Is Cal Poly safe for minorities? Students ask tough questions at Open House protests

Two students, Ariana Afshar, left, of Cal Poly, and Tianna Arata, of Cuesta College, hold signs during a silent march Saturday, April 14, 2018, during the annual Cal Poly Open House in protest of the university's response to a fraternity member pictured wearing blackface. They marched from campus to Santa Rosa Park in San Luis Obispo and held a picnic.
Two students, Ariana Afshar, left, of Cal Poly, and Tianna Arata, of Cuesta College, hold signs during a silent march Saturday, April 14, 2018, during the annual Cal Poly Open House in protest of the university's response to a fraternity member pictured wearing blackface. They marched from campus to Santa Rosa Park in San Luis Obispo and held a picnic. The Tribune

This story was updated to reflect that President Jeffrey Armstrong addressed the protesters at the open house opening ceremony.

It was clear from the beginning that this year's Cal Poly Open House was going to be different than years' past.

Dozens of booths sat empty, save for signs and letters signifying assorted campus clubs' solidarity with minority students — evidence of a mass boycott of festivities nearly one week after a photo of a Cal Poly fraternity member wearing blackface emerged online.

The boycott was just the beginning.

Members of campus clubs such as the Black Student Union, Muslim Student Association, Movimiento Estudiantil Xicano de Aztlàn (MEXA) and others gathered near the University Union; all wore black shirts with protest slogans, many carried signs and some placed tape over their mouths.

The student protesters silently marched to Dexter Lawn, where University President Jeffrey Armstrong was welcoming prospective students and their parents. Armstrong told those gathered that, "Your son or daughter, we will take the best care of them. Student success, diversity and inclusion are our priority."

'Not safe for students of color'

As prospective students and their parents meandered through campus — full of music and food and activities, such as the Army ROTC holding a rappelling demonstration — some occasionally stopped to inspect the empty booths. One such booth was set up by the Muslim Student Association, where a sign read "Muslim Student Association in solidarity with the black community" and another read "Cal Poly: Not safe for students of color."

One person who stopped to inspect the booth was Kiana Vaghefi of Sacramento. Vaghefi, at Cal Poly with her mother and father, said she hopes to major in anthropology at whatever school she decides to attend.

Vaghefi, who is Iranian-American and Muslim, said she was hoping to hear from "people who kind of look like me" about what life is like at Cal Poly. She and her parents said they had heard from the administration and faculty about the educational opportunities at Cal Poly, but Vaghefi said "the student life part is also important."

She and her parents said they wanted to know whether she could expect emotional support and safety should Vaghefi decide to attend Cal Poly.

"This is pretty important," Vaghefi said.

The question of what to say to minority students and their parents is one San Luis Obispo Mayor Heidi Harmon said she has heard many times since the blackface photo emerged.

Harmon joined protesters at Santa Rosa Park, where they enjoyed a break from two days of lengthy marches across campus. She said she was there primarily to listen, and to weigh the possibility of a working group consisting of officials from the city, Cal Poly, Cuesta College, local business representatives and students to address the city and university's "systemic problem with racism."

"I have had mothers calling my office," Harmon said. "They're deeply concerned."

While she acknowledged her own racial privilege as a white woman, Harmon said she would still answer yes to a person of color considering attending Cal Poly.

"The last thing we need is even less diversity on campus," she said.

But she added that her recommendation comes with an obligation on her and others' part to work to address the issue of racism.

'It's all about education'

One of the protesters who joined the march was Ariana Afshar, a junior journalism major at Cal Poly. Like Vaghefi, Afshar is Iranian-American, though her hometown is Fremont.

"I would say this is a great school," Afshar said. "But there are some facts we can't ignore."

She said incidents such as the blackface photo — the latest in a string of racist and racially insensitive incidents to occur at Cal Poly in recent years — shouldn't discourage minority students from attending the university.

Instead, she said, "if you're coming to school, get involved."

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Afshar said it's important for everyone, not just minority students, to educate themselves on the history of race and racism in America.

In his letter apologizing for wearing blackface, former Lambda Chi Alpha fraternity member Kyler Watkins said he was unaware of the history of blackface, originating from the racist minstrel shows of the 19th and early 20th centuries. Watkins wrote that he "fully understood why people would hate me."

"It's all about education," Afshar said. "As an American, I feel you have a duty to (educate yourself)."

Cal Poly response

University spokesman Matt Lazier wrote in an email in response to Saturday's events that "we abhor racist speech and actions — they are inconsistent with Cal Poly’s values. "

Lazier wrote that the university desires and welcomes minority students, "and has a proven, documented track record of supporting diversity and inclusion."

He wrote that when Armstrong came into office in 2011, 63 percent of Cal Poly students were white. Today, 55 percent are white.

"There is more work to be done, but the hurtful actions of a few cannot define the university and override the values and the success of the many," he wrote.

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Participating groups

According to a document shared online, the following campus organizations took part in Saturday's Open House boycott:

  • Black Student Union
  • Epsilon chapter of Lambda Sigma Gamma Sorority, Inc.
  • Omicron Chapter of Gamma Zeta Alpha, Inc.
  • Queer and/or Trans People of Color (QTPOC)
  • Omicron Chapter of alpha Kappa Delta Phi Sorority, Inc.
  • Alpha Omega Chapter of Lambda Theta Phi Latin Fraternity, Inc.
  • Hispanic Business Student Association
  • Rising Immigrant Scholars through Education (RISE)
  • Founding Chapter of Sigma Omega Nu Latina Interest Sorority, Inc.
  • Chinese Students’ Association
  • Muslim Student Association
  • Omega Xi Delta Fraternity
  • Movimiento Estudiantil Xicano de Aztlàn (MEXA)
  • Beta Chapter of Chi Delta Theta Sorority, Inc
  • Comparative Ethnic Studies Student Association (CESSA)
  • Imagen y Espiritu Ballet Folklorico de Cal Poly
  • Latinos in Agriculture
  • American Indian Student Association (AISA)
  • Pilipino Cultural Exchange
  • Iranian Student Cultural Organization (ISCO)
  • Biotechnology Club
  • Undergraduate Research Association (URA)
  • Society of Hispanic Professional Engineers (SHPE)
  • Hui O Hawaii
  • Japanese Student Association
  • Alpha Phi Chapter of Lambda Theta Nu Sorority, Inc.
  • South West Asian & North African (SWANA)
  • Indian Student Association
  • EPIC Movement
  • Founding Chapter of Nu Alpha Kappa Fraternity
  • CAED Diversity and Inclusivity Committee
  • CAED Student Council
  • Thai Vietnamese Student Association
  • Alpha Phi Omega, Zeta Omicron Chapter
  • Planned Parenthood Generation Action
  • Hip Hop Choreo Club
  • SLO Breakers
  • Korean American Student Association
  • National Society of Black Engineers (NSBE)
  • Chinese Cultural Club
  • Armenian Students’ Association (ASA)
  • Lambda Phi Epsilon
  • CP Bhangra Lambda Phi Epsilon - Phi Chapter
  • Lambda Theta Alpha
Andrew Sheeler: 805-781-7934, @andrewsheeler