Mocking undocumented immigrants? Come on, Cal Poly students — be better than that

An Instagram photo shows Cal Poly students dressed in bandannas and making hand signs in an Instagram post that appears to mock undocumented immigrants. User names and the face of a minor girl have been blurred.
An Instagram photo shows Cal Poly students dressed in bandannas and making hand signs in an Instagram post that appears to mock undocumented immigrants. User names and the face of a minor girl have been blurred.

Here we go again, with yet another example of tone-deaf behavior by Cal Poly students: This time, they posed for an Instagram photo that mocks undocumented immigrants.

Lest there be any doubt of what the photo is meant to convey, the caption underneath the foursome — who are garbed in red bandannas and flashing awkward-looking hand signs — says it all: “Cowboys vs (illegal) aliens.”

It’s strikingly similar to the gangster-style photos that surfaced from a fraternity party last year and brought all sorts of shame down on Cal Poly frats.

According to Mustang News, the two young men in the “aliens” photo are Cal Poly students, and one is on the wrestling team. The young women don’t attend the university. (One is a minor, and for that reason, her face has been blurred in the photo.)

Mustang News also reported that the get-ups were worn during a birthday party with the theme “Cowboys & Aliens,” after a 2011 sci-fi movie.

It was another what-were-they-thinking moment that, once again, made it appear to the outside world that Cal Poly is home to a bunch racist yahoos.

A photo of Cal Poly fraternity members wearing stereotypical gang clothing surfaced on social media in 2018.

Yes, that’s both unfair and inaccurate. But the trouble is, the evidence keeps piling up; this was just the latest in a string of what the university now refers to as “diversity flashpoints.”

The “cowboys vs (illegal) aliens” photo surfaced just a couple of days before Cal Poly released results of a diversity survey conducted last spring.

Ironically, the report “found an extraordinary and widespread level of awareness about diversity, equity, and inclusion,” according to a Cal Poly news release.

That may be, but there are still too many scandals sabotaging the university’s efforts to build diversity at a campus that’s one of the least diverse in the entire state.

What can be done?

Cal Poly isn’t the only California school where students have engaged in egregious behavior.

For example, photos and videos emerged this year showing Orange County high school students giving Nazi salutes, singing a Nazi song and fashioning a swastika out of red plastic cups.

It’s shocking, and the natural reaction is to loudly and forcefully condemn such hateful acts.

Yet public shaming hasn’t worked.

If it did, these incidents would stop or at least level off.

They haven’t. We’ve seen that at Cal Poly, where there’s been a pattern of a racist incident, followed by public outcry, followed by a commitment from the administration to advance diversity and inclusion, followed by .... another “diversity flashpoint.”

Even with all its accolades — including ranking among the top schools in the West by U.S. News & World Report — Cal Poly remains a school with an image problem, and each new incident seems to confirm that.

Without going through the entire litany, here are a couple of the more egregious examples:

  • The “Halloween display” of a noose, Confederate flag and a racist, homophobic sign at Cal Poly’s Crop House in 2008. That incident helped inspire a California law, Assembly Bill 412, that made the display of nooses illegal on California campuses, public parks and places of employment.
  • More recently, in 2018, there were two separate incidents of white students appearing in blackface. One student claimed he didn’t know the racial significance of blackface, and had smeared his face black because he was on the “black team” at a fraternity event.

In its latest effort to build diversity and inclusion, Cal Poly is going all in; spending $234,000 on a diversity consultant who has developed a multi-step, multi-year program.

The first step — a survey of what’s described as the “campus climate” — has already happened.

No real surprises there: “One finding that was particularly evident was that African American/black students (0.9% of students) were least satisfied and reported feeling the most discriminated against, followed by Hispanic/Latinx (13.4% of students), and Asian American/Asian students (15.7% of students).”

The survey will be repeated in a few years to gauge whether there’s been improvement.

In the meantime, the university will offer training for faculty, staff and students — including guidance that will teach “passive bystanders” to intervene when they see or hear something wrong.

It might sound like a small thing, but think about it. If just one or two people had warned against appearing in blackface, that entire episode could have been avoided.

And please, no more arguments that these students are merely exercising their right to free speech.

Just because something may be lawful does not make is right.

This is about civility and empathy — things students should learn long before they enter Cal Poly..

If California ever develops an effective, statewide ethnic studies curriculum for all elementary and high school students, Cal Poly’s job will be easier.

But it can’t wait for that. As Cal Poly President Jeffrey Armstrong said during a recent diversity conference, “We have to get better.”

He’s right. It’s past time that Cal Poly shed its image as a “haven from diversity,” as one survey participant described it, and became a haven for diversity.

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