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Codeswitching Is Still 'A Form Of Survival' For People Of Color

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Head on photo of young Black man seated in front of a radio station control board with headphones on and a microphone positioned in front of him.  He is wearing a gold knit ski hat, glasses and a purple sweatshirt.
Carlos Moreno
KCUR announcer Paul Nyakatura codeswitches his voice whenever he's on air. "Every day is a performance."

To a degree, we all alter our speech and behavior to fit in. But people of color have to make the change more often than not.

University of Michigan Professor Myles Durkee has been codeswitching for so long it's become automatic.

"Although I may not be consciously thinking about the codeswitch, it's like we're still paying a toll at the subconscious or implicit level," he said.

For KCUR announcer Paul Nyakatura, "it's a form of survival." Nyakatura recalls a time he was pulled over by law enforcement while driving his cousin back to college; he changed to his "white voice" and the officer let him go on his way.

Durkee pointed out that codeswitching is based on societal and business norms. For most of America's history, the people determining the norms were white males. "Ultimately, this is going to stem from white supremacy."

A caller who identified as a gay male was curious about codeswitching and sexuality. Durkee responded, "That's a prime example of codeswitching extending to other marginalized identities as well." He added religious background and gender as reasons people will adjust how they talk and act.

When asked if the voice of public radio is becoming more diverse, Nyakatura said, "It definitely is." But Nyakatura believes the typical voice is still the white one.

Radio host Tavis Smiley once remarked that public radio didn't want him to sound "too black." Nyakatura responded, "It's a sense of wanting to borrow from the culture but not be of the culture. You want the best parts and not the struggle."

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When I host Up To Date each morning at 9, my aim is to engage the community in conversations about the Kansas City area’s challenges, hopes and opportunities. I try to ask the questions that listeners want answered about the day’s most pressing issues and provide a place for residents to engage directly with newsmakers. Reach me at steve@kcur.org or on Twitter @stevekraske.
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