Body positivity, intersecting identities and mangoes: a UNC event opens up dialogue

By Mimi Tomei

Anum Imran wore a scarlet hijab and a pinstripe sport coat, sleeves pushed up, with skateboard-style sneakers and high-waisted black jeans. She paced across the stage.

During her spoken word performance, she wove a narrative addressing racism, sexism and Islamophobia with images of cooking spicy dishes, juxtaposing identity and flavor.

Imran was joined by performers from cultural organizations like the UNC Arab Students Organization and performance-based groups like Blank Canvas Dance Company for Body Politics, an annual event in its fourth year that brings together performances to foster a conversation surrounding self-esteem, body image and identity.

Imran combined phrases of despair with hopeful ones, crafting metaphors that showed the conflicted relationship between parents and children through images like mangos. The snaps it elicited from the audience, responding to moving moments in the spoken word piece, roared with emotion despite their muted volume.

The event took place in the auditorium of the Sonja Hanes Stone Center for Black History and Culture. It was an evening of dance, music and discussion, but more than that, it was an evening of moving moments for people of many identities.

Imran wasn’t the only performer who addressed her many backgrounds. Harmonyx performed a set comprised entirely of covers of songs by black artists, from Michael Jackson to Andra Day. The performers, an a Capella group founded by UNC’s Black Student Movement, wore t-shirts with a black power fist grasping a microphone printed across the back.

Missing voices 

Though both of these groups were diverse in backgrounds and gender, the three panelists of the event acknowledged the importance of recognizing one major identity missing from both the panel and the conversation of body image as a whole – men.

Nicho Stevens, a member of UNC’s Student Hip Hop Organization, was a male performer in a program that featured more male performers than it drew in audience members. Stevens’ piece, interrupted only by the occasional siren-like screams of the oft-malfunctioning microphone, charted a course that included the impact of racially charged comments, identity and masculinity.

Stevens said hip-hop allows musicians to express emotions with something not found in other forms of expression such as conversation – freedom. This freedom in style, verse and rhythm lends itself to engaging conversations on emotional topics.

“It’s like reaching into your soul,” Stevens said.

Stevens discussed how challenging it can be for men to recognize and talk about vulnerability when society expects them to be strong, confident and unemotional.

Gillian Fortier, who helped organize the event, said intersectional identities can affect self-esteem and make it harder for people with mental health challenges to seek treatment. Fortier recognized that her gender makes her participation in these discussions more socially accepted.

Unpacking issues 

Attendees submitted questions throughout the performances via Poll Everywhere, an app more familiar to UNC-Chapel Hill students for its use in taking attendance at lectures than for an extracurricular event.

Caroline Holcomb, Emily Hagstrom and Marissa Butler, the three panelists, facilitated a conversation following the performances that meandered through issues, including self-care while being an effective advocate for others, as well as personal stories from both the audience and panelists.

With only one panelist of color, though, the group had to come to terms with privilege in their discussion of self-worth.

“I feel it is particularly important to consider identity and privilege when it comes to exploring body image because we all have different bodies, receive different messages from society, culture, etc. and have different experiences in childhood and in relationships that may affect how we see our bodies,” said Holcomb, a social worker with UNC’s Counseling and Psychological Services. “And we must consider the unique intersection of all of these influences in order to reach a healthier, more accepting place within ourselves when it comes to body image.”

Remember to marvel

The evening started out with a Spotify playlist of empowering songs like Earth, Wind & Fire’s “Shining Star,” Beyoncé’s “Run the World (Girls)” and Diana Ross’ “I’m Coming Out.” But these messages of self-love can fall on deaf ears when people don’t feel they can love themselves. Panelists, event organizers and audience members noted that body positivity can often involve telling people to be proud of their bodies and not take any grief from anyone who says otherwise – even if that person is themselves.

“Something in particular that struck me was the concept that you don’t always have to love your body,” Alexandra Smith, who attended the event, said. “You can just be content with it and that’s perfectly fine.”

Regardless of your identities, it’s important to marvel at the human body at a most basic, anatomical level, said Fortier, who is photo editor for Embody Carolina, an organization that trains students to support those with eating disorders.

Sometimes in the wave of body positivity, this appreciation for the innumerable chemical reactions, neural connections and cardiovascular processes it takes doctors four years of medical school to understand gets left behind – but Fortier summed it up in three one-syllable words.

“It does stuff.”

Edited by Janna Childers. 

Beyond the rally: UNC students honor Parkland victims and fight for change

By Anne McDarris

Austin Hahn stood at the front of the room, his hands clasped in front of him, rocking back and forth on the balls of his Birkenstock-clad feet. He stared at the 31 UNC-Chapel Hill students sitting in gray plastic chairs and on the counter to the side of the room. The members of the Young Democrats club stared right back.

“So the rally’s in two days,” he said. He glanced at the woman slouching in the front row, dead center in a red hoodie.  “It’s been kind of a whirlwind.”

Shannon Taflinger, a senior at UNC-CH, looked back at him. She knew this well. After all, the upcoming rally against gun violence was her idea — the result of a Friday evening in her room, spent avoiding homework and instead thinking about the shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida on Feb. 14. On Facebook, she watched a few interviews of the survivors.

Students from Stoneman Douglas have spoken out about their experience with gun violence, and many are taking their message of reform to the national stage. Students from across the country responded to this spark of activism, and demonstrations against gun violence from Texas to Michigan to California roared into existence.

Taflinger was inspired.

“They can’t even vote,” Taflinger said. “I’m 23. I can vote. I have political efficacy. I thought to myself, ‘Why? Why am I just sitting here in my room? I can do something.’”

She created an event on Facebook and emailed Hahn, the leader of the UNC-CH Young Democrats. He latched onto the idea, and together they planned a rally for Thursday, Feb. 22.

For six days, Taflinger’s Facebook event spread and reached 3,165 people. Three hundred and thirty nine people marked that they would attend.

Enough is enough

The day of the rally was sunny and warm, especially for mid-February.  People gathered in front of Wilson Library at 11 a.m., standing in the grass with handmade signs: “ENOUGH IS ENOUGH” in black marker, “#NEVERAGAIN” in blocky red.

Protestors faced the library, and, one by one, speakers came to stand in front of them on the low stone wall dividing the grass from the sidewalk. U.S. Rep. David Price and state Rep. Graig Meyer, both Democrats, were among those who spoke. They looked out of place in suits, addressing a crowd sporting T-shirts and jeans.

“There is something different about this time, and it has to do with the activism by people like you,” Price said during his speech. “We must respond to it… there’s nothing wrong with thoughts and prayers, but not when it’s a cover for inaction. We can’t let this die. We have to keep pushing.”

The people in the crowd sounded like old Southern churchgoers: they hummed, shifted restlessly, punctured the speeches with moaning, floating yeses and nos and dashes of applause.  But this congregation was angry at the situation that called them together; they yelled curse words instead of halleluiahs. There were many passionate words by passionate people, but they were preaching to the choir.

Hahn spoke, Taflinger spoke, and then after a few chants and howling applause, the crowd dispersed. It was over in 40 minutes.

After the rally, Meyer stood with the students. He was well over 6 feet tall and spoke in a long Southern accent without breaking eye contact.

“I don’t know whether I can guarantee whether it will turn into long-term sustained engagement,” he said.  “There’s all kinds of people who get fired up about an issue, and then you try to make a difference and it doesn’t work right away and it gets hard. But change like this is a major social, cultural change… and it’s going to take a lot of work extended over a long period of time.”

Sustaining the momentum

The next major milestone in reducing gun violence is translating student demonstrations into political action, which may be difficult in North Carolina.  The state’s U.S. senators, Thom Tillis and Richard Burr, have received approximately $4.5 million and $7 million respectively from the National Rifle Association, according to the Federal Election Commission.

An email signed by Tillis from “” said, “While there are strongly-held opinions on these issues, I believe a healthy dialogue is long overdue, and I am optimistic we can find bipartisan common ground in the weeks and months ahead.”

High school students are also pushing hard. Students across the United States are organizing their own rallies and walkouts, including students at Woods Charter School in Chapel Hill, which is a ten-minute drive from UNC-CH.  Eleventh grader Matti Kauftheil is leading the charge at Woods Charter by organizing the school’s walkout as part of a nation-wide demonstration.

Kauftheil, who uses “they” pronouns, who likes English and feminism and the environment, is also 16 years old — too young to vote, but not too young for political activism.

“Students carry so much power when they stand together because we are the next generation,” Kauftheil said. “And when we show legislators that we can make a change and we will vote and we are coming for their jobs, we are a threat.”

Kauftheil said that Woods Charter’s administration is in full support of the walkout, which is slated for March 14. Kauftheil said there is a buzz in both the middle and high schools about the event and gun reform in general.

“Most people think that walking out is either an honorable thing to do or is an action that will do nothing,” Kauftheil said.

Taflinger certainly hopes it will do something. She is turning her attention to supporting national protests like the March 14 walkout and the national March for Our Lives demonstration in Washington DC.

And a new organization on campus, UNC 4 MSD, is planning another demonstration for March 29.

A suggestion of hope

At the rally, two young women stood in the crowd with their signs.  After a last round of applause, Niki Wasserman and Lily Skopp loitered for a few minutes, took a few pictures with Price, then started the walk toward North Campus together.

Wasserman and Skopp both graduated from Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School. Both knew victims of the shooting.

“It felt like time kind of stopped for a couple of days there,” Wasserman said. She is a senior at UNC-CH and graduated from Stoneman Douglas in 2014.

Skopp looked haunted. There was a subtle sagging in her shoulders and her sentences pushed and pulled, but her eyes were clear. As a first-year student at UNC-CH, she graduated from Stoneman Douglas last year.

“Every Friday, when Mr. Thompson would come on the intercom, he would sign off by saying…” Skopp trailed off and looked at Wasserman.  “What was it?”

They stared at each other for a beat, thinking of their principal’s mantra, and then both began speaking, uncertain for a word or two until their memory found a foothold.

“Be positive, be passionate and be proud to be an Eagle,” they said in unison.

“And I think that this message really stands for this movement,” Skopp said, a suggestion of a smile curving the corners of her mouth.

Edited by Janna Childers.

Identity in process: an Asian American woman’s journey to acceptance 

By Michelle Dixon

“You’re a defective Asian.”

Britney Nguyen was struck by those harsh words from a boy in middle school band class. She didn’t excel in math or science, so she was deemed as defective. At almost every class assembly, her last name was mispronounced by teachers who didn’t care to learn it. Though she was Vietnamese, she was mistaken for Chinese or Mexican. From kindergarten to high school, her identity was marked by prejudiced statements and ignorance.

“I just saw myself as American,” Nguyen said. “I grew up here, so I am American, but I lost my Asian identity.”

Nguyen struggled to discover who she was and accept her identity as an Asian American woman. She was the only Vietnamese student in the rural small town of Whiteville, North Carolina.

“Most of the students in my class were white,” she said. “And then there was me.”

Nguyen was grouped under one ethnicity, Chinese.

“I think it was just disregarded because everyone saw Asians as the same,” she said.

In first grade, one of her peers had mistaken Nguyen for Chinese, so the girl rejected Nguyen’s friendship.

Nguyen said the girl told her, “I thought you were Chinese, so I thought you were weird.”

For a Christmas presentation in second grade, Britney wore her “áo dài,” the traditional Vietnamese dress, to school. She was showered with compliments, and for a moment she was proud of being Vietnamese. But an internal battle started. One side glorifying her distinction and the other side resisting it.

Middle school

This internal battle continued in middle school. Nguyen began to notice the prejudices of her Southern Baptist town. The desks in her middle school gifted class were mostly filled with white students, and it wasn’t her test scores that made her peers assume she would succeed. It was her race.

Nguyen said, “I didn’t excel in math class, so people would say ‘Oh I thought you were supposed to be good at this.’” She laughed with them agreeing with the bigoted statement.

“I just laughed everything off,” she said. “And I think that’s just because I didn’t really want to defend myself, and I really can’t trace that back to anything just that I was used to it for a long time.”

The model minority myth

Dr. Dana Griffin, associate professor in the School of Education at UNC-Chapel Hill, teaches a class on racial and ethnic identity. Griffin said it’s a positive stereotype to assume that Asians receive the highest test scores.

“That’s the model minority myth,” she said, “and this is something in the Asian culture only, where Asians are supposed to be smart in math and science, and if you’re not, then you are that ‘defective Asian.’” She said people who don’t meet those stereotypes can internalize it and believe they’re inadequate.

Griffin said it’s normal for people of color to experience “internal oppression” against their own ethnicity.

“It’s having pride in who you are versus how society views you,” she said. “If no one is there to validate who you are as an ethnic minority and the messages you receive are negative, you will start to believe that for yourself and try to distance yourself from that ethnic group.”

Saigon Market

Nguyen’s prejudices against her race were revealed most at the Saigon Market, the Asian market in Wilmington, North Carolina. Nguyen would eagerly wait to purchase her favorite snacks from the market — shrimp crackers and dried squid.

But her excitement eventually turned into embarrassment. She walked in the market with her head down, barely speaking to anyone.

Nguyen said, “I was cringing on the inside, but also really excited. It’s kind of like inner turmoil again with the whole I want to get all this stuff, but also being embarrassed that I was able to get dried squid or shrimp crackers or something weird like that. I just didn’t identify as Asian,” she said. “And I’m still not very comfortable with that. And I think it’s just because my whole life I was trying to get rid of that part of myself.”

Nguyen would fantasize about her dark brown hair turning blonde. She thought maybe then she could pass as American.

But Nguyen knew that was wishful thinking. Each time she looked in the mirror she was reminded that she was Vietnamese. She returned home from high school, speaking to her parents in English while her mother responded in Vietnamese. Each year she celebrated Chinese New Year. Before she ate dinner, her family prayed in Vietnamese.

Nguyen couldn’t escape who she was.

 Embracing your culture

Britney Nguyen’s mother, Tara Nguyen, said, “I told her you have to embrace your culture.”

Tara Nguyen wanted to share the language of her homeland to her daughter. She said when Britney Nguyen was a child she read bedtime stories to her in Vietnamese. She bought a DVD of a popular little girl in Vietnam who spoke Vietnamese, but it didn’t interest Britney Nguyen.

Tara Nguyen said she regretted leaving Los Angeles, which is where most of her family is. If she stayed there, she said her daughter could have been introduced to more of their Asian culture.

But in Whiteville, Tara Nguyen said “it’s lonesome.” Nothing in Whiteville reminded Tara Nyguen of who she was.

When she was younger, she came to the United States to escape the Vietnam War with her family, so she wasn’t able to learn much about Vietnam. Tara Nguyen and her siblings attended school in Los Angeles where they were teased by other students.

She said, “Everybody was scared when the children looked at you and point at you when you don’t understand what they are saying, but Britney has an advantage because she can speak the language.”

A story shared

Learning the English language as a child influenced Britney Nguyen’s passion for writing and civil rights. By 2016, Twitter was a civil rights platform where people shared their personal stories of bigotry.

Through Twitter, Nyugen saw that her past was similar to so many other stories. This sudden realization forced her to reflect on the times she ignored the remarks made against her.

But this time she didn’t normalize it. She finally put a name to the words and comments her peers and school administrators said to her about her race.

Their words were racist, and she was able to admit it.

“I should’ve said something,” Nguyen said. “And I should’ve defended myself better even though I was in elementary school or in middle school or younger.”

It was a recent realization for Nguyen. She spent most of her life ignoring the painful words thrown at her.

But now if you see her at the Saigon Market, you will see her interacting with other Asians and proudly buying dried squid. If you talk with her at Whiteville, she will speak more openly about her traditions. If you talk to her in class at UNC-CH, she might seem shy at first, but just ask her about her history, and she’ll open up.

Nguyen is still processing, but she’s making steps toward accepting who she is.

Edited by Janna Childers.