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On Learning to Code Switch and Falling In-between Identities

**This post was originally published in Blavity**

It has been such a journey figuring out how to convey who and "what" I am. I was born on November 25th during an 'American Thanksgiving Party' in Florence, Italy to an African-American mother and Italian father. As a baby, I had very light skin, blue eyes and patches of straight blonde hair. My mother says that even Italian people thought I was German or Nordic, and my Nonna felt disappointed that I wasn't the "chocolate treat" she was hoping for. Sooner or later, my melanin kicked inmy hair started to curl and Nonna got her wish.

My parents decided to move to the USA for more opportunities and a better education for me. My mother had gone to an HBCU and felt it was important for me, as a black person, to be educated in the U.S. It was always important to her that I understood I was black and Italian, even though I had light eyes and hair, spoke English and lived in Miami, FL now.

Translating my identity to the people around me, however, proved to be more difficult.

People often asked "What are you?" or tried to guess—

"Umm, are you Brazilian? Moroccan? No, wait, don't tell me... Dominican?"

When I said "Italian" — I was born there, after all — I only got dumbfounded looks.

"No... I mean... you have to be mixed with something, right?"

"My mother is African American."

"Ooh. I thought it was more exotic."

Exotic. I got that one a lot. I think that's part of the reason my mom tried so hard to remind me of my heritage. No matter who I was speaking to, the assumption was always that I was different from them; an apparition from some distant place where the people are beautiful and seduce you in a foreign tongue. I started modeling at six months old, and some of my earliest memories are of being marketed as exotic. As I got older, my 'mom-ager' saw this as an opportunity. I would show up to all the casting calls. Looking for a black child? Sign me up. A Latino child? That's me, too.

Here I am modeling for a German catalogue.

I remember going in to meet with clients and they would ask, as usual, "So, what are you?"

I responded, as rehearsed, "What are you looking for?"

They would usually chuckle — what a precocious child —- and insist, "No, really sweetie, where are you from?"

"I can be whatever you want me to be. I bet you couldn't guess where I'm from, and neither will the customer."

I was very successful. Hiring me checked most of the boxes, made your brand seem inclusive and relatable to the 'other.'

Photoshoot with Bruce Weber for spread in W magazine in 2004

This was my childhood. I was a shapeshifter, hyper-aware of the way identity was constructed through performance. Outside of modeling, I went to a Jewish elementary school and thought kosher meant 'healthy' (kind of like organic), until I transferred to an all-girls Catholic school; meanwhile, I lived on and off with my two best friends (and fellow child-models) who were Taiwanese, so I started learning Mandarin, Mahjong and Buddhist practices. People often tell children "You can be anything!" I don't think they usually mean it literally.

As an adult, I think back on this time and recognize my privilege. I'm reminded of who wasn't chosen for the job when I'm outraged to see Zoe Saldana chosen to play Nina Simone. Joseph Fiennes cast as Michael Jackson. How much was I appropriating other people's identities for financial means? Was it my choice? Did I even understand why they cast me? I was immersed in so many cultures, it often did seem as easy as putting on a costume, doing my makeup a bit different and adapting my dialect. There were layers and layers of code-switching.

I also remember what effect this had on me, as a child just beginning to understand who I was; what it meant to be everything and nothing at the same time. How my 'exoticism' caused me to be sexualized even as a young child. I still flinch thinking about how many older men leered at me asking when I would turn 18, even when I was pre-pubescent. And then I remember that Zoe Saldana has played multiple types of "sexy aliens" as well. The fetishization of the other is encoded in my unfamiliar features.

Photo by John Fisher in 2005

Outside of 'work,' it was important to me to create and express my own identity. I identified as a tomboy, although I loved bright colors and patterns, psychedelic '70s style (especially bellbottom jumpsuits), costumes and make-up. I remember going to South Beach for Halloween and seeing drag queens in the most amazing clothes I had ever seen. I loved it immediately.

I got my own first dose of drag in a photoshoot for Tommy HIlfiger when one of the boy models didn't show up. The producers were angry and didn't know what to do with the shots they had planned for him. I knew this was my opportunity and I offered to take his spot. This opened up a whole new set of castings I could show up for.

In this context the code-switch felt more subversive. I looked up to my mom's friend Nicole (a beautiful, talented, unashamed drag queen) who inspired me to see genderbending as liberatory and radical. For a female person to successfully perform masculinity and a male person to intentionally choose to embody femininity is a spit in the face to patriarchy. What I didn't know how to integrate was how much of my masculinity was a performance and how much of it was what made me feel more comfortable. My masculinity was often dismissed because of my love for the flamboyant and femme, but as a genderqueer adult I reject the fact that as a female-bodied person I have to only perform traditional masculinity for it to be recognized as legitimate.

I prided myself on my ability to become what other people were looking for. But as I grew older it got harder and harder to distinguish between what was the performance and what was me. Slipping between the lines gave me the opportunity to fit anywhere; on the other hand, it also meant the real me often fell between the cracks. I remember friends telling me I wasn't black because I was Italian, and being othered as the black American cousin when I visited family in Italy; casting directors telling me I didn't 'sound black,' and school bullies calling me n****r as they pulled on my afro.

There was no doubt in my mind that I was black Italian, but when that was so consistently erased by my surroundings, did my opinion count? If race is performative, then did my self-identity mean anything if it was not mirrored and recognized within my performance? Every person of color I know has had to learn to code-switch. And the reality is that performance is incentivized. If I put on the right costume, dialect, and respond with the right scripts for the gender and race I am expected to perform there are financial and social benefits. I learned this at a very young age, which sometimes causes me to blame myself these days for the social and financial repercussions of choosing to subvert these expectations in favor of a more accurate performance of self.

In a society that chants "Be you! Be unique!" it can be really hard to figure out what that means. What is 'me' when there have been so many iterations of my self?

Modeling as a child was an eye-opening experience. I learned that race and gender are performative, as well as what types of performances are incentivized and when. I learned to code-switch, but I also learned how successful code-switching can create a mask for the self in exchange for affirmation. I got to see behind the scenes of the construction of a narrative meant to sell a product through the commodification of the other. I became that other.

At the same time, I missed many of those developmental benchmarks, the moments when you come to understand yourself and share that realization with friends going through a similar experience. Being grounded in who you are is fundamental to living in a coercive and oppressive society that often makes people of color, gender non-conforming people, and really anyone who is outside of the norm feel less than, while still chanting praises for the unique and telling you to "be yourself!"

For so long I felt I could be anything, but didn't know who I actually was. What does it mean to just be myself? How much of identity is predetermined and unchanging and how much of it is chosen? How much of identity is performance and does that performance have to be seen for it to be real? How much of code-switching is a natural response to changing environments and how much of it is redefining the self for social affirmation and survival? I'm still working on figuring out the answers.

Hunting for the Perfect Victim

**this article was originally published on huffington post Nov. 22, 2016**

Think of the most convincing, beyond-a-shadow-of-doubt, believable rape story you can imagine. One that could even be won in court, although less than 2% of cases are.

Who is the victim? She is a cisgender woman; young, and sexually inexperienced — even a virgin. Perhaps she is religious; perhaps she doesn’t drink. She is probably white. Probably middle or upper class. Perhaps she was just out with her friends, or walking home, or attending a party when she was approached, attacked or drugged by a man she didn’t know. She said no, she tried to escape, but he was stronger than her and overpowered her, probably violently.

Thus, we introduce our rapist. A stranger. A criminal. A bad guy. There are two common mythical rapists. Both are men. The first is intelligent, calculating, even sociopathic, although he seems like a “good” guy. This rapist premeditates his crime, he uses date rape drugs, identifies a target who will be likely to succumb to his strategies, and makes his move — isolating her, incapacitating her and committing the act. He comes from a privileged background and thinks he is above the law. He is probably in a fraternity. The other likely suspect is more impulsive. He sees a woman and attacks. He is less cautious, driven by lust and often violent. Typically athletic, strong; often a man of color.

Do you recognize these characters? They are the archetypal rape victims and perpetrators that populate media narratives about rape on campus, particularly the recent documentary The Hunting Ground, which premiered on CNN on Nov. 22nd.

When many of us hear the word “rape,” certain scripts and myths spring unbidden to the forefront of our minds. Although rape and all forms of sexual abuse are disgustingly, soberingly common in all their forms in our present culture, there are certain stories, certain rapes that resonate more strongly with our cultural preconceived notions and assumptions/scripts about what rape looks like, who is affected by it and who commits it (Susan Brison: Aftermath, Chapter 6). There is, for lack of a better word, a “perfect victim,” a “perfect perpetrator” and a “perfect crime,” at least when it comes to which stories are seen as believable and relevant by the media.

These assumptions do not occur in a vacuum. They are intimately tied to very intentional stereotypes and scripts with a long and ugly history. Historically, rape has only been taken seriously when to do so is politically advantageous to those in power.

Spousal rape, for example, has really only been taken seriously legally since the 1970s; before then, it wasn’t considered possible, echoing legacies of archaic English law in which a woman’s body was considered the property of her husband. Evidence of past sexual activity can be used by the defense in a rape case to undermine a victim’s “credibility.” Even today, the “stranger danger” paradigm means that widespread domestic violence and relationship abuse is all but ignored.

Despite the explicit usage of rape as a tool of colonization and genocide, Native American women have not legally been able to prosecute rape and abuse by non-Native perpetrators until a provision in the 2013 Violence against Women act finally made it possible.

White slaveowners intentionally cultivated the stereotype of the “Jezebel” — the wantonly, uncontrollably sexual black female — to justify the forced breeding of black women throughout slavery (Stephens, Dionne P. “Freaks, Gold Diggers, Divas, and Dykes: The Sociohistorical Development of Adolescent African American Women’s Sexual Scripts.” Sexuality & Culture (2003). This stereotype is the foundation of ongoing fetishization, objectification, and hyper-sexualization of black female bodies that continues to justify sexual violence and harassment of black women to this day. Young Latina and black girls are seen as “chronologically older” than their white peers in order to justify their sexualization and abuse. Rape of women of color is deemed “less traumatic” by juries.

LGBT people have also been targeted for sexualized hate crimes, including “corrective rape,” and experience higher rates of sexual assault but receive less support — and indeed are frequently victim blamed because their very identity is seen to be sexualized.

These dynamics shape the epidemic of sexual assault on college campuses. A University of Michigan study found that LGBT students and students of color were at least two times as likely to be raped as their straight and white classmates.

Another internal survey conducted at Harvard echoed the finding that LGBT students are twice as likely to be assaulted. And yet women of color, LGBT people — and even sex-positive women — are seen as “unrapeable,” their stories are sidelined and disbelieved. Paradoxically, these are the people most likely to experience rape due to the tendency of perpetrators of sexual assault to target victims who are hyper-sexualized and therefore less likely to be believed.

While privileged perpetrators of rape have historically been protected, other communities have been scapegoated with scripts of sexual violence. When Donald Trump says that Mexican immigrants are “rapists,” he links into a longstanding tradition of scapegoating men of color for rape. In the United States, this dynamic has grievously affected Black men, who have been subject to rampant lynching, arrest and accusations of rape for hundreds of years, particularly due to how stereotypes of their sexual uncontrollability have intersected with stereotypes of white female vulnerability.

Fourteen-year-old Emmett Till was brutally lynched in 1955 by two white males. His crime? Flirting with a white woman. His adolescent black male sexuality was perceived as a threat, and he was killed for it.

Although it is simpler to believe rape is committed by strangers and “bad guys,” 80-90% of rapes are actually committed by someone the victim knows . In a sex-negative, consent-illiterate hook up culture where substance abuse is rampant and sexual communication is impoverished, coercive and opportunistic rape are rampant.

The media tells stories, and “stories help us make sense of the world,” but too often serve to validate our own perceptions, “reinforc[ing] the status quo, serving particular interests without appearing to do so” (Bonilla-Silva, Racism without Racists p. 75). Rape myths are therefore inseparable from the larger power dynamics in our society. Which rapes are covered in mainstream media, and which rapes are sidelined — which we have shown are at odds with the actual prevalence of rape — are not only informed by, but also replicate historical patterns of erasure and “believability.” Stereotypes have the power not to tell you what to do, but who to be in order to be heard. The tendency of media — even, and especially media intending to help “solve” rape — to fall back on stereotypes to create a simpler narrative of rape minimizes many, if not most survivors’ experiences of rape.

Within a simplified myth of “rape culture,” other types of rape- intimate partner violence, same-sex violence, any scenario that strays far from the “perfect victim” and “perfect perpetrator” — which is, after all, a myth — are viewed as add-ons. This is a form of tokenization, and links into a disturbing trend of “disaster porn,” evoking pity towards and alienation of survivors of “complicated rape.” When media falls into stereotypical oversimplifications it alienates the majority of survivors, making our stories less believable, making it harder for us to get support and even to believe ourselves. When we re-write the stories of survivors to fit into preexisting myths that link into dangerous stereotypes, we erase and rewrite history, thereby reinforcing the problem.