A screenshot of an Instagram post provided to The Tribune on Wednesday shows Cal Poly students dressed in red bandannas appearing to mock undocumented immigrants, with a caption reading, “Cowboys vs (Illegal) Aliens.”
The four people in the photo — two men and two women — appear to be making hand signs. Two of their faces are covered by red bandannas, and one of the men is wearing a cowboy hat.
It’s unclear where the photo was taken, or if it was related to a fraternity.
Mustang News reported that the photo was taken at a birthday party for two second-year Cal Poly students, who said they didn’t know the people in the photo. The Tribune has attempted to reach those students but has not yet received a response.
“The university is looking into the photo now to try to determine all the facts,” university spokesman Matt Lazier told The Tribune in an email.
A Cal Poly professor, who spoke to The Tribune on condition of anonymity, said it appears that the two men are engineering students at Cal Poly, but that hasn’t been confirmed. The professor said the university has only confirmed that the men are Cal Poly students. Mustang News reported that the two women were not students at the university.
“It makes me feel angry and upset and disappointed, because the consistency of these incidents and consistency of this kind of racism creates an unwelcoming climate for students, faculty and staff,” the professor said.
The professor added that the photo was sent to faculty and staff by an undocumented student, who wished to remain anonymous and “reported feeling very threatened and insulted,” the professor said.
The photo surfaced just days before Cal Poly prepares to share the results of the Cal Poly Experience Survey in the spring during the Strategic Diversity Leadership Institute.
That survey was developed in partnership with Damon Williams, a diversity expert who was hired by the campus in January.
Cal Poly president responds to photo
In an email sent to the Cal Poly community on Tuesday, President Jeffrey Armstrong spoke about the photo and the need to address hurtful behavior.
“This afternoon we were disappointed to learn of a photo that has begun to circulate on social media that appears to demean undocumented students,” Armstrong said in the email, which was sent out on his behalf by Keith Humphrey, vice president for Student Affairs.
“We know that this photo has a negative impact on members of our community, their allies and others who work to promote an environment of inclusion at Cal Poly,” Armstrong wrote. “For those who are hurt by this photo, know that we empathize and we stand with you.”
Armstrong went on to say that campus officials are looking into the photo, and called it a “reminder that each of us must subscribe to a higher standard of conduct.”
“We have witnessed many incidents that have hurt individuals in our community,” Armstrong wrote. “This reported incident has added to the urgency of addressing our campus climate and creating an environment where every individual feels valued, safe and important for who they are.”
Student government calls post’s language ‘dehumanizing’
In a Facebook post late Tuesday night, Cal Poly’s student government also addressed the issue, asking anyone hurt by the Instagram post to stop by the Cal Poly Dream Center, which will be open to students and administrators from 10 a.m. to noon on Wednesday.
“ASI Student government stands in solidarity with our undocumented Mustangs. We are deeply saddened that our underrepresented community continuously experiences these instances of overt prejudice,” the organization wrote in the post. “No human is ‘illegal.’ This language is dehumanizing and inaccurate. We must hold each other to a higher standard if we are to create an inclusive environment at Cal Poly.”
The Central Coast Coalition for Undocumented Student Success, which describes itself as a collective of advocates and educators challenging anti-immigrant and oppressive ideologies, on Wednesday called for the administration to “actively change the persistent toxic campus culture and climate.”
“Now more than ever, it is necessary to take action proportional to the seriousness of the toxic normalization of racism and xenophobia at Cal Poly that this act represents,” the group said in a statement emailed to The Tribune.
The photo is the latest in a string of racists incidents involving Cal Poly students.
In 2018, Lambda Chi Alpha’s Cal Poly chapter was put on interim suspension after photos posted online showed a fraternity member in blackface and other members throwing gang signs while dressed as gangster stereotypes at a weekend party. The suspension was lifted a few months later.
Other incidents in past years have included a Greek Halloween-themed event titled “Colonial Bros and Nava-Hos” in which men wore Colonial-era costumes, while women wore sexually explicit Native American-themed attire in 2013; and the hanging of a noose and Confederate flag on campus in 2008.
“It’s every year almost, it doesn’t fail,” the professor said about racist incidents on campus. “And it comes days before the university releases the results of their climate survey on race and how people feel, and the results are not good.”