Credit: Solena Aguilar | Mustang News

In this story, Mustang News reporter Olivia Galván asked 39 Cal Poly students about their most impactful experiences with race and racism and at what point in their lives these experiences occurred. She reached out to several organizations and students to share their stories. Here are their responses led by an essay from Galván to provide context for the project. Responses have been edited for clarity and length.

In the wake of George Floyd’s death by a Minneapolis police officer, Cal Poly students have marched and chanted in Black Lives Matter protests, conversed with loved ones about police brutality and posted educational resources about racism on social media.  

Black Lives Matter was founded in 2013 following the acquittal of George Zimmerman, who fatally shot unarmed 17-year-old Trayvon Martin in 2012. Black Lives Matter’s mission is to terminate white supremacy and violence against Black people, while building local support for Black power, love, imagination and innovation, according to their website

For some students, this movement was an eye opening look into the depths of racism faced by people of color. While Floyd’s death sparked national outrage surrounding police brutality and systemic racism, previous instances of Black people dying by police force have resurfaced.  

These cases include Breonna Taylor, a 26-year-old Black resident of Louisville, Kentucky who was shot and killed by police in her apartment and Elijah McClain, a 23-year-old Black resident of Aurora, Colorado who died in a hospital days after police restrained him with a chokehold and paramedics gave him the sedative ketamine that resulted in his cardiac arrest. 

Cal Poly also has a history of racism that dates back to the early 1900s where students performed minstrel shows in blackface. In April 2018, Lambda Chi Alpha fraternity member Kyler Watkins wore blackface at a gangster-themed party, which made international headlines and revived the conversation surrounding racism at Cal Poly.

The university continues to make efforts to promote diversity and inclusion on campus. In January 2019, the university announced a $234,000 partnership with diversity specialist Damon Williams to start the Cal Poly Experience (CPX) survey. The survey aimed to create a more diverse campus environment, and the CPX survey results were released October 2019.

The data showed that minority individuals across many backgrounds and identities — including women, LGBTQIA folks, disabled persons, financially challenged persons and members of underrepresented ethnic and racial backgrounds — have negative experiences on campus and do not feel a strong sense of belonging and a sense of community. The data showed it is most difficult for Black students to feel positively about their sense of belonging and community.

For several Cal Poly students, the CPX results informed them what they already knew. Experiencing racism while navigating Cal Poly and the current national climate as a person of color is not a new conversation for them.


Yazmeen Trinity, psychology freshman

“I was one of the only Black students in my class throughout elementary school.  It wasn’t necessarily, ‘She’s Black, let’s be mean to her.’  It was the microaggressions.  In kindergarten, the kids would come up to me and tell me I should straighten my hair.  When we started learning about Martin Luther King, Jr. … the questions were always directed to me first.  It was like I was the only one who had a valid voice on racism.”

Faith Crow, biological sciences freshman

“I come from a tri-racial background — I am Caucasian, Asian and Native American. I have two younger siblings. [As kids,] my brother and I looked pretty alike, we didn’t have the same features but we had the same skin color. My sister, on the other hand, looked way different. Growing up we were told that we weren’t siblings because we didn’t look alike ─ It was hard for people to put together because our skin tone was different.”

Kenzie Rutherford, environmental engineering freshman

“My little brother is adopted from Ethiopia. The rest of my family is white. From a very early age, I realized that my family would be treated differently from the way we are put together.  It’s something I’m so proud of, I have a little brother that has been able to grow into himself.  We live in a very white town, he’s probably the only Black kid in his grade.  It’s been very educational for me to see him go through the same system I did, but as a Black man in America.”

Analisa Viloria, computer science sophomore

“As a Filipino-American, my community holds a lot of anti-Black sentiments.  My family would shame darker skin because it was ‘ugly’ or because it ‘meant you were poor.’  I realize now it was racist, at the time it was just something my family told me.  I was four or five years old.”

Aliyah Francisco, English freshman

“Being a military kid, I’ve always seen an immense amount of diversity wherever I ended up moving.  I’ve lived in the South, where there are a lot of white people and a lot of black people.  In Kindergarten, I lived in Jacksonville, Florida.  My dad was stationed in a base near Jacksonville.  Teachers would put white kids in a group and POC kids in a group for projects, it was normal.” 

Elementary school

Megan Wong, business administration sophomore

“Growing up, I hated being Chinese. People would say, ‘Ching chong go away.’  It was a very toxic environment I grew up in. … I’m not very good at STEM.  Kids would tell me, ‘You’re Asian, why aren’t you good at math.’ Asian people and white people discriminated against me because I wasn’t good at math. But, I was good at English. People would say, ‘Why are you good at English? You don’t fit in here,’ and other really weird remarks as I was growing up at school.”

Karen Hernandez, sociology freshman

“I live in downtown Long Beach, where I am exposed to a lot of homelessness and gang violence.  I’ve had to travel across Long Beach to go to school. My home schools don’t have the same resources and educational opportunities. …  At a young age, it was instilled in me that schools in predominantly white areas with predominantly white students were better.” 

Olivia Weinbaum, civil engineering junior

“My best friend growing up was Black and adopted. [My friend] told me that she was at the store with her mom, who is white, when some lady came up to her and asked, ‘Sweetie, where is your mom?’  My friend said, ‘This is my mom.’  The lady said, ‘No, your real mom.’ … I realized that no one would ever ask me this question ─ I didn’t know what it was, but I knew something was up. We were eight years old.”

Iliana Mendias, experience industry management freshman

“In elementary school, there were microaggressions that I ignored to fit in with the other kids. … It would be small comments, like ‘Why is your arm hair so dark?’ I’m Mexican, Hispanic girls have darker hair. Kids when they are young don’t have filters and they nitpick. As kids, we don’t realize this is not okay until we get older. Especially for Hispanic girls and minorities, we grow up resenting our culture because it isn’t what we watch in the media ─ all the cool girls on campus and in the media are white.”

Saba Jafroodi, environmental engineering freshman

“I am Middle Eastern. There is a rhetoric about Middle Eastern people being terrorists. In elementary school, I got comments on certain traits that weren’t predominantly white, such as thicker eyebrows. … People would assume I was Muslim becuase I am Middle Eastern. In high school, they would say really dumb things about bombings, too.  … When [the comments] were more appearance based, it was oh, this is something different about you.  They didn’t know better, it was teasing.  But when it came to be a stereotype, it was you are deeply misinformed and have assumptions.”

Candice Leung, business administration junior

“In elementary school, a white boy asked me, ‘So were were you born in China?’  I said I was born here, in Granite Bay, my hometown.  He wouldn’t take that as an answer and kept asking me.  I was confused why he kept asking even though I said I was born in Granite Bay.  After that, he asked me why I could speak English so well. … At that moment I was very confused and hurt as to why he couldn’t take my answer as true.  That was the first time I saw myself from an outside perspective as people were making assumptions about me because I am Chinese.”

Cristian Valenzuela, liberal studies sophomore

“I started swimming when I was really young. … Because I am Mexican, more indigenous Mexican than Spanish Mexican, I tan really easily.  The biggest trauma from my childhood is kids at swim saying, ‘Oh my God, you are so dark — you are Black.’  As a child, I didn’t know how to respond. Even now, I don’t know how to respond. It’s hard to process why they would say that or think like that. … My town was very white.  We only had one Black kid in my grade.  I didn’t understand the meaning of diversity until I went to L.A. and San Francisco, getting out of the small town and Central Valley.”

Kristy Leung, graphic communications freshman

“I went to a pretty small, private elementary school.  My entire grade was eleven people … and there wasn’t much diversity.  We would be lining up for lunch and would get on the topic of family and ethnic languages.  There were some other students who were Chinese-Americans. There were other students, who were not Chinese, who would say ‘ching chong’ and belittle the Chinese language.  It influenced me to not respect my language ─ I would laugh along, I did not realize what the term meant.”

Chloe Comstock, political science sophomore

“I went to an immersion school, half of the students were white and half of the students were Latinx. We didn’t have any Black people.  The darkest students were Mexican American and most assumptions were about them. … In second grade, there was a group of white students questioning why other students had darker skin colors. We were never taught about different races.  [They] were guessing why other people had darker skin.  This one girl said, ‘Oh, it’s because they eat this certain disgusting thing.’  Everyone else was like oh, that makes sense.  For the next few weeks, [those students] were saying people with darker skin aren’t darker because it’s natural, it’s because they eat this thing. It didn’t sit right with me. Because we weren’t educated, we didn’t know what was real.”

Jillian Butler, liberal studies freshman

“One of my really good friends in elementary school had an adopted little sister from Ethiopia.  When [my friend’s sister] was in kindergarten, she was in the bathroom and two other kindergartens were gossiping. One girl asked, ‘Is anyone in here?’  The other said, ‘Oh, it’s just the little brown girl, she doesn’t matter.’ My friend was so upset that her little sister had been diminished to ‘the little brown girl.’ … I was like wow, kids can be really mean and kids can be racist.”

Celestine Co, computer engineering senior

“I was born in the Philippines and lived there for a while, then in Singapore for two years. When I first moved to the U.S. in third grade I was super quiet. … In Singapore, I went to an international school. It was super diverse and the curriculum was, too. I remember learning about different religions and cultures. … We had a culture week and I felt like there the different cultures were embraced. … Coming here, it was a culture shock. I had an easier time connecting with Asian individuals. Growing up, you noticed that the popular kids are white and upper class.”

Paige Riza, liberal studies freshman

“I was a Girl Scout in elementary school.  In third grade, my mom was picking me up from a meeting.  I was with one of my little girlfriends and we were in the parking lot with our two moms talking.  My friend’s mom started telling a story of how her car got broken into. … [She] said, ‘I bet it’s one of those Arabs because he was walking weird up and down my neighborhood.  He had weird clothes and a headdress on.’  … In my head, I was picturing a man not wearing Western clothes with darker skin.  I was thinking that maybe because of 9/11 she was afraid of an Arab man. … Still, I was like that’s so weird she said that, she didn’t even see him and her tone was so hateful.”

Ally Lai, biomedical engineering sophomore

“I was having dinner at a friend’s house one time. Somehow, my family came up.  I am half Taiwanese and half white.  My dad is a first generation immigrant. … My friend’s mom asked me if my dad liked Chef Chu’s, a Chinese restaurant.  I went home and was confused by the question … It seemed like, ‘You are Asian, do you like this restaurant?’  It’s the small things ─ you don’t always feel comfortable calling people out. But you yourself are uncomfortable.”

Carson Willits, history sophomore

“I’ve never experienced racism ─ I’m white and we live in a systemic society that benefits people who are white. I really noticed racism in teachers when I was young.  I’m from Fresno, which is pretty racially diverse.  In school, I would notice teachers talking to children of color differently.  Students of color would be the ones being called ‘a problem,’ even if they were just acting like children.” 

Middle school

Enrico Cruz, mechanical engineering freshman

“I’m not a person of color ─ I’m Latino but I have fair skin and white privilege. … You would hear boys in middle school say the N-word, beaner and wetback.  It was funny and it was a joke.  I would be like, ‘I’ve seen South Park, I’m not a snowflake.’  People saw it as normal.  I didn’t realize this anti-Latino deal until I was out with my mom and she was speaking Spanish. … White women were staring at her, like she was an alien.  Now whenever we go out and she is speaking Spanish, I look to see who is around.”

Samara Van Blaricom, mechanical engineering senior

“I was in Girl Scouts and we went to a hostel [for an event.]  We were in a meeting talking about racism. I’m Mexican and everyone else was white. I used to wear dark, heavy makeup. One of [the people working at the hostel] said to me, ‘Someone might look at you and your dark makeup and think that you don’t know English.’  I got red in the face.  I thought, ‘I know English, I was born here! Do people really look at me and think that I don’t know English?’” 

Susanna Hoffman, recreation, parks and tourism administration freshman

“I’m Chinese and I was adopted by white parents.  I’m a person of color, but I’ve definitely been raised in a different way than others.  I live in a very diverse part of California in Monterey, but I have had instances where I’ve been treated differently.  In sixth grade, my white friend asked, ‘Do you see half the world because your eyes are so small?’ At that point, I didn’t know how to address it. But, it got on my nerves.”

Kelly Mok, communication studies freshman

“In middle school I wasn’t aware of a lot ─ I knew there was racism, but I was sheltered in my own little bubble.  But in 2013 … when the first Black Lives Matter movement was taking place and people were protesting, I remember my family saying, ‘Why are people protesting?’  In school, we would talk about the protests.”

High school

Rachel Leong, architecture freshman

“When I was a freshman in high school, one girl, who was my friend, said, ‘I didn’t know Asians could be pretty until I met you.’  I was really offended by that. I grew up in a white area ─ there is a lot of racism when people get comfortable with each other.”

Julia Cannon, civil engineering junior

“We had a lady [who worked] at the front desk of my high school who blatantly called people by names that were stereotypically associated with their race.  She called an Asian girl ‘fortune cookie’ and a Mexican girl ‘cinnamon spice.’  We all knew about it and were like, ‘Dang, what is wrong with her?’  Those microaggressions are hurtful.”

Aliya Adeogoke, food science freshman

“My junior year of high school I was at a party and guys were talking about which girls they thought were cute.  I wasn’t in the room, but my friend later told me that one of them [talked about me and] said, ‘Maybe she would be prettier if she wasn’t Black.’  That was my first experience with outward racism.  At the time, I tried to act like everything was fine and brush it off.  Not even until my senior year did I fully comprehend that statement and the little things that had led up to it.  I’ve always been given backhanded compliments and little statements that I didn’t even realize.”

Halle Fernandez-Gotico, history freshman

“I grew up in a majority-minority area.  It was not until I transitioned to a high school in a more diverse area in a different neighborhood that I began to experience racism. … I am Filipino.  People sort of assume my race because I have a Spanish last name. I have had experiences where people would ask if I was fluent in Spanish. … Just because I don’t have paler, whiter skin, I’ve noticed some people tend to distance themselves from me.”

Mikaela Espiritu, graphic communications studies junior

“In high school, we would have potlucks in class.  Teachers would always say, I expect you to bring ‘insert traditional Filipino dish here.’  I’d be like okay, I don’t know how to make that. It would be mostly teachers making comments.  In that situation and position to be teaching and raising students, it was surprising to see them act in this way. … It goes to show, even though my high school tried to push inclusivity and diversity … there are a lot of situations that you know administration will protect white students over students of color.”

Kaila Bishop, civil engineering sophomore

“I grew up in a predominantly white suburb. … In high school, my [Black] friend was called a gorilla.  I had other incidents in high school of students who were not-Black and would use the N-word openly.”

Emma Martinez, communication studies freshman

“I have a friend who is mixed. She got arrested in a different city, that is predominantly white, for shoplifting. I don’t want to justify her shoplifting … but it was bikini bottoms.  The cops showed up and the store owner said, ‘We don’t need people like you around here.’  It was like something out of a history textbook … those words ‘people like you.’  It really got to me, I realized this racism is still around. It’s the microaggressions.”

Crystal Grambow, biological sciences sophomore

“When I was in high school, I worked at a clothing store.  I’d sometimes see white people in the store making comments towards people of color amongst themselves. … Two summers ago, I was at the register and an older, Chinese woman came up to me.  A middle aged white woman and her daughter were at a table nearby.  When the older woman came up to me, the white woman began yelling at her, saying she cut her in line. … The woman said, ‘I’m so tired of dealing with all these Asian people, they should go back.’ It was uncomfortable and the older woman didn’t do anything wrong.”

Cal Poly

Kianah Corey, child development sophomore

“I am a part of [Cal Poly] athletics.  The first time I came here as a freshman, an older teammate took me to another student’s house.  [There were about ten people there.] I was called the N-word with a hard R. It was ironic that some of the people there ended up being my roommates this year.  The act itself was racist, but the people around were just as wrong.  It was my very first day out of the dorm, I wanted to make friends so badly.  I was really shocked.  I don’t want my roommates or athletics to not like me because of what happened. […] I think Cal Poly does an awful job when it comes to racist things that happen on campus.  They can suspend or cancel things, but it still doesn’t stop.  I talked to Jamie Patton in Diversity and Inclusion, he is really wonderful and he really cared.  But everyone else is trying to shove diversity down your throat.  It’s so bad that no one cares.  It is an attack to learn about diversity and not treated as a gift to learn about other people.”

Noellah Ramos, business administration junior

“This past summer, I was asked to play with the Philippines National Softball Team in Georgia. After a game and practice, we all went to a mall and there were a lot of white people.  We’re a group of Filipinos ─ We’re brown.  The white people were looking at us up and down like we didn’t belong.  That exposure was eye opening. … I felt that like one time, but people who are Black feel like that all the time.”

Elena Felix, aerospace engineering freshman

“Pretty early on in my first quarter at Cal Poly, I took notice of the people who grouped together.  The diversity students grouped together and other cliques formed in the dorms.  In the classroom, you would notice that you [were] the only person of color.  It was a little bit of a culture shock, I come from a predominantly Hispanic community.” 

Maycee Ballew, liberal studies junior

“I’m a white woman, I’ve inherently never experienced racism … and that is a privilege. Being a white person and growing up in a conservative Christian household, there are certain ideologies and biases I’m still trying to shake. I can’t acknowledge that those are not there. … I don’t think people should be ashamed of changing their opinions. … To all the other white people out there, that is something to keep in mind ─ We won’t ever grasp the racism, oppression and discrimination that people of color live with. But, we need to start addressing this.”

Aliyah Francisco, English freshman

“There is an overwhelming presence of white students at Cal Poly. I took [Cross Cultural Experience Week of Welcome] and a lot of alumni from Cal Poly came back and were telling us their experiences. It was heartbreaking. … In WOW, you hear things that you didn’t hear when you were applying and accepted.  [For example,] Poly Cultural Weekend is not a realistic parallel to how the campus is. Walking around campus, you notice that people don’t really see you at all.”

Mikaela Espiritu, graphic communications junior

“There is a lot of anti-Blackness in the Asian community ─ It is very rooted in assimilation.  In older generations of people of color, it was everyone for themselves and a lot of hatred.  Walking down the street with my parents growing up, we would cross the street if a Black person was coming.  My parents and grandparents didn’t think it was harmful to others, it was ingrained in our culture. That is something that needs to change. … A lot of racism has to do with the perpetuation of stereotypes and microaggressions that we are brought up thinking are normal.  … Coming to college and being on your own helps you think for yourself.  Being stuck in your culture bubble can be detrimental, exposure is ultimately the only way to break down those walls and barriers.”

Sean Quach, business administration freshman

“On the first day of Fall quarter when I attended my first set of classes, the culture was shocking.  It wasn’t blatant mistreatment, it was the microaggressions. … None of my classes had any people who were Asian, Black or Hispanic ─ everyone was white.  I was treated differently … the other students ended up forming smaller groups in each class, I was left out of that. It really sucked, but I joined more clubs and Chinese Students’ Association, which helped me get my bearings on the culture of Cal Poly.”

Amanda Gersoff, environmental management and protection junior

“I am half Japanese and half European. … There were a lot of microaggressions that I didn’t realize were due to how I looked.  Part of it was I feel like growing up we didn’t really do a lot for our culture.  I didn’t really see myself as being different from everyone else who is white. … After I learned that microaggressions are a form of racism, I was like wow, I guess I have experienced that. … I started to realize that more when I was in college.  I’m in the College of Agriculture, [Food and Environmental Sciences.]  There have been times when I go into a class the first day and notice that everyone else is white.  

Jessica Slater, anthropology and geography freshman

“At Cal Poly, everyone looked the same. [But my parents] said through all of elementary and high school, everyone looked different.  That was the first time I realized I had never really noticed how diverse my school was. … At Cal Poly … I’ve definitely come into contact with a few individuals that you could tell they have never been taught or raised in an area that was diverse. They’d make off-putting comments and I would bring it to their attention.  People would say that they would try to better themselves and be more inclusive.  I’ve had friends of mine tell me that they were hesitant about coming to Cal Poly because it isn’t as diverse or inclusive. That was something I had thought of, I didn’t think it would be as big of a culture shock as it has been.”

Isabella Herrin, business administration sophomore

“The high school I went to was mostly white. … One of my history teachers had an American flag and a Confederate flag hanging in the classroom. … I didn’t think to question it, I was unaware.  Now with my new knowledge, even just having that in the classroom doesn’t make sense and is not okay. When I was an incoming freshman, the Cal Poly open house I came to was during the blackface incident.  That was the first real time I saw people protesting because of racism. That was scary for me.  I hadn’t been taught that some things were inexcusable. This racism is real, and this is happening at the college I’m going to.”

Correction: A different quote was attributed to Celestine Co. Her quote has been updated to accurately reflect her response.

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