Cal Poly students and administration respond to fraternity's blackface incident

Apr 9, 2018

Over the weekend racially insensitive photos from a Cal Poly fraternity party swirled through social media. One photo in particular featured a student in blackface. The incident has struck a chord both locally and across the country.

“It was really disheartening.” Gianna Bissa, said, a Cal Poly student. “It was very disappointing. But not surprising at the time for Cal Poly, especially for a Cal Poly frat."

The Cal Poly fraternity in question is Lambda Chi Alpha. And it’s not the first incident of allegations of racism at a Cal Poly fraternity over the past several years.

“One of the frats did that ‘Colonial Bros and Nava-Hos Party,” Bissa said. “Where they had people dress up as colonizers and whatever their image of a Native American was, and it was super racist and just disgusting.”

Lambda Chi swiftly apologized for the actions at this weekend’s party, saying it wasn’t members' intention to be offensive. But then another photo distributed Sunday showed fraternity members dressed as stereotypical 'urban gangsters' at the party, and the narrative veered from one that the whole incident was a simple misunderstanding. The fraternity has not subsequently commented or issued any statements.

The incident challenges a university actively trying to increase diversity on campus. The photos coincided with Cal Poly’s PolyCultural Weekend, a time for prospective students to come acquaint themselves with the university’s social and academic culture.

“Considering the very high white population that we have here, it was definitely not a positive thing to see about our campus and how it reflects on us,” said Kristina Ramsey, a Cal Poly first year, or freshman.

Liam Graham, a fraternity member, is also a freshman.

“It makes me mad that no one was smart enough to see, oh, this is not a good idea to probably do this,” Graham said. “But it also affects me personally because I know there’s a negative connotation with all fraternities. So this might affect me in my fraternity life.”

But not everyone is ready to form an opinion about the incident. Brian Sprugen and David Alexander were grabbing breakfast before class.

"I’ve only seen one picture online and I’m not going to jump to any conclusions,” Alexander said. “Someone could have Photoshopped that in there,” Spurgen said.

“Obviously, I’m not condoning what they did if that’s true but I don’t know if they did it, to be honest,” Alexander said.

Cal Poly administration is currently investigating the matter.

On Monday afternoon, Cal Poly President Jeffrey Armstrong released a statement, writing "for those who have been hurt and offended," he stands with them.

“Like many of you, I have seen the images that circulated on social media and find them to be painful and embarrassing. As president of Cal Poly, and on behalf of the entire Cal Poly family, I am ashamed. Hurtful actions, be they intentional or otherwise, have no place at our university and yet, regrettably, we experience them. They are senseless acts of ignorance that injure and alienate valued members of our community. They must stop. We may come from differing backgrounds, but every one of us at Cal Poly is a human being who deserves respect. In the most important ways, we are one family.”

Following the president’s announcement, Josephine De Leon, the Vice President for University Diversity and Inclusion released a statement as well, saying:

“While the fraternity members have issued an apology letter, the damage has been done and the act is one that is not acceptable. As we strive to increase our diversity and work to reflect our values of inclusion, we know that this act indicates that our work is ever more important. I hope that as a community we can reach a better level of understanding, continue in the awareness-building and messaging so that it is clear that the Lambda Chi Alpha act does not define us as a campus. I hope that we can evolve to the level that this is the last time this happens on our campus.”

De Leon also said she plans to “lead some serious dialogue and awareness-building activities for as long as is needed.”

Cal Poly officials have not said what disciplinary actions, if any, will be taken toward the Lambda Chi Alpha fraternity.