Code-Switching in Harlem

New York City is typically divided into five parts: The Bronx, Manhattan, Brooklyn, Queens, and Staten Island—the five boroughs. One would assume a sense of community is fostered within every generation in each borough—a sense of community that transcends attending sports teams’ events. I guess I’m talking about borough pride—a common pride that connects all residents.

Although these sections are standard, I often question the deeper relevance of the divisions besides their roles as simple geographical barriers. Let’s use Manhattan as an example. It is the most famous of all the boroughs, it’s home to Times Square, Broadway theaters, and Fifth Avenue. Yet, you would be surprised to hear there are some people who are from Manhattan, but would rather claim to be from “Harlem,” as if it were a borough of its own. Harlem is a neighborhood in Manhattan—and that’s where I witnessed my best friend code-switch for the first time.

Ayaana attended Trinity for 13 years—she was a survivor. Trinity, a prestigious and rigorous Independent School in the Upper West Side of Manhattan, is predominantly white. It’s sometimes hard to “act black” in that type of community. One day during freshman year, I was eating lunch with Ayaana and a few friends from math class on a half-day. I was planning on going to her house after school was over. After lunch we took the train, a 10-minute ride, to her house in Harlem. A few seconds after we got out the station we ran into one of her neighborhood friends.


“Yo my n****, wassup bruh?” said Ayaana as she reached to give “bruh” a dap.

“Nun, chillin hard. Tryna make stacks from these bars, you seent that flick I put on the gram o’mah baby girl? She gettin old, come see us sometime.” Said “bruh.”

“I gotchu. Imma stop by soon, lemme put mah bag down first, oh and by the way dis mah boo Sariyah.”



Yeah that’s what was going through my head too. I never witnessed something so flawless in my life. She transitioned from speaking politically correctly with me to a whole other language. I felt bad instantaneously, and I didn’t know why. I didn’t talk much for the rest of the day and I decided to go home before she stopped by “bruh’s” house.      

After spending a little time thinking about it, I realized I was upset because I don’t do the same thing. While Ayaana shamelessly professed her greetings in a casual way, I often kept a single voice, tone and vocabulary for all audiences. I considered staying consistent was a reflection of my true identity; I thought staying constant meant I being honest. Yet repetitively, I subconsciously suppressed awkward feelings when talking to a church friend the same way I would talk to a school friend. Ayaana helped me realize that changing it up isn’t a bad thing, and “code-switching” is natural.


One thought on “Code-Switching in Harlem

  1. I get what you mean, but though you may not “code-switch” as drastically as your friend does, I bet you still switch in you day to day life. For example, you would speak to your professor differently than your best friend. It’s so common and natural that we may not even notice the switch.

    I really liked the content of this post, but I think that you could have connected the introduction a little bit more with the point of your post. When I started reading, I wasn’t quite sure where you were going with the detail of “attending sports teams’ events” in the context of code-switching. I thought the idea of pride for your “borough” was very relevant and interesting, but talking about sports teams starts to stray a little too far away from your point. With that being said, your word choice painted a picture and effectively told your point.


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