“Growing up white and privileged, I was truly unaware of how insensitive I was to the racial implications of blackface.” In his apology letter printed in Mustang News, Kyler Watkins took on the air of a victim. Watkins, a senior at California Polytechnic State University at San Luis Obispo (Cal Poly), recently came under fire for his use of blackface. On April 7, Watkins attended one of his brotherhood events with the Lambda Chi Alpha Fraternity; this supposed tame team-sport event turned controversial with Watkin’s choice of face paint.
In his response to the San Luis Obispo Tribune, university President Jeffrey Armstrong stated Watkins will most likely not face expulsion. Armstrong stated that blackface, in this instance, qualifies as free speech. While Armstrong spoke carefully, the Cal Poly student body became outraged over the lack of administrative intervention. Protests broke out over the weekend of April 13th, which coincided with the Open House weekend for incoming prospective students, including several MC seniors.
Attendees of this year’s Open House weekend saw protest signs and calls for Armstrong’s impeachment alongside the usual crowded club booths and smiling tour guides. This strange juxtaposition gave light to how the university is trying to continue as usual while addressing the issue at hand.
“We walked past this group of students and they were taking up what was probably a ten by three foot [space] with posters that said ‘This is Cal Poly’…They weren’t yelling or anything, just peacefully standing there and if people walked up to them they would explain what was going on,” senior Lindsey Shepherd said. Shepherd, along with other MC seniors, plans on attending Cal Poly in the fall of this year.
The first demonstrations Shepherd encountered were silent and respectful, however, as the Open House weekend progressed, so did the apparent anger in the student body. On campus, many protesters interrupted Open Day activities, including student-led campus tours. With smaller groups of prospective students and their parents, it seemed to be a perfect audience for their frustrations.
“The next day we went on student led tours…protesters marched by on either side of the circle [of people on the tour] and were yelling for their cause, saying, ‘Cal Poly’s racist’ and ‘Don’t sent your students here, is this really where you wanna go?’ The tour guides couldn’t continue their speeches because of the yelling so we all had to pause for about five minutes while they were protesting,” Shepherd said. “There were policemen everywhere on campus that day.”
For students who attended the Open House welcoming ceremony, they were met with the reality of the current campus atmosphere. Keynote speakers included the organizer of Open House, Vice President Keith Humphrey, President Armstrong, and the leader of a student activist group on campus.
“[President Armstrong] said that [the university] had a disgusting, bad incident that happened last week and [they were] ashamed of it and trying to find out what [the university administration] can do to rectify the mistake and prevent it in the future,” MC senior Jacob Lofgren said.
The more controversial speaker, the student activist, shared her story of coming from the diverse bay area and being struck with the reality of Cal Poly’s student-body demographic. In light of the recent incident, she was enraged with the administration’s response.
“[the student activist] stated that Cal Poly Slo is actually a racist white supremacy institution and that the president of Cal Poly Slo perpetuates racism and he oppresses people of color and that we should seriously reconsider Cal Poly Slo for these reasons,” Lofgren said.
Speaking in front of a large group of about 500 students and their families, the student activist was met with backlash from the actual audience after hearing such lewd remarks against the institution.
“Some lady shouted ‘You aren’t very welcoming for an Open House,’ and the crowd started cheering and a bunch of white people left and she [the student activist] said, ‘yea the people leaving should tell you something about this campus,’” Lofgren said.
The ripples from the aftershock of Watkin’s use of blackface continued to reverberate through the rest of the weekend. Driving away from San Luis Obispo, MC students had time to consider Watkin’s actions in relation to the grey area between free speech and hate crime. This, in hand with Watkin’s defense that he was unaware of the implications of blackface, adds another factor to consider before committing to Slo for some students.
“They [all students] should definitely be aware of blackface and different things that are highly offensive to different cultures and different people, because using ignorance as an excuse is not right,” Lofgren said. “Most people know that painting your face black is wrong, no matter if it’s for a game or anything, it’s still offensive.”
The Open Day protesters attacked any student still considering Slo. However, some MC prospective students tried to look past Watkin’s individual actions to focus on the whole university.
“I personally think they’re overreacting. If there’s one stupid person [they] shouldn’t not go to a university because of that. That one person doesn’t define the university,” MC senior Alek Dubney said.
Currently, all Cal Poly fraternities are suspended and under investigation by the university administration. In spite of this, some prospective students still have hope in Greek life.
“I don’t think [Kyler Watkins] embodies the whole fraternity or entire Greek life at Cal Poly. It was clear he wasn’t thinking properly, but he made a big mistake and wasn’t thinking about his actions,” MC senior Andrew Crena said. “I think that [the administration should have] tighter supervision on the fraternities, making sure that’s not the culture they [the university and the fraternities] want [to have], that’s not the example they want to set [is necessary]. If they work together closer with the fraternities to change the attitudes and motives that would help.”
Prospective students tend to share optimistic attitudes towards the future of Cal Poly, after all it might be where they spend the next four years. The MC seniors only spent a weekend experiencing the effects of Watkin’s decisions, and got to return to their lives distanced from the event. For those still on the Cal Poly campus, it is a whole different story.
“My cousin’s actually in a frat up at Slo and I brought it up to him and he said, ‘we don’t talk about that at all right now’ because it’s really really tense right now [on campus]. If someone overhears you talking about it they’ll snap their head around,” Crena said.
Since the incident, student response does not just come from progressive students. Watkin’s actions, and lack of administrative consequence, drew out latent prejudices from many corners of the campus.
“There have been posters put up [on campus buildings] saying that black people are a ‘subspecies’ of humans. A few professors had their posters slashed that stated their support for people of color,” 2017 MC alum and Cal Poly freshman Gabriella Hutchinson said.
Students who have had the privilege of not experiencing racial prejudice may now be aware of the issues that befall universities, even ones in California. For students who have experienced these judgements before, Watkin’s actions may come as no surprise.
“As a woman of color I personally have experienced bias from my peers who didn’t believe I was capable of being there with them and have many white students use the N-word casually,” Hutchinson said.
Many students are considering transferring to a more diverse university, Hutchinson included, but even she recognizes that students of color have to stay to make a change.
“I think in order for the diversity problem to be solved, more ethnic people are needed in attendance, and not just athletes,” Hutchinson said. “Those who are here right now and who are coming have to understand that they are a part of the ‘hard work’ era and are going to be the ones who suffer in order for future students to reap the benefits of diversity.”
The first steps to creating campus-wide change at Cal Poly comes from students sharing their discontent. Amidst evidence of apparent racist sentiments, many may fear the backlash of defending their beliefs.
“There are many people, in my opinion, who are either apathetic to the situation or afraid to speak up. BSU [the Cal Poly Slo Black Student Union] and other multi-cultural organizations are making sure their voices are heard,” Hutchinson said.
The prospective MC students also recognized the positive aspects of the current situation.
“I thought they [the Cal Poly student body] reacted pretty well. They didn’t just let the incident slide and they took action [in] ways that they could. They spoke out for what they believe in and I respect that,” Lofgren said.
Kyler Watkins may be an individual student, but his actions continue to affect the university’s entire current student-body and any future students. While Watkins made a regrettable decision, he exposed an extremely raw issue on university campuses. As the May 1st deadline to commit to a university quickly approaches, students will have to consider new factors that affect their education.