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.

Standing With Lady Gaga as a Queer, Black Survivor Activist at the Academy Awards

**this post was originally published on huffingtonpost on March 7, 2016**

I was finally in bed at 3 a.m. trying to fall asleep when I got the email:


I opened it immediately.

“Exciting news! Lady Gaga has invited you all to join her on-stage at the Academy Awards to stand together as she performs her Academy Award-nominated song ‘Til It Happens to You.’”

I was invited to participate because the documentary The Hunting Ground — for which the song was written — had featured my activism and personal experience with sexual assault. I was overwhelmed with emotions:

1. It had been a dream of mine since I was a child to attend the Academy Awards. I was a child actor, joined the Screen Actors Guild around age four, and watched the Oscars every year. Although this was not how I imagined it happening, this was a dream come true.

2. I have been a huge fan of Lady Gaga since 2008 when her music first came out and I dressed up as her for Halloween.

Nastassja dressed as Gaga in 2009

Nastassja dressed as Gaga in 2009

3. All I have been hearing about the Academy Awards is #Oscarssowhite; in fact I have participated in tweeting and tumbling about #Oscarssowhite since one of the things that infuriates me the most as an independent media creator is the way the media celebrates hetero-white mediocrity while erasing or tokenizing the rest of us.

4. While The Hunting Ground brought a lot of attention to the issue of sexual assault, its depictions of survivors’ stories felt tokenizing and upheld stereotypes of rape that alienate many survivors. How would this performance be any different?

I debated whether or not I should go; whether my appearance within this performance would also be tokenizing and uphold the idea that the Oscars and media depictions of rape are “more diverse” than they often are. My parents told me I was being ridiculous; obviously I had to go. And the reality is that I wanted to give myself this experience, but not to let my expectations get too high. I was excited that my fiancee was also invited to attend and thought it would be a once-in-a-lifetime experience to have together.

Nastassja and fiancée Lea Roth at the Academy Awards

Nastassja and fiancée Lea Roth at the Academy Awards

Upon arriving at Dolby Theater a few days before the show for our first rehearsal, I saw a large crowd of people, and found out there would be 51 of us participating. I saw friends, people I knew online but had never met in person, activists and artists I had admired from afar, and friendly strangers. There were men, women, genderqueer and trans* people of many races. I was shocked. It wasn’t until we were all in one room waiting for rehearsal that it really hit me that this was the largest group of survivors I had ever been around. Our backgrounds and experiences were diverse in a way that felt authentic and pluralistic, not tokenizing. Yet there was almost an immediate sense of understanding.

As I got to know the different survivors I was astounded by their passion, empathy and brilliance. What united us all were experiences of violation and the willingness to speak up about it. What was most powerful was that we made few assumptions about anyone else’s experience. The context and unique betrayals surrounding each survivor’s experience are their own, but the themes of trauma, and trust; healing and the many forms of activism were where we found plenty of common ground. I didn’t feel judged, or questioned. And that means a lot. Multiple people asked me what gender pronouns I go by (they, them, theirs by the way). To me, meeting these survivor activists, getting to know them, and bonding (including getting matching tattoos!) was the highlight of my weekend.

Nastassja pictured back left, with Lady Gaga and the other survivors from the performance

Nastassja pictured back left, with Lady Gaga and the other survivors from the performance

There were also moments of tension, like the numerous times people working on the performance or the show referred to the group as “ladies” or “girls” despite our continued protest that these labels did not represent us as a group, and honestly made many of us uncomfortable. I don’t think people even realized what they were saying, and although some tried to shift their language, it was obviously awkward and unnatural. They were very affirming and supportive of us (much more so than many administrators at our universities), but I bring this up to say that this language is the norm when discussing sexual assault. With this, a crime of power implicitly becomes a “women’s issue.” This contradiction manifested in my life when I started doing activism around sexual assault, and another black campus activist confronted me saying I was dealing with a “white woman’s issue” despite the fact that women of color are twice as likely to be assaulted. Even when Vice President Joe Biden made his speech and spoke to us afterward he continued to use this gendered language, as well as implying that all perpetrators are men. That “boys” and “guys” take advantage of “girls” and “ladies.” But both my partner and I were assaulted by women. And while I think an analysis of masculinity is necessary in discussing rape culture, I think simplifying language that implies one universal rape narrative distances far more survivors than it unifies.

Nastassja on stage at the Academy Awards

Nastassja on stage at the Academy Awards

LGBTQ students are twice as likely to experience sexual violence than heterosexual students. Rates of domestic violence are also higher within the LGBT community, but less reported. Narrow legal definitions used in some universities and states make it particularly difficult for queer and gender non-conforming survivors to seek justice; from defining only vaginal penetration as rape to directly excluding same sex assault. This is why the gendered language was so triggering as it was used over and over again. It is this framework that makes it harder for us to come forward or be believed.

Historically, sexual violence has also been used as a widespread tool of power and genocide against people of color as well as queer people, so the dueling activist narratives of sexual assault awareness, LGBT visibility, and #oscarssowhite around the Oscars also left me as a queer person of color with the feeling that some potential to name the huge ways these issues overlap was being missed. It’s time to stop siloing our movements; to develop a language and framework to name the ways violence operates interpersonally and structurally along the lines of identity and power in society. Yes, #oscarssowhite. Yes, #oscarssostraight. Yes, #itsonus, and yes #tilithappenstoyou, you won’t know how it feels. But some of us- many of us- are affected by all of these issues and are tired of having to pick a single issue on any given day depending on what’s trending.