NPR Team Covers Race, Ethnicity And Culture

NPR this week is introducing a new team that will cover race, ethnicity and culture. Code Switch is the name of the new blog. Code-switching is the practice of shifting between different languages or different ways of expressing yourself in conversations.

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DAVID GREENE, HOST:

This week we're introducing a new team at NPR that will cover race, ethnicity and culture. We're here with Gene Demby, who's the team's lead blogger. Gene, thanks for coming in.

GENE DEMBY, BYLINE: Hey, David. Good to talk to you again.

GREENE: It's good to talk to you too. OK. So tell me about your blog, the name of it.

DEMBY: OK. Our blog and our team is called Code Switch.

GREENE: Code Switch. OK. You've got to explain this to us.

DEMBY: Code switching is basically the practice of shifting between different languages or different ways of speaking or expressing yourself in a conversation with someone. So when I'm speaking with you on MORNING EDITION, I might say we just started this really interesting blog about race, ethnicity and culture, and you should check it out.

But if I were talking to my friend in Philadelphia, I would say, you know, this Code Switch we've only been talking about for a minute, it's about to go live, I need you to holler at it.

GREENE: Whoa.

(LAUGHTER)

GREENE: It's like a different language.

DEMBY: Right.

GREENE: I'm from Pittsburgh. I mean I might say to someone on a Sunday y'uns(ph) going to the Stealers game?

DEMBY: You say y'uns?

GREENE: Absolutely. Stealers (unintelligible)...

DEMBY: Stealers.

GREENE: Instead of Stealers - that's, you know, that's a different kind of speaking, I guess - I mean I feel like this came up when President Obama went to that chili place. And I think we have a clip of that.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: Where is my chili?

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: (Unintelligible)

OBAMA: No, we straight.

DEMBY: He said, No, we straight. He was telling the guy to keep the change. And that was the president code switching. Other presidents have done it to. George Bush would effect a pronounced Southern drawl. Bill Clinton especially would layer on this like very syrupy accent in order to kind of signal that he was just folksy, just regular people.

GREENE: Yeah, I guess so. And do you feel like it's deliberate or is it something that sort of happens naturally?

DEMBY: It can be deliberate but a lot of times we're doing it inadvertently. It just happens subconsciously, reflexively.

GREENE: Based on who we're talking to, where we are.

DEMBY: Exactly.

GREENE: OK, so this is the name for your team, your blog covering race, ethnicity, culture. Why was this the name that you chose?

DEMBY: We decided to call it Code Switch because we thought it was a very good way to kind of evoke the dialogue we wanted to have between cultures. We all hopscotch between these very different ways of expressing ourselves. I spoke to a social linguist named Tyler Schnoebelen who explained how this works.

TYLER SCHNOEBELEN: Everyone has multiple styles. It would be really weird if you just spoke the same way all the time, no matter what was happening and who you were talking with. So you can switch between Hindi and English or Spanish and Portuguese. But you can also do what my mom does, which is when she gets angry she gets a Southern accent.

GREENE: Angry, she gets a Southern accent. OK, so everyone does this whether they know it or not.

DEMBY: Right, you speak more formally at work than you may speak at home with your friends. You may drop your G's at home. You may...

GREENE: Say I'm runnin' instead of running.

DEMBY: Absolutely. You're changing the way you speak in order to orient yourself to the people in the room, or to the people you're speaking to. And we do this, you know, for whole bunch of reasons. Over the last week we asked readers at our blog to submit their best stories about code switching. And we got hundreds of responses and there was one that really stood out to us, from a woman named Christy Chan in San Francisco. She grew up in rural Virginia where she was one of very few Asian American people.

Here's what she told us.

CHRISTY CHAN: Sometimes even when I was speaking my perfect American-born English, people would look confused and say: I don't understand. Occasionally school friends or teachers would even ask me to fake a Chinese or a kung fu accent. I pretty much always refused to do it. Until one night, I was 16 and driving home on a Saturday night and I was pulled over by the Virginia Highway Patrol. So the cop walks over to my car and he immediately just started speaking to me like I was a foreigner.

Do. You. Know. How. Fast. You're. Going? And I didn't know what else to do so I just tried playing along. And I said no speaka - no speaka English.

GREENE: That's amazing. I mean code switching is so much part of her life that I mean she almost wants to have fun with it.

DEMBY: Right, and she didn't get a ticket so I guess it worked.

GREENE: I guess it didn't work.

DEMBY: Yeah.

GREENE: OK, so Code Switch is the name of the blog and the new team at NPR. You'll be covering issues like this. But it's sort of - Code Switch is a sort of window into a whole range of issues you guys will be looking at.

DEMBY: Yeah, we're not just talking about code switching. We're talking about race and ethnicity and culture later. Today on ALL THINGS CONSIDERED we'll be bringing you a series of stories about changing races, genres and institutions, and cultural spaces that are going through massive racial upheaval and how people are dealing with that.

GREENE: Well, I'm really excited to both hear and read all of your reporting - the whole team.

That's Gene Demby from our new Code Switch Team. Thanks for coming in.

DEMBY: Thank you for having me. And be easy...

(LAUGHTER)

GREENE: I like that. I like that.

DEMBY: Alright.

GREENE: And you can find the new team at NPR.org/codeswitch.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

It's true, David. I let a little bit of that Kentucky out every now and again.

(LAUGHTER)

GREENE: A little bit of South. A little bit of South.

INSKEEP: Anyway, we're glad you're with us on this public radio station which brings you MORNING EDITION. You can continue following us in any language on social media. We're at Facebook. You can find David Greene on Twitter @nprgreene.

GREENE: And you can find Steve Inskeep @nprinskeep. And Steve, it's good to have you back in the studio. It was lonely and here while you were in Venezuela.

INSKEEP: Glad to be here. Glad to be back at MORNING EDITION.

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