The photos surfaced on social media late Sunday, during the multicultural weekend at California Polytechnic State University at San Luis Obispo. One showed a Lambda Chi Alpha fraternity member in blackface. Another showed members of the same fraternity dressed as gangster stereotypes, throwing gang signs in front of their San Luis Obispo house.
First came shock. Then, outrage. Hundreds of Cal Poly students crammed into a classroom Monday night for an emergency town hall meeting, sitting on desks and on the floor. Those who could not fit spilled out of the classroom door into the hallway, with some watching a live stream of the meeting just steps from where it was taking place.
“There needs to be punishment,” one student said. “Not only to show the students that are here that they are with us and for us, but for the students who are to come — 10 years, five years from now — that are going to change the culture on this campus.”
The fraternity was placed on interim suspension while the university investigated the incident, said Kathleen McMahon, the university’s dean of students. Lambda Chi Alpha’s national headquarters has also limited the chapter’s operations.
“Racism and hate are unwelcome here, in any form,” McMahon said in a statement. “Cal Poly is focused on enhancing the diversity of our campus and providing an environment that is welcoming to all who would study, work or visit here.”
The temporary suspension means the fraternity must cease all events and activities while Cal Poly conducts its review to determine whether anything that took place at the chapter’s gathering violated the university’s policy or the student organization’s code of conduct, Cal Poly officials said.
The fraternity’s chapter released a statement Sunday that said the photos were taken at an April 7 event during which members took part in a competition, wearing different colors to designate different teams. The members dressed up in “support of their specific team,” similarly to how students might dress for high school spirit rallies, the chapter said.
Monique Chenault-Hakker told the San Luis Obispo Tribune that she posted the blackface photo to Facebook after a Cal Poly professor sent it to San Luis Obispo Mayor Heidi Harmon.
“This post just put me over the edge as a parent,” Chenault-Hakker told the Tribune, adding that her daughter attends the university. “I’m just sick of the actions that are happening at Cal Poly. There’s no consequences for any of their bad actions and the racism is so thick there.”
The photo of the fraternity members in costume was posted on Instagram with the caption, “She want a gangster not a pretty boy,” according to the Tribune, which published a screenshot of the image. It has since been deleted.
“We are extremely sorry and embarrassed for failing to recognize the racial impacts this brought forth,” Cal Poly’s Lambda Chi Alpha chapter said in a statement. “The representation depicted in the photograph was absolutely unacceptable by our standards as it had a negative influence on surrounding members of our community.”
“Although it was not our intention to stir up racial tension, we understand the negative impact this picture had on our peers,” the chapter added.
Fraternity members’ failure to recognize the racial implications of their actions, however, angered Cal Poly students. One student said people of color within fraternities might not stand up to racist actions because they fear they would be “ostracized from the group.”
“So if you have white students, or students of a majority, [and] don’t stand up for people of color within your own organization? You ain’t [crap],” the student said.
On Monday afternoon, before the town hall meeting, Cal Poly President Jeffrey Armstrong sent an email to the campus community regarding the incident. He said he stood by those who were “hurt and offended,” and he called the photos “painful and embarrassing.”
“I am ashamed. Hurtful actions, be they intentional or otherwise, have no place at our university and yet, regrettably, we experience them,” he wrote. “They are senseless acts of ignorance that injure and alienate valued members of our community. They must stop.”
He did not attend the town hall meeting. Many questioned his absence, according to several people who were there.
Some were disappointed that another campus fraternity, Alpha Gamma Rho, remains active after a photo circulated last June depicting members in culturally and ethnically insensitive costumes with a banner that read “TRUMP — MAKE AMERICA GREAT AGAIN!” Several held firearms, some wore overalls, one wore a sombrero and another wore a colorful dreadlock-style cap from Disneyland, the Tribune reported at the time.
“They’re still on campus,” one student said about Alpha Gamma Rho at the town hall. “There has to be a zero-tolerance policy for parties that engage in racist actions. [Because] it continuously happens.”
In 2013, Cal Poly officials investigated the Phi Sigma Kappa fraternity, which hosted a party with the theme, “Colonial Bros and Nava-Hos.” Men wore Colonial-era clothing, and women wore “sexually explicit Native American-themed attire,” the Tribune reported at the time. The university concluded that the party did not violate any campus policies.