Cal Poly’s MultiCultural Center (MCC) will host a conversation discussing the origin of  “black” as a term to describe race to celebrate Black History Month.

In honor of Black History Month, Cal Poly's MultiCultural Center will be discussing the stereotyping that goes along with the word "black" in its "What is Black?" event which will take place Wednesday evening. Courtesy Photo

“What is Black?” will discuss the history and negative connotations of the word “black” as a color and as a term for a race, said information technology senior and MCC diversity advocate in charge of Black History Month events, Shauna Kimball.

“It’s basically discussing when did the idea of the color black become so negative,” Kimball said.

She said the discussion is an especially important one for Cal Poly because it’s easy for people to stereotype when they aren’t exposed to different cultures. Kimball said this happens to her at Cal Poly when she’s identified as African-American because of her skin color — even though her father is from South America.

“Technically, I’m not African-American, I’m Latin,” Kimball said.

Confusion about race is not uncommon at Cal Poly, where Caucasian students make up 64.4 percent of the population. African-American students make up just 0.8 percent, according to the Fall 2010 PolyView report.

Animal science senior Alleson Thiel said it is impossible to avoid stereotyping at Cal Poly.

“The campus is not diverse enough to not have stereotypes,” Thiel said.

Thiel, who is Caucasian, said she wonders at times whether the term “black” is politically correct.

“Even when people say, ‘It’s Black History Month,’ is it Black History Month, or African-American History Month?” Thiel said.

Biological sciences junior and Kimball’s assistant in organizing Black History Month events, Devon Buddan said many people don’t realize they are stereotyping when they assume things like an African-American student plays sports.

“On campus at Cal Poly, you don’t see a lot of African-Americans, and if you’re not exposed to a culture, you let the media form your opinion of them,” Buddan said.

The media takes an active role in promoting black stereotypes, said Cal Poly professor of ethnic studies Denise Isom. Media images of black people are often defined by their physical prowess, Isom said.

“The constructed racial category of black is marked particularly by the body,” Isom said

At Cal Poly, people often assume black students are athletes, according to the Mustang Daily’s recent article on diversity, “Asking Cal Poly the tough questions about diversity.”

The fault is not entirely on the media either, Isom said. Some responsibility goes to the society that accepts the images they see in movies, television shows and music videos.

“We’re drawn toward what we’re familiar with,” Isom said. “We operate in a set of schemas and frameworks about how the world works.”

The idea behind “What is Black?” is to break the cycle of stereotypes, by giving people information to form their own opinions.

To start the discussion off, Kimball will give a PowerPoint presentation on the evolution of the word, with examples of words that give “black” a negative connotation — including “blackmailed” and “blacklisted.” The presentation will also cover bias toward white people, such as when “flesh-colored” describes only white skin color.

The slideshow will be followed by a word association exercise, in which Kimball will give the group a word and ask them to say the first word they think of. Then, she will mediate an open discussion about stereotypes.

The event is open to anyone, and Kimball said she wants to draw a diverse crowd so the discussion will be lively.

With a variety of people debating, Kimball said she hopes Cal Poly students will better understand stereotypes and begin to work on breaking them down.

“The whole discussion is trying to come up with solutions,” Kimball said.

“What is Black?” will take place Feb. 23 from 7 to 9 p.m. in room 204 of the University Union.

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