Education

Cal Poly student apologizes for wearing blackface at frat event

A photograph posted to Facebook on Saturday shows two brothers from Cal Poly's Lambda Chi Alpha fraternity, one of whom is in blackface.
A photograph posted to Facebook on Saturday shows two brothers from Cal Poly's Lambda Chi Alpha fraternity, one of whom is in blackface. Facebook Monique Chenault-Hakker

The Cal Poly fraternity member who was photographed wearing blackface at a recent Lambda Chi Alpha event wrote an email to the Tribune on Friday apologizing for his actions but taking exception to "factual misstatements rampant on social media."

Kyler Watkins, an agriculture business major at Cal Poly, wrote in an email that, "First and most importantly, I take full responsibility for the lack of judgment I displayed when I painted my face black at a brotherhood event on April 7, 2018."

"If there’s any part of this message to take into consideration, I hope it would be that my ill-informed decision to paint my face black had nothing whatsoever to do with racism or discrimination," he wrote.

The Tribune spoke with Doug Gilliland, Watkins' attorney, who confirmed the email was authentic.

Watkins stressed in his email that his black facepaint "had nothing whatsoever to do with racism or discrimination," but was a result of his being on the "black team" of the fraternity event.

Blackface is a racist tradition dating back to the minstrel shows of the 19th and early 20th centuries, when white comedians would wear black face paint and caricaturize black people as lazy and ignorant.

Watkins wrote that when he woke up on Sunday "to learn that blackface is of historical racial significance, no words can express my regret and horror."

Watkins wrote that he conducted research and learned of the history of blackface.

"I knew immediately that I had made a grave mistake, and moreover, I fully understood why people would hate me," he said. "My own lack of awareness has placed my life in danger and worse, has hurt other people whom I had no intention of alienating, mocking or offending in any way."

After somebody tweeted that Watkins was attending the 2018 Coachella Valley Music and Arts Festival, several people tweeted in response that they would "beat his a--" if they saw him. Gilliland told the Tribune that Watkins has returned home to San Diego out of concern for his safety.

Gilliland said Watkins is taking it "day by day" on when he will return to school; as a senior, Watkins is set to graduate in the fall.

"We don't know how long the crowd's going to want its pound of flesh," he said.

Watkins said that people on social media and editorials from the campus newspaper Mustang News dismissed his explanation as pathetic and false, but said that his statement "is true and supported by evidence I have supplied to the university."

"I have not, nor have I ever been, a racist, and contrary to some reports, I have never been involved in any kind of discriminatory incident," he wrote.

Watkins wrote that he was simply "going all out" as a member of the black team.

"Believe me, I wish with all my heart that I had been a member of the blue team," he said.

Watkins said he would have joined Friday morning's protest march if he could.

"I'm very open to a dialogue with anyone or any student group who would like to discuss increased diversity awareness within the Greek system and the school as a whole," he said.

He ended by expressing his apologies for his actions.

"My actions stemmed from ignorance, but never hate, discrimination or the intent to hurt anyone," he wrote.

Watkins said he is no longer a member of Lambda Chi Alpha.

Here is the full text of Watkins' statement:

Dear San Luis Obispo Tribune:

As a former Cal Poly Lambda Chi Alpha member, I would like to respond to numerous statements made by Cal Poly to the press regarding the Lambda Chi Alpha “blackface” incident, in addition to factual misstatements rampant on social media.

First and most importantly, I take full responsibility for the lack of judgment I displayed when I painted my face black at a brotherhood event on April 7, 2018. If there’s any part of this message to take into consideration, I hope it would be that my ill-informed decision to paint my face black had nothing whatsoever to do with racism or discrimination. I was, in fact, a member of the Lambda Chi Alpha “black team,” wore black clothes and painted my face. Dozens of witnesses, text messages leading up to the event, photographs and a video support my unwavering position that I never intended to represent or mimic a black person. I am not in the now-infamous gangster photo because that picture depicts members of the yellow team who opted for a gangster theme. I was not on the yellow team, and for that reason, I am not in the photo, nor was I dressed as a gangster.

When I woke up Sunday morning to learn that “blackface” is of historical racial significance, no words can express my regret and horror. I began researching on my laptop and learned that blackface was used in early theater to perpetuate racial stereotypes. I knew immediately that I had made a grave mistake, and moreover, I fully understood why people would hate me. My own lack of awareness has placed my life in danger and worse, has hurt other people whom I had no intention of alienating, mocking or offending in any way. My life has been threatened, lies about me are permeating social media, and justifiably so.

Although social media and editorials in the Mustang News have dismissed my explanation as “pathetic” and “false,” the explanation is true and supported by evidence I have supplied to the university. I am not, nor have I ever been, a racist, and contrary to some reports, I have never been involved in any kind of discriminatory incident. I am not sorry simply because I “was caught.” I am sorry because I have given other students the impression they can indiscriminately be made fun of because of their race or appearance. In my own mind, I was simply “going all out” in my theme as a member of the black team. Believe me, I wish with all my heart that I had been a member of the blue team.

Second, the press, social media, a new Cal Poly parents’ facebook page and editorials to the Mustang News have portrayed me as a tried-and-true racist. They have argued that the concepts of the “benefit of the doubt” and “there are two sides to every story” do not apply to me because there is no excuse for “blackface.” I agree. There is no excuse for blackface; I truly did not know the historical ramifications of it on April 7. I do now.

I understand there will be a diversity march on Friday, April 13, 2018. If I could, I would participate. I’m very open to a dialogue with anyone or any student group who would like to discuss increased diversity awareness within the Greek system and the school as a whole. I’m confident that increased awareness and education is the key to preventing the type of hurt I have caused. Ultimately, I cannot control what is said or believed about me in the press and social media. For my part, all I can do now is express my sincerest apologies to those whom I have hurt. My actions stemmed from ignorance, but never hate, discrimination or the intent to hurt anyone.

Kyler Watkins

Andrew Sheeler: 805-781-7934, @andrewsheeler
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