Code-Switching Q&A: Akeyla Tanksley Uses Her Unique Experiences to Spread Awareness and Make Change

April 10, 2024
Woman with long dark hair and red shirt standing in front of brick building and a cactus

Akeyla Tanksley is a freshman at the University of Arizona majoring in political science. Originally from San Francisco, California, she was just 17 when she had the opportunity to share her knowledge about code-switching in a 2022 TED Talk. In this Q&A, Akeyla explains what code-switching is and its importance in her life.

When looking into colleges, what drew you toward UArizona?

When it came to choosing a college for the next four years of my life, one of the most important things that I wanted was to be in a college town. The University of Arizona was the first school to offer me acceptance and I fell in love with it immediately after doing more research on my own. It also gave me a chance to learn to be independent on my own but still be somewhat close to home. The different academic programs, reputation, and campus culture caught my attention quickly and as I wrap up my freshman year, I can say that coming to UA was one of the best decisions I’ve ever made. The weather is a plus too, of course!

What is your major and how did you choose it?

My major is political science, and I chose it for several different reasons. The 2018 high school shooting in Parkland, Florida. was one of the most significant events in my life. It was the first time I was old enough to truly understand gun violence and the impact it had on Americans. The next day, I led my first protest at school where we honored the 17 lives taken with a 17-minute walkout. But most importantly, we educated our classmates on why gun violence was important and how we, as young adults, could create a real change. I think that this is the moment that truly sparked my curiosity about politics. I started researching on my own to learn more and started an internship with San Francisco City Hall where I got to learn about the technical aspects of creating policy on national and local levels. These experiences reaffirmed the decision I’ve made to learn more about government and social justice. 

Politics is unpredictable and always changing meaning every day is a new opportunity to learn something. I stand by the belief that we should be co-creators of the world we want to live in because aspects of government affect us in the same way that we influence them.

How has your major prepared you for accomplishing your future goals?

I hope to become a public defense attorney in the future and my major in political science has helped me in so many ways. The different classes I’ve taken, such as Crime and the City and American Government, have strengthened my critical thinking skills and most importantly, have made me a stronger writer and speaker. Beyond academics, I’ve been given the opportunity to meet and connect with so many different people with similar majors and goals through the College of Social and Behavioral Sciences

When did you start studying code-switching? Was there a specific event in your life that sparked your interest in this topic?

I don’t think that there was a specific time when I started studying code-switching, rather I started consciously realizing I was doing it when I got to high school and the way I had become accustomed to speaking was looked down upon. Growing up in a predominantly white school and a predominantly Black neighborhood and being bi-racial, the difference in the way I spoke and acted in different settings became very apparent in all aspects of my life. I felt as if I didn’t have an identity to call my own and I was constantly changing who I was to fit in with a certain part of my identity. From the way I presented in class to the way I spoke when I was at lunch with my friends, I felt like I had to fit in with both my White friends at school and my Black friends at home. But as I got older, I realized that I shouldn’t have to change the way I talk or act around different people to feel accepted. But it was about more than just race. Many people have what we call “customer service" voices or change the way they present themselves when applying for a job. Different people relate to code-switching on so many levels. 

How would you explain code-switching to someone who has never heard the term before?

From the way you dress, your behavior, or the way you speak, code-switching is changing yourself to adapt to and mirror the audience you're facing to ensure that you’ll be perceived as acceptable. In other words, it’s a way of changing yourself to fit in with different people. The unconscious use of code-switching is so prevalent in the Black community since the White, western standard of appearance still exists in the workplace. We have become so accustomed to sleek and straight hair, conservative blazers, buttoned-down shirts, showing no emotion, and sounding 'American,' that anything new or out of the norm is deemed 'unprofessional.' People should be able to be their most authentic selves, despite who they are around, without fear of being misjudged or misunderstood. 

How were you given the opportunity to host a TED Talk?

In high school, I was president of our Black Student Union, so I helped run our annual Martin Luther King Jr. Prayer Service. As we were brainstorming topics to speak on and sharing our experiences as Black kids in a predominately white school, I brought up the concept of code-switching and how it affected me growing up. One of the organizers of TEDx, who also helped plan our prayer service, thought it was an interesting topic that she could even relate to and gave me the platform to share my story on TED. 

How do you plan to continue spreading knowledge of code-switching and encouraging cultural inclusivity throughout your adult life?

As I finish my degree, I hope to continue to educate people about code-switching by encouraging the uncomfortable discussions that we need to have as a society. I want people to challenge each other to be themselves unapologetically and aid in creating an environment where differences are embraced and celebrated. In my adult life, I hope that my story and the concept of code-switching encourage others to live more inclusively. As a political science major, I hope to spark these difficult discussions and challenge the status quo by simply being my most authentic self in the political world.