Elias Atienza is a history junior and the Mustang News opinion editor. The views expressed in this column do not reflect the viewpoints and editorial coverage of Mustang News.
If you haven’t heard already, a member of Lambda Chi Alpha decided to put on blackface for a brotherhood event April 7. The defense of this, if it could be called that, was that each fraternity brother was supposed to be on a team that corresponded to a color.
This was before a second picture emerged, showing many of the fraternity brothers dressed like stereotypical gang members, with the caption, “She want a gangster, not a pretty boy.”
This is just another milestone in Cal Poly’s storied history of being insensitive in matters of racism. From the “Colonial Bros and Nava-Hoes” party in 2013 to protests over University Housing because of a Confederate flag and a noose hanging oat the campus crop house in 2008, there is a rich tradition of idiocy and racism at this school.
Of course, the brothers have their defenders. If you ever decide to hop on the Cal Poly SLO Mustang Parents Facebook page, you’ll find plenty of older individuals urging caution not to condemn or be hasty in our judgment. It’s the common, ‘We need all the facts,’ that emerges after police shootings. Normally, I would agree, but there is no context in which blackface should ever be accepted.
Blackface is racism. There are no ‘ifs’ or ‘buts’ about it. The history of blackface is rooted in the racist depictions of Black people meant to reduce them to caricatures instead of actual people with their own perspectives and agendas.
As Mustang News described it, “Historically, blackface derives from white actors painting their faces black to depict slaves and freed Black people onstage during minstrel shows that started in the mid- to late- 19th century and lasted well into the 1950s. The practice created caricatures of Black people, mocking and dehumanizing the community and perpetuating racist stereotypes since.”
Blackface has been rightfully condemned as racist and has been ostracized. Some people believe the condemnation is for the sake of political correctness, but there is a fine line between fighting political correctness and racism.
As I wrote almost two years ago, extreme political correctness is bad, but the line gets crossed when someone does an overtly racist action, such as wearing blackface or targeting people for their ethnicity. Not wanting to be politically correct is not a valid defense when there is a racist connotation with the event.
There is also the defense of intention. Lambda Chi Alpha did not intend to cause harm, as their press release repeatedly emphasized. They did not intend to stir racial tension just a week before Open House. They did not intend for a lot of what happened, but it happened. Intention is not a viable defense in this case, because it is blackface and no one should intend to wear it to a party.
The next question is how we should handle this and move forward. There is always the question of free speech; should the university punish Kyler Watkins and the fraternity for these acts? Or should it be left up to the Interfraternity Council (IFC)?
Mustang News reported that the fraternity is on suspension by Cal Poly, Cal Poly Interfraternity Council, and Lambda Chi Alpha’s national organization until April 2019. Cal Poly is continuing to conduct an investigation.
The answer is that the university should put further sanctions on Lambda Chi Alpha at the very least, but they shouldn’t be criminally punished nor prosecuted. There is a First Amendment right to be able to engage in racist actions that are not violent, such as wearing blackface or saying racist terms.
Watkins and his fraternity brothers should be socially ostracized from the campus, but that won’t happen. Nor will it likely threaten their job prospects, as many employers will probably look at this as a case of idiotic college students being idiotic college students.
In any case, it is another mark in the racist actions of many fraternities around the United States. Hopefully, Lambda Chi Alpha will take the steps to actually ensure one of their brothers won’t do this again, but we’ve got a better chance of President Armstrong not ignoring student voices.