, a once-a-year dinner with the family or an encounter with the police, we tend to be careful how we present ourselves. We adopt a dialect and a posture to make others comfortable.

This was the subject of last week’s online Studium Generale talk by the marvelous Nitasha Lewis, Peninsula College’s Upward Bound director. Presented online four days before Martin Luther King Day, this was no lecture on civil rights. It was an hour of candid conversation for which Lewis had set the table.

“I promise I’m not going to PowerPoint you guys to death,” she began. Then she let us know she’d wait as long as it took for us to get brave enough to share our thoughts. Lewis works with high school students, after all, so she’s unfazed when someone isn’t forthcoming with their opinions right away.

“The ‘awkward silence’ is not awkward for me,” she said with a laugh.

“If I ask a question and no one answers, we will not move on,” until somebody speaks up.

Lewis then invited us to close our eyes and ponder what our thought processes are when we’re about to enter a room.

Do you think about your body language, your clothing, your way of speaking? she asked.

Adjusting it all to fit in: That’s code-switching.

When it comes to being pulled over by a police officer, young people of color are likely to be taught a specific response. Carlos, one of the men listening to Lewis’ presentation, spoke up about this.

Your parents teach you, he said, to be exquisitely careful when dealing with police. It’s a matter of your survival.

Lewis added she’s one of those parents. As a Black mom, she has explained to her teenage son that if he comes into contact with police, he must keep his hands up. And as much as you like to wear your hoodie, that garment has the potential to trigger fear in others. This is just the reality.

Lewis also talked about a kind of experiment she conducted in school: Before the start of a meeting, she went into the room and instead of chitchatting and smiling, she sat in the back and read her book.

The students were then invited to describe each other. Lewis was called “stand-offish” and “hostile.”

I’ve been described this way too, in situations where I was too shy to speak to anyone. I’ve since learned to “fake it till you make it,” behaving like a non-shy person — but I still hear people making judgments of others who keep to themselves.

How about this: If we’re with someone who doesn’t act/speak like the dominant group, we just let them be? How about if we honor people for who they are — humans?

Studium Generale, fortunately, presents programs every Thursday to expand our understanding of our fellow earthlings — and show us injustices that must be addressed if we are to live together in peace. Next up is “Since I Been Down,” a film about incarcerated Black men who, through education, transform themselves.

The film will screen via Zoom at 12:30 p.m. Thursday; information is found at pencol.edu.

Studium Generale professor Kate Reavey, during last Thursday’s talk, reminded us of King’s words about how all life is interrelated, with all people “tied in a single garment of destiny … Whatever affects one directly affects all indirectly,” he said in 1963.

King also talked about “remaining awake through a great revolution,” Reavey noted, adding that in conversations like the one with Lewis, we can do just that.


Jefferson County senior reporter Diane Urbani de la Paz can be reached at 360-417-3509 or [email protected] Her column runs the first and third Wednesdays of the month; the next will appear Feb. 2.