Why Racism Is Plaguing This California School

Photo: Patrick T. Fallon/Bloomberg/Getty Images.
In a letter to the editor on Mustang News, the student newspaper of California Polytechnic State University, former Lambda Chi Alpha fraternity brother Kyler Watkins apologized for wearing blackface to a party. He also said he didn't previously know about the historical racial significance of blackface, and that his choice had nothing to do with racism or discrimination — it was apparently all part of a game in which members were on different-colored "teams."
"Growing up white and privileged, I was truly unaware of how insensitive I was to the racial implications of blackface," he wrote. "I began researching on my laptop and learned that blackface was used in early theater to perpetuate racial stereotypes. I knew immediately that I had made a grave mistake, and moreover, I fully understood why people would hate me."
The fact that Watkins made it to a prestigious university without knowing the historical context of blackface tells you everything you need to know about white privilege and the American education system today. It also underscores the need for mandatory racial bias training for incoming freshmen, which some universities are already beginning to implement.
Photos from this "multicultural" party, as the frat called it, show other brothers dressed as "gang" members and flashing fake gang signs.
This wasn't the first racially charged event at the San Luis Obispo school this month. After a second incident — in which white members of Sigma Nu wore bandanas, saggy pants, and fake mustaches while drinking Coronas — the school suspended all of its fraternities and sororities through the spring quarter. They are required to implement long-term plans that focus on diversity and inclusion, and there will be a review in June to determine whether they can come back in the fall.
The school, like many in the U.S., has a shameful history of minstrel performances on campus and a more recent history of incendiary white supremacist flyering, Islamophobic messages on walls, and parties with themes like "Colonial Bros and Nava-Hos." Racist incidents have been on the rise on college campuses since Trump's election, according to the Southern Poverty Law Center. Just this month, Syracuse University permanently expelled a frat after members participated in skits that offended just about every marginalized group.
Recently, students found more white supremacist flyers and messages on campus at Cal Poly. One of them claimed that Black and white people are different species, and another was titled "Diversity is just a code word for white genocide."
“Words cannot begin to explain how gut-wrenching it has been for me to witness the hurt so many have felt and continue to feel regarding the Lambda Chi Alpha incident,” university president Jeffrey Armstrong said in a statement last week. “I know the discomfort I sit with cannot compare with what so many of our students, faculty, and staff of color feel.”
To top it all off, Milo Yiannopoulos, the "free-speech fundamentalist" who thinks feminism is cancer, is speaking on campus on Thursday. The event, billed as a panel about fake news, is being co-sponsored by the College Republicans. Many are arguing that, free speech or not, this is not the right time for a writer who has called for expelling Muslims from the West and bullied trans students to speak on their campus. Plus, the university expects its response to be along the lines of Yiannopoulos' January 2017 visit, when it spent more than $55,000 to provide security for the event, including 109 police officers. Police from all 23 California State University schools will be there.
Matt Lazier, Cal Poly media relations director, said that although the university understands that some may find Yiannopoulos offensive, as a public university it's "required to uphold free speech rights and provide an open forum for a variety of opinions, thoughts, and ideas," adding that engaging with ideas that conflict with your own is "an important part of critical thinking and student growth."
However, many students from marginalized communities fail to see how the "idea" that they are inferior contributes to their education and how the "opinion" that people of color are a different species is anything but a threat. Instead, many of them feel out of place, unsafe, and unwelcome in Greek life and at the school in general. Student groups including the Black Student Union addressed these issues in an emergency town hall earlier this month.
"I hated my first two years there and if it wasn't for my minority friends, I would've just hated my whole experience," Ann Ma, who is Asian and graduated in 2017, told Refinery29. "The biggest thing was that I felt like I was ignored in class whenever I had anything to say, people didn't really look my way. I felt like if I wasn't white or in a sorority, I didn't have a voice."
She recalled an incident in class when it was just her and one other Asian girl. The other girl was named May, and their professor accidentally mixed up their papers when handing them back, and then realized she had gotten confused and switched them. "And these girls in the back whispered, 'It's because they're the only Asian girls' and just snickered," Ma said.
Cal Poly has the least racially diverse student population of all the public universities in California. In fall 2017, 54.8% of the student body identified as white, while only 0.7% identified as African-American, the lowest percentage among all the state schools.
"All these factors create an environment that is homogenous and exclusionary," Isabella Paoletto, a third-year journalism student and activist, told Refinery29. "That’s why it's okay for rhetoric and flyers like this to happen and for no one to care or try to create actual change. While of course the rhetoric of Donald Trump and other alt-right racist groups has promoted this kind of white nationalist recruitment around the country, this has been happening at Cal Poly even before Trump."
After a long history of racism, the school is at long last beginning to address its demons with the fraternity and sorority suspensions.
We've reached out to the Cal Poly Republicans and president Jeffrey Armstrong, and will update this story when we hear back.
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