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‘Too Black, too white’: Students of color in Northeast Wisconsin often navigate multiple cultural worlds

As northeast Wisconsin diversifies, students of color use tools like code-switching to navigate their own identity and community

Students from the Appleton, Neenah and Oshkosh school districts enjoy themselves Thursday, July 14, 2022, during the Cross Court Conversation Youth Volleyball Camp at Kiwanis Park in Appleton. Students of color in northeast Wisconsin can find they need to use tools like code-switching to navigate social situations and the power structures around them. Dan Powers/USA TODAY NETWORK-Wisconsin
This piece was produced for the NEW News Lab, a collaboration between five newsrooms covering important issues in Northeast Wisconsin.

When she was young, Celaisha Pipes would just talk how she talks. She didn’t think too deeply about her tone, word choice or inflection. 

She would just talk. Until a Black friend told her she sounded “too white.” 

Pipes, who graduated from Appleton North High School last spring, didn’t realize it at that young age, but that was when she started code-switching.

It’s altering your language or the way you communicate with others to better align with your social setting at the time.

It wasn’t long after that a white friend told Pipes she sounded “too Black.” 

“From that day on, it’s just like I’ve just code-switched, but not intentionally,” she said.

Being told she was “too white” and “too Black” was confusing, Pipes said. She didn’t know exactly what it meant or if she’d have to just be alone. She felt like she was forced to change herself. 

That disconnect is one example of the range of emotions some Black students say they feel living in northeast Wisconsin. Despite a 79% increase in the Black population since 2010, only about 2,100 Black people live in Appleton, according to state Department of Public Instruction data.

Students spend their middle and high school years learning where they fit into society. They chisel away at their own identities, trying to determine who they are. 

That process of self-discovery — and simply adolescence — is hard, but it can be especially difficult for students of color who grow up in predominantly white communities. 

Like Pipes, other students across northeast Wisconsin often find themselves navigating multiple cultures. The region is becoming more diverse, but students may still feel dissonance between their home, school and social environments. Moving between those worlds looks different for each student. Code-switching is one tool students use to navigate social situations and the power structures around them.

However students manage those identities, many carry the weight of representing their entire race to white teachers, peers and neighbors. Some may feel they can shed that responsibility around close friends they’ve known for years or their own families, but they often walk a cultural tightrope of self-discovery, trying to find their own voices within their different worlds. 

Shingyeng Lo, left, and Shouana Lo warm up Thursday, July 14, 2022, during the Cross Court Conversation Youth Volleyball Camp at Kiwanis Park in Appleton. While all students speak differently to friends than family, that can be particularly challenging for students of color. Dan Powers/USA TODAY NETWORK-Wisconsin

The power of language — and the language of power

The need to walk that tightrope can start early in a child’s life. 

In her research on multilingual and English learners, University of Wisconsin-Madison professor Mariana Pacheco said children as young as 6 or 7 can pick up on the double standard that white, English-dominant students can be placed in a bilingual classroom and be celebrated for their bilingualism, while the same isn’t true for their Spanish-dominant counterparts. 

As someone who studies language, Pacheco has always been fascinated with how people who are bilingual learn social knowledge by living in the margins between cultures. Having to code-switch can teach them how society and power function.

“We shouldn’t forget that that consciousness is a resource for them,” she said. 

She hopes it serves them in the careers they pursue someday and the policies they support, but perhaps what she admires most is the way they keep trying in the face of resistance. 

“They’re not paralyzed by it,” she said.

But it can be overwhelming to have to figure out a new language, new dialect or new subtlety like tone or body language, Pacheco said.

It’s like being a social scientist, and it can be exhausting to figure out in real time if it’s working, she said.

Students who are raised in homes where “proper English” is spoken don’t experience that same type of exhaustion because they “seamlessly slip” into schools or other institutions like work or even just the grocery store. 

“They don’t have to be exhausted because they speak the language of power,” Pacheco said.

Students may code-switch to gain entry to social situations with peers — for example, the students who said they code-switch because they were told they’re both “too Black” or “too white” — but that isn’t always the case. 

Some do it to access opportunities such as college, career and a successful life that high school can help set them up for, Pacheco said. 

“It’s probably not that these teens are trying to act white,” she said. “They want access to what other white kids have. They want access to education. They want access to college. They want access to jobs. They want access to opportunities.”

Code-switching is about everything the person is — and it can be exhausting

Code-switching is everything from speaking Hmong at home, then switching to speaking English at school, to making sure to smile more so they’re not perceived as angry. 

It’s a constant for many students, like it was for Pipes. Often, they do it subconsciously. 

Romona-Shae Blake, who graduated from Appleton North last spring, said everyone code-switches to some extent because the way you talk around your parents isn’t the same way you talk to your friends.

In whatever form code-switching happens, it isn’t inherently negative. But, for those who have to do it most frequently, it’s often tiring.

Among peers at school, Appleton North senior Lena Watts said she feels as though she always needs to be smart, kind and willing to help. She can’t have a bad day because, she said, “I feel like everybody’s always watching me.” 

She said she’ll also change her voice to be higher or sound extra-sweet to counteract any stereotypes people may jump to in their minds.

These sorts of social adjustments don’t just happen at school. It’s at work. It’s with family. It happens in varying degrees almost everywhere. 

Pipes said she would spend her school day code-switching as needed, then go to work at Popeye’s and do the same thing. When it was finally time to go home each night, she would say hi to her family and head to bed shortly after.

“I’m exhausted, like I’ve code-switched literally all day, and now I don’t have the energy,” she said. 

Bradon Wiggins, who also graduated from Appleton North in the spring, said as a person of mixed race, code-switching “clouds your sense of identity.” He said he feels a dichotomy between being around white people and Black people and needing to fit the images his friend groups and even his family have of him.

Blake said she code-switches more living in Appleton than she did when she grew up in a majority-Black community in Georgia. Conversely, Watts said she code-switches more around Black people because she has spent more time around white people growing up.

For students involved in the Hmong clubs in Appleton schools, code-switching doesn’t feel quite as omnipresent.

Jailia Xiong, who attends Appleton North, said she mainly does it when she’s around her grandparents. For her, that means speaking in what she called Hmonglish, a mixture of Hmong and English words.

Similarly, Nicole Xiong, who attends Appleton West High School, said she notices herself speaking more formally to her uncles and grandparents because she knows that’s how they were raised.

‘I feel like I have to represent the entire Black community’

Identity can be a balancing act for students. While code-switching can be a way to adapt, students also face situations where they feel the weight of representing their entire race.

Now a senior, Watts said she and her classmates read “To Kill a Mockingbird” in their sophomore English class. As part of a homework assignment, students were asked to rate their comfort levels — from one to five — in certain situations. 

One question asked: If you’re on a crowded bus and the only open seat is next to a Black man, how uncomfortable would you feel to sit next to him?

Watts didn’t want to make a big issue out of the question but expressed her concerns over the tone of the question to the English teacher. The teacher was “unwilling to accept” her concern as an issue, Watts said. The discussion escalated to the principal. 

Watts said she isn’t sure if the assignment is still used today. 

“In a lot of my classes, I feel like I have to represent the entire Black community,” Watts said, noting that she was one of two Black students in her English class. 

Learning about slavery in history class, for example, can be an uncomfortable experience. Some students from Appleton’s Black Student Union notice their white peers gazing at them and expecting them to have answers.

Learning about slavery and the ways the U.S. disenfranchised Black people throughout history is important, but Watts and other members of the Black Student Union at Appleton North said they wished they learned more positive Black history, too.

They want to see people in their history books who look like them and made contributions to society. They want to see Black inventors and scientists and artists. 

Hmong history is most often talked about in the context of the Vietnam War during classes. But Nicole Xiong said they had a whole session in her English class, maybe a month long, about Hmong culture and the bravery it took to move to a new country, based on a book they read. 

She said the extended focus on learning about the Hmong experience made her feel proud. 

“I feel glad that my friends get to know our history,” former Appleton East High School student Kaleb Xiong added.

Seeking a place of reprieve, understanding and celebration

A senior at Bay Port High School, Lucia Filter is the only Latina in her class, a reversal from her time going to an international elementary school in Mexico.

“I was in one (school) where white was a huge minority, one where it’s like everything. And then here, where it’s like a white majority,” she said.

Without many Hispanic friends in the Green Bay area, Filter often felt out of place in her own culture growing up.

She decided not to have a quinceañera for her 15th birthday because it wouldn’t feel the same without her cousins, who don’t live in the area. Typically, girls would have a big party or festival or celebrate the milestone by going on a trip. While she had close friends who also came from immigrant families, she didn’t want to spend the night explaining the parts of a quince. 

It wasn’t until she got a job at a restaurant with a lot of other Latino employees and started volunteering at Casa ALBA Melanie that she felt more a part of the Hispanic community in Green Bay. She also has gone to more cultural events with her mom and visits her cousins in California every year.

It takes intentional work to connect with your culture, Filter said. She hopes to join Latino cultural clubs when she goes to college to keep learning.

“If I want to connect with my Hispanic roots, I have to do that more through finding a community or making an effort to find it,” she said.

Green Bay teacher Mai Nu Vang created Lombardi Middle School’s first Asian cultural club in 2021 — one of the few middle schools in the district to do so — as a haven for students to find that community, celebration and understanding.

The club is a place that acknowledges the experiences of students who flip between cultural experiences by code-switching throughout the day, Vang said. 

There were 75 students in the club during the 2021-22 school year and it explores a different culture every month. 

It’s important to offer cultural clubs at the elementary and middle school levels so students of color have a center to go to where they’ll feel seen, Vang said. 

“You don’t have to over-explain yourself or wonder, ‘Would they even understand what this (discomfort) is?’” she said.

More spaces that acknowledge that experience are crucial, she said.

To that end, several Asian American Pacific Islander teachers want to start an Asian cultural club at Edison Middle School, which has the largest number of Asian American students of any Green Bay middle school — 107, or about 9%, according to 2021-22 enrollment data. 

Appleton high schools have Hmong Clubs. When Kaleb Xiong was an Appleton East freshman, he joined to educate himself on his culture. A second-generation Hmong American, he said his parents adapted to American culture and he wanted to make sure he didn’t lose touch with his family’s roots. 

Before he left to study astrophysics at the University of California-Santa Cruz this fall, Xiong spent some of his time over the summer mentoring younger students in a Hmong enrichment program. 

For Xiong and other mentors, spending time with younger Hmong students is important so they can help foster an interest and appreciation for Hmong culture at a young age. 

Hmong refugees who came to northeast Wisconsin were focused on learning English and adjusting to a new lifestyle, but younger generations have been reconnecting with their cultural roots, said Will Xiong, the diversity, equity and inclusion officer at two Appleton middle schools.

Hmong students in Appleton often feel the pull of two worlds, but Nicole Xiong said she sees it as a “really good” thing.

At the beginning of last school year, Nicole wore traditional Hmong clothes to Wilson Middle School for Hmong Day. 

During one of her classes, she heard chatter from some other girls in her class and asked what they were talking about. She said they told her they thought her outfit was “weird.” That’s exactly why students feel the need to code-switch. 

So when she needed to wear her Hmong outfit to school again at the end of last year for a dance competition, Nicole was unsure what reaction she would get. But this time, teachers and her peers were commenting on how beautiful it was.

“To kids, everything’s normal until they see something different and realize, ‘I didn’t know that was an option,'” Vang said. “It’s important to know you’re not alone.”