Heard of code switching? Here's why these Western students do it

Western University students Fauzia Agbonhin, Sharon Igie-Ogiugo and Jessica Omorodion say it's been difficult navigating being Black at a predominately white school. They all say they code-switch or change their behaviour when interacting with their white peers. It's an act of self-preservation, they say.

Jessica Omorodion, Fauzia Agbonhin and Sharon Igie-Ogiugo describe why code switching is part of daily life

From left to right: Jessica Omorodion, Fauzia Agbonhin and Sharon Igie-Ogiugo. The Western University students all say they code-switch, or change their behaviour when interacting with their white peers. (Submitted by Omorodion, Agbonhim and Igie-Ogiugo)

Have you heard of code switching? The term first arose in linguistics and refers to the way we change language and speech patterns in conversation. But it's more than that. Meet three Western students who hopscotch between parts of their own identity on campus and how that could help the school re-think anti-racism policies. 

Sharon Igie-Ogiugo 

  • 21 years old
  • From Hamilton
  • 4th year student
  • Studying Criminology and Sociology
  • Hopes to go to law school
Sharon Igie-Ogiugo is a fourth year student at Western, studying sociology and criminology. She hopes to go on to law school. (Submitted by Sharon Igie-Ogiugo)

Sharon Igie-Ogiugo moved to London knowing Western was a predominately white school. Her friends didn't understand, she said.

"I was on a floor of 30 plus people and I was the only Black person, not the only person of colour, but the only Black person and for me there is a difference," she said. "And it just kind of struck me like wow, I'm really in a place where there's not a lot of people who looked like me or have the same experiences as me."

Igie-Ogiugo, who is also often among just a handful of Black students in lectures, said it's not unusual to be faced by micro-aggressions. 

"Any time I would get my hair done people would look at it. People would touch it, 'Oh my gosh! Your hair's so fluffy.'" she said. 

"And when you talk about things like race and slavery and then they all get uncomfortable or they move in their seats," said Igie-Ogiugo who is studying criminology. An important part of the conversation is about "why having my skin colour disproportionately affects me in society," she added.

On code-switching

Igie-Ogiugo said she and her other Black friends regularly change their behaviour around their white peers, something known as code-switching, "It's something I feel like we all have to do in order to survive."

"There are certain times I feel like I cannot be 100 per cent my true self, when I'm with a certain group of friends. I don't want to come off as like too loud, too abrasive," said Igie-Ogiugo.

Western University is currently working through a number of recommendations from the newly formed, Anti-Racism Working Group, including strengthening anti-racism training programs and committing to additional funding for anti-racism initiatives on campus.

Igie-Ogiugo is encouraged the university has been having these conversations on campus, "I'm happy that there are safe places and that the people in charge are actually talking about it and condemning it."

Fauzia Agbonhin

  • 19 years old
  • From Mississauga
  • 2nd year student
  • Studying Criminology and Media, Information and Technoloculture
  • Executive member of Black Student Association
19-year-old Fauzia Agbonhin is studying Criminology and Media, Information and Technology at Western University. (Submitted by Fauzia Agbonhin)

Fauzia Agbonhin, who moved from Mississauga to London in grade 11, said the atmosphere is different here. 

"The amount of racist encounters that I faced when I got to London was way more than anything that I've ever experienced in my life. I do think that London specifically is a place that needs a lot of work."

That atmosphere extends to life on Western's campus as well, she said.

"It's not really that noticeable unless you are a Black student."

Agbonhin said she has heard people use the N-word, but mostly she encounters micro-aggressions. "It's kind of those things that seem really minuscule to people who aren't Black that are really really important and really really hurtful to people who are Black," she said. 

On code-switching 

Agbonhin said she and her Black friends are very familiar with code-switching and regularly change their behaviour around their white peers, "in order to make other people comfortable."

For instance she doesn't usually talk about anti-Black racism with her white friends — something she's passionate about.

Initially Agbonhin didn't want to go to Western, but changed her mind after learning about a number of safe spaces on campus. "The only reason why I ended up coming is because of clubs like the Black Student Association and the African Student Association," she said.

Jessica Omorodion

  • 20 years old
  • From Newmarket
  • 4th year student
  • Studying Sociology and Women's Studies
Jessica Omorodion, a fourth year student at Western University is studying sociology and women's studies. (Submitted by Jessica Omorodion)

Jessica Omorodion, who returns to London from Newmarket this fall, said navigating a predominately white campus is tricky. "I feel like racism is kind of a thing that no one really wants to acknowledge," she said, adding that the same hesitation doesn't exist around homophobia or sexism.

Omorodion, one of five Black students in her first-year residence building, also said she regularly encounters micro-aggressions on campus, such as people making comments about her hair or telling her Black women are not attractive.

On code-switching

"Code switching is a big protect yourself and basically protect your reputation," Omorodion said.

"I'm very cautious about what I say. For example in group projects, I'm aware that I'm not able to really argue the same way a white woman or a white man would be be able to argue," she said. "I become the angry black woman...I know how I'm viewed. I know how quickly it could turn negatively."

Recently, Omorodion has started talking more about anti-Black racism on campus. As an orientation leader for incoming first-year students, Omorodion and a number of fellow classmates developed a guidebook for new Black students, giving them tips on everything from where to find African restaurants and Black hair stylists in the city.

Omorodion is encouraged by the work Western is doing on anti-Black racism. "I think Alan Shepard has been doing more in his one year as president than our previous president had been doing for the last few years." she said.

"But on that note, I think it is more reactive than proactive."

About the Author

Rebecca Zandbergen

Host, London Morning

Rebecca Zandbergen is from Ottawa and has worked for CBC Radio across the country for more than 15 years, including stops in Iqaluit, Halifax, Windsor and Kelowna.