Posted on April 25, 2018

After Blackface Incident, Minority Students at Cal Poly San Luis Obispo Say They Don’t Feel Welcome

Hailey Branson-Potts, Los Angeles Times, April 25, 2018

Aaliyah Ramos was walking through the Cal Poly San Luis Obispo campus last year when a prospective student approached her.


Ramos, a mechanical engineering student, didn’t want to sugarcoat the truth: Cal Poly long has been predominantly white. But she told the young woman — who also was black — that she didn’t want to discourage her from applying, because that wouldn’t help with diversity at a school where only 0.7% of students are African American — the lowest percentage of any university in the California State system.

Now, after a recent spate of racial incidents — including a white fraternity member appearing in blackface — Ramos is reconsidering her answer.

“Yes, we have good resources here,” Ramos said. “But if you truly value your well-being and your ability to feel like you can be yourself and be respected and welcomed on campus, do your research and find a school that strives to make everyone feel this way.”

When a white member of the Lambda Chi Alpha fraternity was photographed at a party this month wearing blackface, the image spread over social media, and the outrage was felt campuswide.

At the same April 7 party at the off-campus frat house, other members were photographed wearing baggy jeans, fake tattoos and gold chains while flashing gang signs. It happened to be Cal Poly’s multicultural weekend.

Photos also emerged of members of the Sigma Nu fraternity at another party earlier this year wearing ribbed tank tops, gold chains and bandannas. The caption posted on social media read, “When you get he (sic) holmes to take a photo of la familia.”

The photos have sparked blunt, painful conversations about the treatment of minority students on the campus, the least diverse in the 23-school system. Cal Poly’s student body was 54.8% white in fall 2017, according to system data. The Cal State campuses are 23.5% white overall.

Cal Poly also has a higher percentage of white students than all 10 University of California campuses.

Last week, the administration announced an indefinite suspension of all Panhellenic sororities and Interfraternity Council fraternities. Matt Lazier, a university spokesman, said the racially charged photos were just the latest problems with the Greek organizations, including sexual assault, hazing and the alcohol-related death in 2008 of a freshman.


Many students said they were disappointed by the administration’s response. Neither the student in blackface, Kyler Watkins, nor any of the students dressed as gangsters was expelled.

Watkins, an agricultural business senior, could not be reached for comment. In a letter to the Cal Poly student newspaper and other publications, he said the decision to paint his face “had nothing whatsoever to do with racism or discrimination.”

“Growing up white and privileged, I was truly unaware of how insensitive I was to the racial implications of blackface,” he wrote. Watkins said he and other Lambda Chi members were playing a game in which the teams were represented by colors, and he painted his face because he was on the black team.


That stance has struck a particularly dissonant chord on the campus, where the College Republicans group erects a “Free Speech” wall each year that previously has had racist and sexist comments scrawled on it. {snip}

A group of students called the Drylongso Collective, formed in the wake of recent controversies, has called on the administration to match the $55,000 that CSU spent on security for Yiannopoulos’ 2017 speech and the costs for Thursday’s event, and devote the money to minority, LGBTQ and women’s programs. The request was among a long list of demands.


Jozi De Leon, the university’s new vice president for diversity and inclusion, said there are numerous initiatives to attract a more diverse student body and faculty, and create a more welcoming campus climate.


A third-year student who used to belong to the Alpha Phi sorority but did not want to give her name because she still works closely with the Panhellenic Assn. said the fraternities deserved to be punished but that it was sad the sororities got wrapped up in it.

“Pitting all Greek life as being racist isn’t bringing the student body together,” she said. “Everyone in Greek life is being put in that bubble.”

She said prospective students already have pulled out of sorority recruitment. Another woman then walked up and angrily told her to stop talking to a reporter.

Last week, the N-word was found scrawled in red marker on a bathroom stall in the English building. Racist fliers — including one suggesting skin tone was correlated with homicide and rape rates, and another insinuating that black people were a human subspecies — were posted in the same building.


“Racism is not simply the Klan marching around in hoods and burning crosses,” he said. “Some people think that if you don’t see those super-explicit, in-your-face things on a regular basis, you could say there’s no racism here.”

Many minority students at Cal Poly say racism, both overt and subtle, permeates their lives.

Quentin Harrison, a 20-year-old sophomore who is black, said other students talk down to him or act intimidated by him. He notices women clutch their purses a little tighter when he walks toward them. If it’s getting dark, he sees people turn and go the other direction to avoid him.


Naba Ahmed, editor of the campus newspaper, Mustang News, said the administration has sent emails lauding diversity and inclusion but that they ring hollow.

“There have been so many incidents of racism on this campus that it’s really frustrating that more isn’t happening,” said Ahmed, a 20-year-old Muslim student who is of Indian and Kenyan descent. The blackface incident, in particular, will long be remembered as a stain on the university, she said.