Cal Poly President Says Blackface Protected By Free Speech After Fraternity Suspension

Cal Poly President Says Blackface Protected By Free Speech After Fraternity Suspension
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Greek Strife

April 17th, 2018 – The Lambda Chi Alpha fraternity at California Polytechnic State University has been placed on an interim suspension after photos showing members dressed as gang members, with one student posing in blackface, circulated online last week. The photos were taken at a “brotherhood event” – one that was happening at the same time as the college’s annual “multicultural event” that allows prospective students to experience campus life.

One photo showed an all-white group of students wearing baggy pants, gold chains, bandanas, and fake tattoos while throwing up their version of gang signs. Another photo showed a fraternity brother smiling while wearing blackface. Though both problematic, the second photo pushed this incident into the national spotlight.

A Cal Poly professor, along with several current and former students, made Facebook posts sharing the photographs. The original photo was posted to Instagram (with the caption “She want a gangster not a pretty boy”) by a Lambda Chi brother but has since been taken down. Screenshots, however, live forever.

The fraternity released a statement apologizing and acknowledging their failure for not recognizing earlier the racial impact this would bring. The student who wore blackface, Kyler Watkins, has resigned his membership to Lambda Chi, and all officers of the Cal Poly chapter have resigned their posts.

“The representation depicted in the photograph was absolutely unacceptable by our standards as it had a negative influence on surrounding members of our community,” they wrote. “Although it was not our intention to stir up racial tension, we understand the negative impact this picture had on our peers.”

While the university and the fraternity’s national organizations came out with quick, definitive condemnation for the chapter as a whole, they are less absolute in saying that the student who dressed in blackface should be punished.

University President Jeffery Armstrong commented that while he thought, on a personal level, what his students did was awful, that doesn’t trump their individual constitutional right.

That’s very, very likely protected by free speech, and freedom of expression,” he told The Tribune. “If a student walks around on campus with their face painted black, they can do that. Based on the facts we have, what we know now, we would not expel that student.”

Armstrong went on to further explain his personal feelings in a campus-wide email sent out before an emergency town hall meeting, which was partly organized by the university’s Black Student Union, last Monday.

“I am ashamed. Hurtful actions, be they intentional or otherwise, have no place at our university and yet, regrettably, we experience them,” he wrote. “They are senseless acts of ignorance that injure and alienate valued members of our community. They must stop.”

Students weren’t buying those prepared words. One person spoke up at the meeting (which was not attended by Armstrong) and was recorded saying that if the university is truly committed to diversity and action, then there must be a zero tolerance policy enforced for parties that engage in racist actions.

“Because it continuously happens. It’s happened since Malcolm was a freshman,” he said gesturing to a fellow student at the meeting. “That’s 2013. Nothing has changed.”

Back in 2013, Phi Sigma Kappa came under investigation after hosting a “Colonial Bros and Nava-Hos” themed party where guests wore “sexually explicit Native American-themed attire.” No action was ultimately taken against the fraternity.

Do you think Cal Poly needs to back up their words with more definitive action against Lambda Chi and its members? How can students gain a better understanding of the racial impacts their jokes can have?

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