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I Am a Black Woman at Cal Poly & I Am Disappointed

In the past two weeks at Cal Poly, I have participated more in campus wide events than I ever have before, not just because there’s a whole lot more going on here, but because I care about my school. And I am disappointed to see where things have taken us.

A week ago, I had the privilege of participating in our PolyCultural Weekend on campus— a weekend that is planned for over several months where prospective students from minority or marginalized backgrounds come to campus. They are hosted by us and spend the weekend learning about who we are and the cultural organizations we have to offer them. I got to host two transfer students for the first time this year and have them stay with me all weekend. Even more than that, I got to participate in the performances Saturday night, which if I may say so myself, were incredible. By the end of the weekend, one of my hostees was already committed to the school for the fall and the other was planning to be soon.

It didn’t take long for them to doubt that choice.

Before those hostees so many of us cared for over the weekend left our campus, pictures surfaces of a fraternity party where one student was done up in blackface and several others were appropriating “gangsters” and ”cholos.” Whether you have seen it in the New York Times or the Washington Post, just to name a few, the stories have painted a bad picture of Cal Poly and its environment for students. And I’m not sure I can be honest in telling my hostees or other prospective students that the painted picture they see is wrong.

Because maybe it isn’t.

For those who do not know, here is a quick history of blackface and why it is seen as racist. Back in the mid to late 19th century, minstrel shows were a popular form of entertainment— yet, black performers were not allowed on stage. In their place, white actors painted their faces with black grease paint or something resembling such and portrayed African Americans in an unflattering and inferior way, reinforcing the stereotypes and disgust people had for people with darker shades of skin. If a black performer were to go on stage, they had to paint their faces as well, all the way through to the Vaudeville shows on Broadway simply because they could not be accepted in their own skin.

In the words of Washington State Professor David Leonard, “Blackface is part of a history of dehumanization, of denied citizenship, and of efforts to excuse and justify state violence. From lynchings to mass incarceration, whites have utilized blackface (and the resulting dehumanization) as part of its moral and legal justification for violence.”

Beyond the racism behind both this and the implications of imitating tattoos saying “Immigrant” or F*ck ICE” as an imitation what people believe a gangster is, I have a hard time feeling safe or comfortable at a University where people see nothing wrong with this. Many minorities have been afraid of walking alone this week, feeling more eyes on them every day, just waiting for something new to happen. In some classes, I could hear people complaining about where to go out this weekend without frat parties or the discomfort they feel when people tell them that it’s all of our responsibility to support each other. What about our discomfort feeling like so many people do not support us?

Because we are tired.

From an Emergency town hall meeting on campus Monday night where many students of color spoke about about their discomfort and struggle in existing as a minority at Cal Poly, I have watched organizations and cultural clubs come together in support of one another. These past two days, I have spent hours walking and holding signs in solidarity alongside students that I had never met before because we all feel the ripple effect coming off last weekend’s events.

One ring of that ripple reached fellow members of our Black Student Union being spit on and called the n-word while on campus only three days ago. Then one day ago. Then today.

Another ring reached our silent protest yesterday, where a man in his Cal Poly owned Truck, Cal Poly emblem on the side and all, felt comfortable enough to yell out his window at one of my friends to insinuate the prowess of a “big black booty.”  

We are tired.

Cal Poly, my problem is not with you, it is with the comfort you offer students in being inhumane and racist toward others simply because of the differences in the color of our skin. College is supposed to be about getting an education, both in the classroom and outside of it before we go off into professional world as “adults” and pretend like we know what we’re doing.

Yet in an American education system where the student who painted his face black didn’t know it was wrong until he got caught and the distrust of a campus where students take actions against one another and think its okay, what are we supposed to be learning from this more than the little value minority students have in a place like this?

I am tired.

Tired of having to say things louder for people in the back to hear me, to look at me, to value me just because I am a black woman.

Tired of the assumptions people make about my race when they hear there are only 166 of us on our campus— it is not for lack of trying.

Tired of people hearing something racist or rude come out of a friend’s mouth and ignoring it because it’s “not their place” to say something.

It is always your place to stand up for someone who is being wronged or taken advantage of or downright slandered. If it isn’t your place, then who’s is it?

This weekend, I stood in solidarity with the students of color on my campus, from the Black Student Union to the Pilipino Cultural Exchange. Cal Poly is an esteemed University of education and I can only hope that as a student, we are being about taught more than integrals and economic brackets, but also the society we live in and the tolerance we should not have for injustices toward another human beings. I have used my voice to take a stand and speak out against allowances I believe are wrong and I will continue to do so.

Because I am a black woman at California Polytechnic State University. And I am disappointed.

Cal Poly SLO Senior, author of Live, Laugh, Love Like a Teenager, and blogger at KWilliamsbooks, Karina is one of countless women with a voice to be heard and a dream to be chased. Perhaps a little bit of both at the same time; follow her on the journey and you can find out.
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