a young Black girl in a classroom beside a white classmate


My Daughter Started Code-Switching To Survive At Her School

Sep 22, 2022

I think almost ever parent worries about their child’s first day at a new school. Will they fit in? Will they make new friends? What will their new teacher be like? Are they ready for the next grade?

As an adoptive parent of a 10-year-old special needs girl who is one of a few Black students at an all-white school — these typical concerns are exacerbated. So last year when she was called the N-word on her second day of school and forced to eat lunch alone because her classmates refused to associate with her, it brought me back to my childhood.

When E.M. Uzoamaka's daughter's teacher showed up to school in Blackface, it left her child with feelings of hopelessness.

Growing up and learning to whitewash

I grew up in Quebec during the '70s and our Jamaican family was the first to integrate into an all-white suburb. When I was around seven, I remember being followed by a group of teen boys yelling expletives as I tried to outrun them. They eventually cornered me in the doorway of a building and pinned me against a wall. I still remember the sound of them hocking up their phlegm as they took turns spitting on me. A few years later, my younger sister had a similar experience with a classmate who lived two houses away from ours.

"I learned to navigate between two worlds as a coping mechanism."   

By the time I was in my teens, I was having an identity crisis and I no longer believed what my parents had instilled in me. Their words of encouragement and positive role-modeling didn’t stand a chance against mainstream media in the '80s and the rejection of my peers. So I learned to navigate between two worlds as a coping mechanism.

I could be myself at home or with family friends who shared the same Caribbean culture. But otherwise, I learned to whitewash my words and actions as a way to assimilate. Of course, none of this internalized shame improved my self-esteem or social status. My faith, family, the arts and therapy collectively helped me to regain my sense of identity and self-worth.

Watching my daughter's similar experience

So when my daughter recently came home speaking like a Valley Girl and flicking her braids over her shoulder for no sensible reason, I stopped her in her tracks. I could tell she was in the first phase of code-switching. The simple definition of the term is to alternate between two or more languages to express the same phrase. For example, speaking Jamaican Patois with my friends versus North American English with work colleagues.

"I realized my daughter was learning to silence and devalue herself."

For some, it might seem harmless when a little girl comes home imitating her friends’ behaviours, but based on her racism-related stress, I realized my daughter was learning to silence and devalue herself. When I asked her why she was speaking differently she couldn’t explain and seemed slightly embarrassed. When I shared my childhood experiences, she was surprised to learn her "cool" mom had the same issues growing up and admitted it was hard for her to make friends.

True Daley organized the family-friendly Walk Against Racism to bring the community together and create a safe space for students to share their experiences with discrimination.

Making sure she doesn't lose herself

People of colour learn code-switching at a young age as a path to success. By the time you’re an adult, it’s normalized and expected to suppress or deny parts of yourself to get ahead. But the act takes a psychological toll

When looking for a job, names may be anglicized to make the recruiter feel more comfortable and hopefully take a look at the resume. My daughter has a beautiful name which translated from Farsi or Hebrew means “God’s gift."  However, whenever I introduce her by her full name she usually interjects and tells others to call her by her initials instead to avoid repeating herself or correcting someone.

"Whenever I introduce her by her full name she usually interjects and tells others to call her by her initials instead to avoid repeating herself or correcting someone."

I have made extra efforts to seek out activities and clubs where she can feel included and express herself freely. She’s in a gymnastics program for Black girls where she’s coached by a former Olympian who motivates the girls to be comfortable in their own skin, literally and figuratively. 

Thankfully, we’ve made some great strides. My daughter’s school principals and teacher have been intentional with giving students and staff opportunities to celebrate differences and have thoughtful conversations in the classroom that explore topics of race, gender and ableism. Over the past year, I’ve seen a huge improvement in school morale and how she’s been treated by her classmates. I’m also thankful to her therapist and church community for emphasizing the importance of self-acceptance.

She is gradually finding her way and learning she doesn’t have to lose herself in the process.

Article Author True Daley
True Daley

Read more from True here.

True Daley is a proud adoptive mom of an eight-year-old girl and advocate against anti-Black racism. The regular contributor to ByBlacks.com is also a multi-platform journalist and an award-winning performance artist who has appeared on CBC, CTV, BET and HBO. As an active member of BIPOC TV & Film in Toronto, she is currently developing an animated children's series for six- to nine-year-olds.