What to Make of the Cal Poly Blackface Incident
Equity, Diversity, and Inclusion on College Campuses
I taught at Cal Poly for ten years and found it to be a welcoming place that values its students as individuals and promotes equity, diversity and inclusion. Admittedly, this is from a faculty member’s point of view. The incident that occurred two weeks ago where a Lambda Chi Alpha fraternity member was photographed in blackface raises serious questions whether students feel the same way, especially those groups that feel marginalized by the institution.
According to the student who appeared in black face, the painting of his face black was not a racist gesture but occurred as a result of a fraternity event where students painted their faces different colors. The student issued a statement: “If there’s any part of this message to take into consideration, I hope it would be that my ill-informed decision to paint my face black had nothing whatsoever to do with racism and discrimination.”
The sad part of this whole incident is that the student did not know about the historical significance of being in blackface. The student wrote that he conducted research [after the fact] and learned of the history of black face. He went on: “I knew immediately that I had made a grave mistake … and fully understand why people would hate me. 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.”
So, what are we to make of the incident? How can it be used as a teachable moment? Where should Cal Poly go from here?
My first takeaway is that there are a group of students at Cal Poly who are immature. They are straight out of high school and act like it. They have not learned about personal responsibility. Insensitivity does not occur in a vacuum. Some fraternities on campus have been sanctioned for sexual abuse by members and some for excessive drinking and partying at all hours thereby upsetting the community.
A variety of incidents have occurred at Cal Poly where female students were sexually abused or raped. Back on April 5, 2016, a woman reported being sexually assaulted at a Delta Chi party held at an off-campus residence affiliated with the fraternity. The incident was the second sexual assault reported in connection with a Delta Chi event in just a few weeks.
Back in March 2015, the roof of a garage collapsed under the weight of dozens of students (at 6:30 am!) who had been partying all night to celebrate St. Fratty’s Day, the Cal Poly students’ version of Saint Patrick Day.
Here’s a teachable moment. For the sake of all Cal Poly students who, apparently, are not being exposed to these kinds of offensive symbolic gestures in the curriculum, blackface was a form of theatrical make-up used mostly by non-black performers to represent a caricature of a black person as a happy-go-lucky dark-skinned plantation worker.
The issues faced by Cal Poly’s administration are significant. Some claim students of color will avoid applying for admission. That would be very unfortunate. Cal Poly already has one of the lowest proportion of students of color to white students. Diversity and inclusivity is a moral value on a college campus to sensitize students to the cultural backgrounds of others. It is only through interaction with those different from ourselves that we gain an appreciation for people of all races, religions, genders, and sexual orientations.
Cal Poly already has an impressive diversity program on campus including student and faculty diversity committees and a dedicated office of University Diversity and Inclusion. The university does not need more programs or bureaucratic overlays. What is not happening is a meaningful orientation to these issues when new students enter Cal Poly. The University has an orientation program under the acronym WOW (Week of Welcome). It is a great event and helps students to transition to college life. It instills the Cal Poly spirit of “Learn by Doing.”
How do students learn about diversity and inclusivity by doing? It requires more than explaining about campus resources and introducing key players. Cal Poly needs to incorporate a hands-on program in its orientation week, which should include meaningful coverage of the University’s values. What does it stand for and why? Ideally, the University could bring in current or former students who have had to deal with these issues. Give students a first-person account of how sexual abuse, discrimination, and hate speech have affected their lives, and listen to the suggestions of those who have been down that road. Not all students would jump at the opportunity to expose themselves in such an environment. Still, it would mean a lot more to students if they see and hear from other students who had to endure biased behavior by other students on campus.
Lastly, Cal Poly needs to dedicate itself to promoting ethical behavior on campus. Include it in the orientation program. I taught ethics at Cal Poly for ten years and always found the students to be well-meaning individuals, but in today’s society relativistic ethics predominates over core ethical values. In other words, students learn to put their own needs ahead of others. This may be why the activities described above have occurred. Instead, students need to learn that their actions affect others. It’s The Golden Rule: Treat others the way you want to be treated.
One tool I have used is a mnemonic device to help students remember key attributes of ethical behavior.
Finally, actions have consequences and offending students need to be dealt with swiftly. To this end I believe the University has reacted in good faith and President Jeffrey Armstrong has sent a strong signal to all constituents that certain behaviors will not be tolerated. It’s time now to take that response one step further, as I suggest.
Blog posted by Steven Mintz, aka Ethics Sage, on April 19, 2018. Visit my website and sign up for my Newsletter.