Nico Tavella

We are far from being post-racism

warning: some images included use strong and racist language

The Douglass Leadership House (DLH) at the University of Rochester, as written on its home page (link listed below), holds the mission of “celebrat[ing] and rais[ing] awareness of the many facets of the black experience including its culture, politics, history, and Diasporic roots.” The student group, who takes its name after the powerfully just and outspoken promoter of equality Frederick Douglass, has put forth such effort toward bridging students of different identities so much so fulfilling their mission through community engagement that it was awarded the Student Organization of the Year Award from the University for the 2012-2013 school year.

I want to make a few things abundantly clear here. I am not a member of DLH, nor am I a student of color. I do not know what it is like to be oppressed because of my skin color. What I do know is that DLH is important. DLH promotes conversations vital to the progression of our collective student understanding. I write this article not because I have to (DLH does not need a queer white boy sticking up for them to be valid, they are valid simply for being) but because I want to.

On the 20th of February, the University of Rochester chose to extend the Douglass Leadership House’s lease on their on-campus house, situated on the fraternity quadrangle, for another three years. Rightly deserved, I should say, as simply the existence of DLH opens doors of cultural understanding otherwise closed shut by a predominantly white campus.

Outrage ensued among the student body, taking the form, of course, of anonymous social media hate posts. I could try to describe the Yik Yak posts from that night, but I would rather show you what was said over the course of several hours:

Of course, there were the straightforward racist comments.



Then, some escalated to threats.


Some seemed to have forgotten how racism works (more racism doesn’t cancel out racism).


Others took it upon themselves to decide racism just doesn’t exist


or to decide what DLH can and can’t do, as well as deciding to being able to speak for an entire “minority community.”


Some even abused Mean Girls quotes to fuel their hate.


In short, people of the university chose to take to anonymity to express anger in the form of deep-seated racism that still clearly penetrates our daily environment. Seeing these posts enraged me, and I considered what it must be like in the wake of this event to be a student of color on campus. What do students of color experience in all this? Furthermore, how do Douglass Leadership House and the greater student of color community play into this experience? I originally was going to summarize my observations, but it is much more powerful to let these students speak for themselves:

What has DLH done for you? What does it mean to you?

Without DLH, I’m not sure how I would have navigated life after hearing that Black lives don’t matter in the eyes of the law. It is my heart and my reason for fighting.”
~Alanna Hardy, Treasurer of DLH

“Douglass Leadership House has been everything to me while here at the University of Rochester, my home, family, a source of encouragement…everything.”
~Caprecia Singleton, Member of DLH

“Since my freshman year it has served as my safe haven. DLH serves as my refuge, a place of peace and restoration from the micro-aggressions that I experience on a daily basis at the U of R.”
~Sequoia Kemp, Member of DLH

How do you experience the racial environment on this campus?

“I don’t raise my hand in fear that if I say something, I might get judged by the students around me. It is difficult to explain my experiences as a Latino male at a private white institution because most of the people on campus can’t relate.”
~Edwin Aguila, Member of DLH

“I’m conscious of the fact that there are not as many students of color here, and that makes me more conscious of my blackness here. I feel that we all look at each other in a certain way because of this.”
~Amber-Danielle Baldie, Previous President and current member of DLH

I think this is a serious issue. There are many instances where it may be present but because it isn’t overt it’s overlooked.”
~Sadé Richardson, President of DLH

How has the students of color community helped you with this?

“The community of color has given me a safe space to go. Being at a predominantly white institution everything on campus is geared towards making the majority (white people) happy. With this, many times I feel forgotten on this campus.”
~Caprecia Singleton

“The students of color community rally together to fight off another beast that rears it’s ugly racist anonymous head at us. We mobilize, much to their chagrin, but we do it stride, so that students coming up behind us after we graduate, have a better chance at a safe campus atmosphere.”
~Alanna Hardy

There is an oppressive atmosphere of racism over this campus. These six DLH members represent only a fraction of the students of color at this school, and every one of them experiences it every day. Douglass Leadership House provides these students a safe haven where they can feel comfortable in their own skin. But more than that, Douglass Leadership House promotes conversing about these issues and working them out.

“Our door is always open for conversation,” Amber-Danielle Baldie says. “These conversations are important, and we want to have them.”

There is no denying this racism on campus; there is no pretending it doesn’t exist so one can be comfortable in their whiteness. This is a problem, and we need to talk about it. Not over anonymous social media apps—in person. Face-to-face. Every racist post, anonymous or not, furthers this oppression rather than solving it. It will not go away until we come together to resolve it.

In the meantime, Douglass Leadership House will not be going anywhere. To go out on a powerful quote from member Sequoia Kemp, “The racist comments on Yik Yak hurt us, but they will not destroy us, nor the legacy that DLH has created. Their legacy, strength, and importance will not be compromised by cowardly comments made on an anonymous app. The members of DLH will continue to thrive, persevere, and make noble contributions to our campus community, and I will gladly stand in support of all their future endeavors.”

Categories: Nico Tavella | Tags: , , , | 2 Comments

A Personal Account of Eating Disorders, Sizeism, and Society

Trigger warning: Discussion of eating disorders and behaviors

My struggle with an eating disorder is a hard thing for me to write about. It’s difficult enough to talk about it with the select few who know the whole story, but to write about it on such a huge public scale is something I can say for certain I never thought I would do. My hands are shaking even while I write this. But it needs to be talked about, not just for my sake, but because people need to know the reality of the situation and how our society consistently sends thin privilege messages to people day in and day out. Thin privilege, in essence, is the advantages afforded to people who meet the socially constructed criteria of an acceptable body size. This is my story.

As a kid I was average height and very skinny, probably because I was always moving. You know those kids you see at the grocery store or on the playground who make you wonder to yourself how anyone can have that much energy? That was me. When I entered middle school, a lot of things changed including the fact that I hit puberty at a very early age, 12, years before anyone else I knew. With puberty came facial hair, terrible breakouts, and gaining weight. My metabolism slowed down to what it is today, and the result was that in middle school I was not only the weird kid and the gay kid, I also became the fat kid. I was teased and bullied mercilessly, a fact for which I felt shame for years after. I had next to no friends. While all the cool kids were wearing their Hollister shirts and jeans, I didn’t even dare go into that store because I knew only embarrassment would follow.

High school started off the same way. By the end of freshman year I had hit my heaviest, nearly 200 pounds, which was, as I was told, unacceptable for someone barely 5’8” tall. I had a few friends, but on the whole I was depressed, desperate, and lonely. This continued into sophomore and junior year, and while my exterior looked happier and more sociable, on the inside I was crumbling under the weight of feeling intrinsically wrong and unacceptable. All the popular kids were still oblivious to my existence, which, according to every television show I saw growing up, meant my existence was invalidated. I was anxiously trying to find a cure for whatever was so clearly wrong with me.

In April of 2012, I had a major falling out with a number of friends I had considered very close. I was destroyed. I became so depressed that any energy I had was put toward not having a break down in the middle of class. My appetite vanished, and I went days at a time without eating anywhere close to a proper meal. I felt like my life had spiraled out of control. Then, something remarkable happened; I started losing weight. There was absolutely nothing healthy about what my body was going through, but I didn’t care. I found my answer to how I could regain some control over my life. I decided if I could control my food intake and my weight, my life would stop spiraling and instead reach a steady, socially acceptable path to success.

By the end of junior year, a month after I made this decision, I had already lost 25 pounds. I was astonished at what started happening; people were noticing me. People who I told myself for years I was not good enough for started talking to me, asking to hang out with me, and inviting me to eat lunch at their table. Their table. I was floored. What do they see in me that they didn’t before? At the time, I didn’t really care; I was finally feeling validated, and I was ecstatic. Whatever I was doing was working.

Over the summer, not having school meant I could focus 24/7 on controlling my food intake. I exercised excessively every day of the week. I ate only at dinnertime with my family so no one would suspect anything. And by July I had lost another 30 pounds, bringing me down to the 145 pounds I was told was the right weight for my height. But, in hindsight, it was not the right weight. I was cold all the time and would take two showers almost every day because the hot water provided temporary relief from the shivering. Keep in mind, I lived in Florida; there was absolutely no reason I should be shivering during the summer.

My parents started hounding me to get a job, telling me I was sitting home doing nothing every day. If only they knew what I was actually doing, they would probably be sending me to a rehabilitation center instead of the mall on a job hunt. Two of my new friends from school worked at the Hollister in my mall, and when they heard I was job searching they encouraged me to apply there, so I did. That was my first time in that store, and I was taken aback. Between the dim lighting, fog of cologne, and thumping dance music, I was simultaneously mesmerized and terrified. I put in my application to the assistant manager, a tall slim white man in his mid-twenties with stylish blond hair. A week later, I was called for an interview and dug out the only Hollister shirt I owned. To my delight it fit me for the first time in years. I went to the interview, answered their generic questions as best I could, and was speechless when they called me the next day to tell me I got the job.

Before I started working, I had to go in and buy my uniform. The “look policy” that the company, Abercrombie & Fitch Inc., has in place requires all employees to wear a specific set of the store’s clothing: jeans (shorts are sometimes allowed for a few weeks), specific t-shirts and button-downs, and flip flops.

Trying on Hollister jeans for the first time was every bit as demoralizing as I thought it would be, and any comfort I had for my new slimmer body instantly vanished. Talking to the some of the other employees, I realized that the size I could just barely button, a 33, was considered large among the staff. It didn’t occur to me in that bubble of fragrance and judgment that a 33 was absolutely fine, nor that the Hollister 33 equated to a 30 or 31 in a company not geared toward only the skinniest size of people. All I heard over the booming music was that I still wasn’t good enough.

Simply not eating was no longer enough, and I frantically searched to see what could help me lose more weight. Throwing up was an option, but to be honest trying it once and researching the effects of it online turned me to a different method: laxative abuse. Luckily, my new job was the perfect source of income to fuel this new idea, letting me buy laxatives with my own money instead of having to ask my parents and come up with lies to cover up what I was doing.

By the time my senior year of high school started, I had lost another 20 pounds, and I was getting compliments left and right. About how nice that shirt looked on me. About how much healthier I looked. Out of nowhere, it seemed everyone began going out of their way to be nice to me where before a good portion of them probably didn’t even know my name. The worst part is that most, if not all, of these people had no idea the reason why they were suddenly being so nice to me was greatly influenced by my drastic weight loss.

The irony of my senior year was palpable. People were praising me for being “healthier” and “in such great shape” and “the happiest [I’ve] ever been.” Meanwhile I was suffering the worst anxiety and depression of my life while simultaneously giving myself constant gastrointestinal pain. The cramps were so bad some mornings from taking too many laxatives the night before that I would show up to school an hour or two late and could barely eat anything all day. Yet somehow, no one seemed to notice. It didn’t occur to me until after the fact that this was more than likely due to society’s construction of thin privilege. Everyone was so blinded by my suddenly emaciated form, told by society to be something worth admiring, that they couldn’t see how destroyed and torn up I had become inside in the process of getting to that point.

Fast forward to now. I’m a sophomore in college, studying things I find fascinating and important. I am in a loving, serious relationship with the most amazing person I’ve ever met, and he has helped me overcome so many obstacles I never thought I could face. I’ve gone through therapy, I’m on medication for anxiety and depression, and my life is on track in a healthy way for the first time in a long time.

But I will never forget this part of my past. This has been a hard thing to write about, as I said at the beginning, but it is important that I do. So many people think the idea of sizeism is not as severe as it really is. All too often I hear minimized the impact society has on a person’s mental health in regards to eating, and I hope what I have written serves as a first hand account of how important this issue really is. This is a call to everyone: be conscious of the people around you. Pay attention to them. Don’t let social constructs cloud your vision or blur your judgment, because it’s very likely people are suffering more than you would otherwise think. After all, I was.

Categories: Nico Tavella | Tags: , , , , , , ,

There is no default for people

“11 insanely hot men you will not believe are trans.” The online LGBT publication GayStarNews (GSN) published this article three days ago, unknowingly providing the perfect example from which a discussion about gender ideas in this society can stem. You can see the article by clicking on the following link:

Why would we not believe they are trans? Because they don’t look trans? What is a trans man supposed to look like? For that matter, what is a cis-gender man supposed to look like? And why is the ability of a transgender man to fit into the societal definition of the default man something we need to laud with an article dripping in praise?

“No matter where you start from, you can be who you want to be.” Yeah, sure, so long as who you end up being looks like a Calvin Klein underwear model…otherwise you’ll be stared at, ridiculed, and definitely not be called “sexy” in a magazine.

“Beautiful both inside and out.” Just remember that only the outside beauty actually matters enough to go into a publication’s article as “sexy” because, no matter what your personality says about you, if you aren’t conventionally beautiful post-transition we don’t care.

Write whatever positive, inspirational words you want, but when they lie under the title “11 insanely hot men you will not believe are trans” they are simply groups of letters with zero meaning behind them.

This article is overflowing with hypocrisy and negative underlying messages, but the worst of it might very well be the sentence saying that these 11 transgender men “prove you don’t have to conform to a certain body type to be sexy.” Really? Because all eleven are tall and muscular, most of them have facial hair, and all except one are white. Almost all of them are also either shirtless or wearing shirts that can easily reveal their muscles, hence, the default man of our society.

GSN might think their article is promoting body confidence and trans acceptance, but in reality it is only reinforcing rigid gender expectations and encouraging trans men and women to strive to look like what men and women are supposed to look like.

This article is just one of thousands spanning decades of media conveying the message that, if someone wants to be called “sexy” or “beautiful” or “hot” they have to look a certain way. This effectively equates self-confidence with outward appearance…yet again.

But what’s even worse about this article than those in any copy of Vogue or GQ is that now we’re pushing this on transgender people. This article sends the message of conditional acceptance; it’s okay if you’re transgender, so long as when we look at you we can’t tell.

Make no mistake, this article brings this mindset into the spotlight, but it has prevailed since the advent of the transgender community. The truth is, in this society we are unnervingly comfortable with the status quo; we can demonize the idea of gender roles all we want but we still fall back into them the second we experience something which calls them into question.

It’s comfortable in our society (in addition to it being comfortable to assume the gender binary) to expect men and women to look a certain way. Seeing someone who looks somewhere in between, a place a lot of transgender people find themselves at some point during their transition if not for their entire lives, brings to cis-gender people a sense of confusion and subsequently fear, so they retract into the safe haven of social constructs.

By writing an article praising these 11 trans men for being “hot” by the definition of what our society calls a hot man, GSN is sending a message to the whole of the trans community not only that they have to fit into certain gender expectations to be deemed attractive, but even more so that they need to fit into gender expectations to be accepted enough to be published.

We need to stop this. We need to stop putting so much importance on how someone looks. We need to stop equating one’s outward appearance with their worth as a person. And we definitely need to stop promoting conditional acceptance toward the trans community.

What I find interesting about this article particularly is that it’s published by an LGBT publication, which just goes to show socially constructed gender expectations are just as pervasive in self-proclaimed progressive groups.

Be careful what you write. Double-check your words before you post them. Don’t let problematic social ideologies permeate your good intentions. Doing so will only reinforce an infrastructure that many would benefit from bringing down.

Categories: Nico Tavella | Tags: , , , , ,

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