This letter reflects the opinions of environmental management and protection senior Spencer Harvey. Letters to the editor do not reflect the opinion or editorial coverage of Mustang News.
This is my response to the apology of Kyler Watkins, the Cal Poly student involved in the blackface incident here last weekend. Please read whether you have or have not yet heard about the incident that happened at my school. I’m just trying to give some insight from a student perspective. If you’re going to read it, please read the entire thing. You might as well and I would appreciate if no one selectively reads or cherry picks from what I wrote to Kyler. This is my opinion as a student of Cal Poly and I am not an official representative of the university.
An Open Letter to Kyler Watkins:
Kyler, after attending the Open Forum called by President Armstrong Thursday, April 12, and getting the chance to ask him a question directly, as well as hearing so many other student voices speak out, I can say I am thoroughly disappointed with our school’s overall response, or lack thereof, to the blackface incident which occurred during a Lambda Chi Alpha party April 7. For anyone reading this outside of the San Luis Obispo community who is not aware of what occurred, I won’t rehash here what countless national and a few international news outlets have already reported. Suffice it to say, disappointment is an understatement for those of us who work and study at Cal Poly who care about creating a safe environment for minority students and people of color on this campus.
I am speaking directly to you, Kyler, because I have read your apology published in Mustang News and other outlets and I have more than a few things to say about it.
You said you would be open to having a dialogue with any students and any organizations who want to speak with you, and I would be happy to speak with you directly if that is possible. I don’t know if you are ever going to read this, but I hope it makes its way to you somehow and that you take what I am about to say to heart.
To be completely honest, I don’t really think your apology was an apology at all. It felt a lot more like an attempt to deflect blame onto others for your own actions and the choices you made that day. I want to start with your claim you knew nothing about how blackface is widely and justifiably considered to be hate speech in this country.
From your published apology: “When I woke up Sunday morning to learn that ‘blackface’ is of historical racial significance, no words can express my regret and horror. I began researching on my laptop and learned that blackface was used in early theater to perpetuate racial stereotypes. I knew immediately that I had made a grave mistake …”
I find that to be such a cowardly way to try and sidestep this whole situation you created and were an active part of. I will admit, I have not seen all of the evidence you made reference to in your apology you claim supports your version of events, though not for lack of trying to find it. I would really like to see the evidence you spoke about giving to the university for myself, if that is ever going to be made available to the public. Still, no matter what evidence there is supporting your perspective on the incident, I feel that defense still leaves me with so many questions.
You shouldn’t have had to do that research on blackface last weekend. You should have known about it since your middle school history classes, and from having it reiterated multiple times long before you enrolled at Cal Poly. Either the public education system did you a tremendous disservice, or you simply weren’t paying attention.
But let’s say you are telling the full truth, and you really didn’t know anything about the historical significance of blackface before you opened your laptop a few days ago. I really don’t think that should absolve you from being complicit in this form of hate speech. I don’t have an exact number for the amount of people who attended the party, or the number of brothers who made up the various teams for the activity, but I would imagine at the very least there were dozens of people there who could and should have informed you of the racial insensitivity of your actions so that you could have fixed them on the spot.
Regardless of your own knowledge on the subject, I find it extremely hard to believe that any number of your fraternity brothers or other people attending the party did not know anything about the historical racial significance and ramifications of blackface. I would be very surprised and disheartened if none of the other people there that day called you out on it. If that actually is what happened, and dozens of people, including yourself, failed to acknowledge that the blackface was wrong at the time you were wearing it, I hope you can understand why so many people, including myself, are upset enough to be calling for your expulsion from this university and for the permanent dissolution of your fraternity chapter.
So we are left with one of only two things that happened. Either you are lying and someone did advise you to remove the blackface that day or you already knew it was wrong and you simply didn’t give a shit, or dozens of people who were there failed to call you out on an action that should have been an obvious example of hate speech to almost anyone who was at that party; a party that was held a few days after the 50th anniversary of the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr.
Either way, I hope you can see why none of those series of events are acceptable to myself or the majority of the student body, particularly our students and faculty of color who already have to go through their days on this campus in an overwhelmingly white environment. I see everything you and your chapter were involved in that weekend as a huge threat to the safety of every non-white person on this campus. Thousands of newly-admitted freshmen and their families and supporters flooded campus this weekend for Open House to see if this is the right place for them, a place they can call a second home, something every single college student in the world deserves a chance at. As a former orientation leader who was once proud to represent this university and what it stood for, I can say I had a very tough time this weekend telling those potential new students that I am “Cal Poly proud” and that this is the place for them if this is what they are going to have to put up with as incoming students.
All of this so far has yet to even mention what your apology referred to as the “now infamous gangster photo” that many of the national and local outlets have included in their stories on this incident.
Again, from your full apology: “I am not in the now infamous gangster photo because that picture depicts members of the yellow team who opted for a gangster theme. I was not on the yellow team, and for that reason, I am not in the photo, nor was I dressed as a gangster.”
I mean, seriously? While everything you said in this part of that statement may be true, it does not excuse the racism that is literally radiating from that entire situation surrounding that photograph. Racism that you did nothing to address in your statement here, and would rather face hiding behind your fellow fraternity brothers instead of head on as a member of the community that is actually trying to make amends. That whole thing really just comes across to me like a thinly veiled attempt by you to deflect more blame onto your fraternity brothers so as to take less heat for this whole thing yourself. But when you have failed to fully address the original issue in the first place, I cannot sit here and believe you are really sincere in everything you said in that apology. When you cannot even discuss the gang photo without failing to acknowledge it was wrong and getting overly defensive and adamant about your lack of involvement in one aspect of many unfortunate things your fraternity did last weekend, it starts to sound a lot less like an apology and a bit more like you are still trying to find a way to make yourself the victim in this situation. That could not be further from the truth.
I am sorry for any hate speech or threats you have received yourself in light of what happened last weekend, Kyler. That is not and never will be the solution to these issues and you do not deserve it, just as no student, faculty member, staff member, person of color or member of a minority group at Cal Poly deserves to feel unsafe every day they are on this campus.
I do not hate you, Kyler. I do not know you and therefore cannot say based on this one incident that I think you are a horrible person or a racist at your core. I do think you made a horrible mistake that has very serious ramifications which you have failed to fully acknowledge or genuinely apologize for. I really do hope you learn from this experience for the better and I think that you can. Maybe the best place to start if you are not expelled, as I have heard suggested by so many other students in the last few days, would be by enrolling in a few comparitive ethnic studies classes.
With that being said, I truly feel that your apology only proves you do not yet understand or appreciate the gravity of the situation you put yourself in, or how it affects the safety of minorities and people of color across this entire campus. I really hope you are able to read this and potentially understand my perspective on why our fellow students and I are so upset and have every reason to be. I for one hope your future is not over, as you may have been wondering about that a lot lately, and I know you have much better things to offer to the world than this controversy I feel you are not taking true responsibility for. There is nowhere for you to go from here but forward.
I just want you to start moving forward right now by making a firm acknowledgement that you fully understand the fact that you have been complicit in hate speech.
P.S. Here is Kyler Watkins’ full apology, published in Mustang News and several other Central Coast news outlets April 13, 2018. I know I only quoted a small part from it, so you should definitely read this as well.
*This letter has been edited for clarity.