Editor’s Note: Raul A. Reyes is an attorney and member of the USA Today board of contributors. Follow him on Twitter @RaulAReyes. The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of the author. View more opinions on CNN.
The criticism never stops. On Friday, Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez gave a speech in New York City to the National Action Network, and her detractors pounced. A subsequent headline in the right-leaning Washington Examiner noted, “AOC adopts Southern drawl to talk to black audience.” The article noted that Ocasio-Cortez – known these days by her moniker “AOC” – exaggerated and drew out vowels in what the reporter termed “a distinct change from her usual pronunciation.”
The implication here is pretty simple: that AOC is somehow inauthentic or a phony because she altered her speech slightly in addressing a group of black voters and civil rights leaders.
This latest line of attack against AOC is laughable. Code-switching, the practice of adjusting one’s speech or vocal patterns depending on the setting, is not the exclusive province of politicians. Nor should it be the focal point of AOC’s speech. This controversy simply shows how threatened some people feel by this freshman congressman, because they are willing to critique her for virtually anything.
Although it is a linguistic term, “code-switching” is something millions of Americans do regularly. It might mean reverting to your regional accent when you make a visit back home, or it can involve seamlessly switching between two languages, like when Latinos informally speak “Spanglish.” People do it consciously and unconsciously, for a variety of reasons: to fit in with a group, to ingratiate themselves with others, or perhaps because they are comfortable doing so.
To her credit, AOC was quick to clap back at her critics. “Folks talking about my voice can step right off,” she tweeted. “Any kid who grew up in a distinct linguistic culture & had to learn to navigate class enviros at school/work knows what’s up. My Spanish is the same way.”
AOC is certainly not the first politician to engage in code-switching. Reporters have noted how Hillary Clinton and Ted Cruz, for example, have adapted their natural speaking tone or voice to various audiences. Clinton was mocked for the way she spoke before a black audience in Selma, Alabama in 2007, while Cruz has been known to have an on-again/off-again southern accent. That is not nefarious; that is politics. And the whole issue of “authenticity” is very much in the eyes of the beholder. Barack Obama was seen by some on the right as a radical secret Muslim, while other observers wondered if he was “black enough.”
What is unique about the criticism directed at AOC is how strong and unceasing it is. She has become the villain of the right in record time. And much of that criticism seems to be designed to obscure her actual message. When AOC was speaking at the gathering in New York, she said, “I’m proud to be a bartender. Ain’t nothing wrong with that… There is nothing wrong with being a working person in the United States of America.” This is an empowering statement based on her lived experience. But conservatives want to ignore AOC’s idea that there is dignity in all work, so they lash out at her delivery, in this case, her code-switching.
Then again, AOC is used to an extraordinarily high level of scrutiny, much of it personal. Commentators and lawmakers have criticized her upbringing, her clothes, her living situation, even the way she danced in an old video. AOC’s reference to being proud of being a former bartender was in part a response to President Donald Trump’s attempt to dismiss her as “a wonderful young bartender.”
Why has AOC become such a lightning rod for criticism? Simple: She is an outspoken, fearless young Latina with new ideas and sharp political instincts. That is very threatening to those in power, so they take every opportunity they can to disrespect the Boston University graduate and proponent of the Green New Deal. Attacking AOC personally means that her critics won’t have to discuss her policy proposals, like taxing the super-wealthy or expanding access to health care.
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Sure, AOC is not the first politician to be subjected to pointless tests of so-called authenticity. Consider how frequently profiles of democratic presidential candidate Julian Castro mention that he is not perfectly fluent in Spanish, as if that matters. Nor is AOC perfect; she is new to Congress and likely is facing a learning curve just like other newly-elected lawmakers.
Still, it is ironic that some of the same people criticizing her speech, her style, and her use of social media are the same ones defending outrageous, offensive conduct from the current occupant of The White House. Whatever you might think about AOC, she is not a bully, a racist, or an unindicted co-conspirator. She respects the norms of government and society. She is an intelligent, independent woman. And best of all, AOC really doesn’t care what her critics think – which, to them, is probably the most infuriating thing about her.