Let’s Talk About Names: Nia

Nia King is a queer mixed-race multi-media producer with a passion for social justice. She is the creator of the podcast We Want the Airwaves: QPOC Artists on the Rise, the film The Craigslist Chronicles, and QTPOC Comics. You can learn more about her work at artactivistnia.com or by following her on Twitter, @artactivistnia.

This piece was originally published in Borderlands: Tales from Disputed Territories Between Races and Cultures and reprinted in Race Revolt Magazine.

The Little Things 

Image is of Nia King, a mixed woman with dark curly hair, smiling into the camera. The backdrop is a road in front of a mountain or hill.Having people see you the way you want to be seen – the way you see yourself – is a privilege. And when you don’t have that privilege, every day is a battle to have your identity validated, a battle against erasure and for self-determination. In a lot of ways this is a battle of details, where every choice you make about how you present yourself to others becomes loaded, and all the little things take on more meaning than they know what to do with.

Example, this little thing, the way I wear my hair, will seem trite to those who aren’t walking through a cultural minefield of misinterpretations everyday, but I feel like when I cut it boy-short or let it grow wild and curly I have to choose between presenting as queer (a white dyke or white pretty boy, specifically) and maintaining my “ethnic ambiguity,” thus having a slightly greater chance of getting read as a woman of color. In short, I have to choose between being queer and being of-color in the eyes of the world. I’m not one who puts a lot of effort into my appearance, so why do I feel like my hairstyle has so much meaning?

Boy-short my hair looks straight. I lose the curls and gain the guilt and fear of being interpreted as “trying to pass” as white. My hair is one of very few markers of my ethnicity that I inherited from my Black dad. In itself it’s not usually enough to get me read as Black, but it does make people think twice when mentally trying to squish me into a race-box, and inspires remarks like, “I never seen a white girl with hair like that before,” (because I’m not fucking white) “are you ethnic or something?” The conversation only goes from there.

I like my hair boy-short, I like it a lot. I like passing as a boy at times, it makes me feel safer out in the world, alone after dark especially. But with boy-short hair I fear melting into white dyke oblivion. And sans curls I am reminded of a time when I was ashamed of my “ethnic” hair, the hair I wasted endless time, energy and styling product trying to straighten (like many women of color on the curly-to-nappy spectrum) after the kids at school dubbed me Mufasa (see the Lion King). When I cut off my curls, I wonder how much or how little I’ve outgrown that shame since middle school.

I am a queer woman of color, so why would I have to choose between getting read as one or the other? Part of it has nothing to do with me, but with racism in “the queer community” at large. White queers have more visibility in the media, in the US, than queers of color, and thus historically they’ve gotten to set the standards for what queer is “supposed to” looks like. When queers of color enter white spaces, many of us have to fight for visibility as queers (while additionally fighting against being desexualized, fetishized and tokenized as people of color, or POC.) Unless POC match white models of what queer looks like we’re often simply invisible in such spaces.

In my somewhat unique position of POC-nobody-knows-is-a-POC, I can fit the queer model easily, but have to fight in white queer spaces (as in the world at large) to be read as a person of color. Because of the lack of queer POC visibility, the tendency to assume someone is white until proven otherwise is even stronger if said person is queer. Thus because of my light skin and blue eyes, and because of the queer default is already set to white, I can rarely be recognized as both queer and as a person of color.

Nia's partner on a beach in Monterey.

Nia’s partner on a beach in Monterey. Image used with permission of author.

Earlier I said that my hair is one of the only markers of my ethnicity. The other big one is my name. Nia is Swahili for “purpose”. It’s also the fifth day of Kwanzaa, which falls on December 30th. When I compiled “MXD: True Stories by Mixed-Race Writers,” I edited it and submitted to it under the name Oxette. I took this nickname while traveling places where no one knew me. I decided to use it full time when I was looking to settle down and start over. I hoped ditching the old name would help me put the past behind and get a fresh start. But I had this nagging guilt. How could I start over and leave the proud Black name my father had given me – one of so few markers of my ethnicity – behind? It was unconscionable. And so I took the name back.

Acting out of fear and guilt feels pretty absurd sometimes, especially because I happened to be starting over in a unique community where folks would validate my identity as a person of color even if I decided to call myself Whitey McWaspsalot. But that’s the kicker. When the general public doesn’t see you the way you see yourself – as a queer; as a person of color; as a boy, a girl, or genderqueer – you have to protect the few things that grant you entry into the communities where you see yourself, where you want to be accepted and validated.

I know that I will never be anything but a queer person of color, regardless of whether I get read as white, “ethnic”, straight, or queer. Knowing who I am is crucial, but unfortunately I can’t write off everybody who doesn’t see me the way I see myself. The uphill battle to be seen for what I am has no end in sight. And so I continue to strive to reconcile what you see, how I identify and what I have to do to be accepted in the communities in which I know I belong.

This post is part of an on-going roundtable on naming that AWH is doing in conjunction with Flyover Feminism.

Let’s Talk About Names: Annamarya is the previous post in the series.