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One year later, Cal Poly looks back on blackface incident; students say there’s more to be done

Posted at 6:41 PM, May 06, 2019
and last updated 2019-05-06 22:50:50-04

Nearly a year ago, minority students demanded change after a fraternity member was photographed with his face painted black.

Racial images and flyers circled the San Luis Obispo campus in April of 2018. It made the university and its students criticize the lack of diversity on campus.

Now faculty and staff say they are dedicated to changing the status quo, though it may take a while to see improvement.

Chants rang out across Cal Poly’s campus during spring quarter of 2018. Students were outraged after a photo of a Greek Life student dressed in blackface went viral.

With posters in the air and raised voices, students demanded support of minority groups.

Freshman Carlos Suarez didn’t know about the incident until after he was accepted to the school.

“Why would they go to the extent to even consider doing something like this that could be taken offensively, which it clearly was,” said Carlos Suarez, Cal Poly freshman.

Suarez does not need a protest or report to know the color of his skin makes him stand out.

“Even in incredibly huge lectures that are a hundred or so people, I am still the only African American in the room,” he said.

He is one of few. According to Cal Poly’s Research Institute, African American students made up 0.78 percent of the student population in the fall of 2018.

“By my senior year, I want to see that grow to like 20 percent,” Suarez said.

With the help of an outside diversity expert, Cal Poly is now working on a 12-month Inclusive Excellence Action Plan to achieve their diversity and inclusion goals.

Greek Life organizations affirmed their commitment to diversity in their by-laws and have been told to speak up when something isn’t right.

“Somebody else in that organization saw that student or students painting their bodies and creating a blackface image, but no one said anything,” said Jamie Patton, Student Affairs Diversity and Inclusion Assistant Vice President.

A big campus goal is to enroll more minority students.

The Cal Poly Opportunity Grant is a fee assessed to incoming out of state students.

Phased in over four years, this fee aims to financially support qualified low-income and first-generation students who otherwise couldn’t afford to be a Mustang.

“From our analyses of who says no to Cal Poly, we know that some of those are underrepresented groups, so I think there will be a correlation there,” said Julie Garcia, Diversity and Inclusion Interim Associate Vice President.

Some students applaud the school’s dedication to creating open dialogues.

“I have had the privilege of going to a few and they were definitely eye-opening,” Suarez said.

“To have those conversations, that’s what makes us richer, that’s what makes us stronger,” Patton said.

New numbers show in 2019, Cal Poly could have the most diverse freshman class in the school’s history.

Preliminary data show that about 20 percent of those incoming students are minorities, but the admissions office says these are not final numbers and totals can drop up to 10 percent.

Other students like Gianna Bissa are still skeptical.​

“I definitely think enrolling more minority students is a good thing, but it is a crime for them to get to this school and not feel supported,” said Gianna Bissa, Students for Quality Education Coordinator.

It’s hard to tell if change is felt on campus but the university hopes students and staff feel supported.

“To move from surviving to thriving with students, staff and faculty, everyone feels that they belong, can achieve and thrive here on our campus,” Garcia said.

Many students hope their cultural backgrounds will be embraced while they are still walking campus grounds.

“It’s something I think can really add to the college experience,” Suarez said.

Professors on tenure track also have to include a diversity statement – an effort to make classrooms more inclusive.

The fraternity member who painted his face black declined KSBY’s request for an interview. We also reached out to the Black Student Union and did not hear back. ​