Blackface On Campus


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It was during a University Cultural Weekend promoting diversity that the Lambda Chi Alpha photos appeared on social media. Members of various campus clubs immediately demanded the expulsion of those involved. Wearing black shirts and carrying protest slogans, they taped their mouths shut to show just how long they’ve been silenced.

Hundreds of students join in the protests, attending open forums and bringing the issue up with lecturers and university officials. Their anger is fuelled by the campus record on diversity: just 166 of its 21,000 students are black. Megan talks to Monique Ejenuko, whose parents are from Nigeria but who has grown up in the Los Angeles area and who was ill prepared for how marginalised she would feel:

“It’s a State University with a great reputation, but when I arrived I went to a talk as part of orientation where they briefly brought up race. When they were talking about it I just looked around and I was the only drop of blackness in that auditorium. It was so overwhelming – they were talking about this topic and I was at the centre of it and I just feel so alone.”

Just days after the publication of the photos the University President, Professor Jeffrey Armstrong, suspends the fraternity but tells a packed student gathering that he will not support expelling the student in blackface, Kyler Watkins, who is protected by the amendment on free speech: “If a student walks around on campus with their face painted black, they can do that.”

This provides a further rallying call for protestors to step-up their actions; adding Armstrong’s resignation to their growing list of demands. Racial tensions increase, as do reports of racist attacks: Professor Neal MacDougall, from the College of Agriculture, Food and Environmental Service, returns to his office to discover that posters have been vandalised and racist leaflets put up:

“I think it's really the slashing of the sign that disturbed me; that's fundamentally a violent act," he also criticises the University response, which he says seems more concerned with maintaining status rather than dealing with the issue: "I really think that they're trying to protect the brand, everything seems to be soft-pedalled."
Cal Poly spokesman Matt Lazier acknowledged the scale of the problem: “the university is seeing many postings around campus, expressing a wide variety of viewpoints — some of which include hateful and racist comments."

During her recordings, Megan encounters a group of 50 African American school children touring the University. They are from a network of charter schools focused on closing the African American achievement gap. Margaret Fortune heads the group and says it is a long slow process involving high expectations, academic rigour and more time:

“Our county board of education found that in all 13 of our county school districts there was severe and consistent African American achievement gap - the only group they outperform is those with special needs. Our focus is on getting African American students college ready and this involves working with them from a very early age and over many years.”

For his part, Kyler Watkins, the student who dressed in blackface, says that he did not appreciate the context, or how inflammatory his appearance would be. Historically, blackface derives from white actors painting their faces black to depict slaves and freed black people during minstrel shows from the mid nineteenth century onwards.

Kyler Watkins adds that growing up white and privileged left him ignorant about the upset he would cause: “my own lack of awareness has placed my life in danger and worse, has hurt other people whom I had no intention of alienating, mocking or offending in any way."

Student Monique Ejenuko, tells Megan that the fraternity’s actions have set back her hopes of integration on campus. She struggled through her first year, making few friends and feeling out of place amongst so many white faces: “I have to constantly prove myself in my classes: if I'm too loud then she's a loud black girl, if I'm too quiet then I'm not achieving the standards that they want me to. “

One of the organisers of the protests, Leilani Hemmings Pallay, said she was surprised by how many students had got involved in the protests. She reveals that lots of black students feel scared by what is happening: “I've shut out lot of my class mates because scared they were amongst the people at the party, or putting the n word on the bathroom stalls.

“Recently a black freshman was spit on; it's just these things happening and I don't feel safe at all. How can you say you're trying to increase diversity yet you fail to protect students of colour on this campus?”

Producer: Sue Mitchell

Student journalist Megan Schellong investigates racist incidents at American universities.