From Sharde’ to Sharon…and Back: Code Switching in Academia

By Sharde’ Chapman

Like many black women, I am in an everlasting conundrum of how I present myself. From a very early age I, like many black women of a certain age, learned that it was important to be multilingual in a world that has shaped an identity for you, even when it is totally antithetical to who you actually might be. Code switching has become so totally engrained in my day-to-day life, my fluency sometimes shocks me. I live in a constant tension between my innately black girl-isms and respectability politics-laden persona that is often reminded that I better not embarrass my mama in public.

My post-secondary career has been spent in majority white spaces. From Memphis, to the UK and cross-country, I have chosen to receive my walking papers from three, that’s right, three predominantly white institutions. This includes my short stint as an Oxford student. I am no stranger to being one of few, if not the only, chocolate chip in the batter. I have been made deeply aware of the importance of the social and political transcript of these white spaces, and how to navigate my way through the miry waters of whiteness and privilege. I purposely shape this like an epic journey because, for many black girls in academia, it is. Knowing how to stay in your lane and drag the “angry black woman” back when cans of whoop ass are totally warranted is treacherous work. It is also exhausting as fuck. I saw a statistic that said that only 3% of professors are African American women; only a little over 1% full professors. And, per usual, the stakes are amazingly high when you are a black woman in these spaces, on these campuses, teaching these classes.

Even in my own program, I am the only African American (woman) in my cohort. The differences of experiences, expectations, and seriousness with which I can be taken are staggering. I would not call myself a product of the hood, but I was definitely no stranger to it. My nerdiness, penchant for the arts, and a single black mother that was hell bent on me being well-rounded meant that I have always been a marginal black girl. I do not care for conflict or naturally speak in total African American vernacular. I have many times been accused of not being black enough by peers while also struggling to not be the “token black person” in spaces where I was indeed the only one. Code switching became the link between the two. I “Knuck If You Buck,” but also play Handel’s “Messiah” every Christmas without fail. Going into higher education, we realize that that we will walk on eggshells so that we do not offend or intimidate anyone. We soften our tone, lower our voices, and imitate the inflection of our white female counterparts. Unlike my white colleagues, I am just as versed in the dead white “classical theorists” that they work with, as well as the scholars of color that are actually important to my work studying black people. I have heard my colleagues say things like, “Maybe slavery wasn’t that bad,” and question the value of studying African Americans as a discipline. I have even had professors ask me what black people were writing in the nineteenth century after looking at their white washed syllabus. These are the realities of my PhD journey. In these moments I have had to choose silence, or measure my words with such intention when my Baldwinian level rage was near boiling over.

To be a black woman in the academic space means that Sharde’ must don the plastic smile of Sharon to address her colleagues. It has not escaped me, the aesthetic choices that I may have to make as a I draw closer to being on the job market. My waist length kinky tresses and nose hoop may have to be tamed into a more user-friendly version of itself. I will have to put a lot of effort into folding myself into a box of acceptability just to be given a chance despite the undoubtedly impressive CV that will precede me. Academia attempts to continue to surreptitiously code black women’s bodies, bending them so that they carry far more weight than they are supposed to. We are encouraged to play ball until we get tenure and are free to do our own thing ;to study things that have “value” while also knowing more than almost everyone in the room that lacks any melanin.

With this kind of reality the question becomes: how do black women survive the process? In reality, all of us do not. My mentor did not finish her doctoral degree because the strain was entirely too much. One of my dear friends did not survive the process either. I am barely hanging in there many days, but six years in, my support system and my pride won’t let me quit. In fact, it makes me push back against the boxes that I have, at many points, dismembered myself to get into. Code switching has become a weapon for me to do that. Being able to easily change languages has made me a dynamic lecturer because I remember that the lessons are more important than the words. The mask may hide the rage but it also forces me to figure out better ways to mobilize it in my work. Ultimately, it always make us miles smarter than many and most in the room. No capes, just weapons.


Rev. Sharde’ Chapman was born and raised in Orlando, Florida. Currently she is pursuing a PhD in Religion with emphasis in African American Religion. Prior to pursuing her PhD she earned a Master of Divinity from Union Presbyterian Seminary in Richmond, Virginia and a Bachelor of Arts degree in Religious Studies from Rhodes College in Memphis, Tennessee. While in Memphis, she was also a student at Lincoln College, Oxford University in Oxford, UK. Sharde’s research interests focus on the forms and function black non-traditional religious spaces. Sharde’ is also an ordained minister in the Baptist church.

As she pursued higher education she has been a child literacy advocate and educational trainer through the Children’s Defense Fund Freedom Schools Program. Sharde’ also shares 31 countries worth of travel insight and her self care journey on her website shardesearches.com.

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