“We hope the chancellor hears us, and the world hears us, because the truth is that UCLA is racist!”
These are the words of Janay Williams, a chairperson of the Afrikan Student Union. She stood outside of Chancellor Gene Block’s office in Murphy Hall last Thursday with a team of about 200 protestors, who held signs that declared, “Black Bruins Matter.”
Earlier that week, Williams witnessed students in blackface, with plumped lips and padded bottoms, making their way to a “Kanye Western” party, hosted by fraternity Sigma Phi Epsilon and sorority Alpha Phi. On the same night, several black students gathered in Pauley Pavilion for ASU’s “Black Bruin Welcome Week.”
First year Chibunkem Ezenekwe told The Daily Bruin that the party and all of its fallout was her “introduction to being a black Bruin on campus—to being an adult.”
As much as members of Sigma Phi Epsilon attempt to claim naiveté and remorse to downplay the offensive nature of their choices, they cannot conceal the reality: the “Kanye Western” exists within a plenteous history of racism at UCLA. Last year, black graduate student Alexis Gardner received hate mail after the release of a student-produced video that illuminated the lack of diversity in the law school. In 2012, a note was found outside of the Vietnamese Student Union’s office that objectified and sexualized Asian women. Perhaps most infamously, in 2011, Alexandra Wallace posted a video on YouTube that generalized and criticized the behavior and culture of Asian students on campus.
All of this and more within only four of the ninety-six years since UCLA’s establishment in 1919.
Once word of the party circulated—Instagram photos of attendees, like the one pictured to the right, particularly sparked interest—debates erupted on all corners of the internet. The majority were enraged, likening the incident to the Halloween bash in Justin Simien’s recent film, Dear White People. Some people, however, swooped to the fraternity’s defense, as The Washington Post reports:
“Was it mocking L.A. celebrity culture, or black people? Was it just an awkward costume party, or was it the latest racist affront by a fraternity? Some brushed it off, saying they hadn’t seen blackface, but they had seen photos of students who used charcoal to draw Kanye-esque goatees on their faces.”
Whether or not they did wear blackface, it is important that they understand its history in American pop culture. Blackface originates from the White man’s characterizations of plantation slaves and free blacks in the era of minstrel shows and vaudeville in the 1800s. These characters—from the “Jim Crow” to the “Mammy”—would define the portrayal and perception of black people and black culture for generations to come. When you wear blackface, you aren’t wearing black culture: you’re wearing stereotypes and archetypes (conceived during an even more horribly racist era of American history) that reduce an entire people to a carcicature.
For those who did not wear blackface–celebrating cultural appropriation is not any better; it both normalizes and glamorizes racism.
Likewise, Jerry Kang, vice chancellor for UCLA’s Office of Equity, Diversity and Inclusion, commented, “It’s one thing to suggest you are actually focusing on one celebrity who is African American, it’s another thing to take it as a license to perform every attribute, every stereotype, every grotesque minstrelsy that you see.”
The general “celebrity culture” that some point to is in itself poisonous, as actress Amandla Stenberg highlighted in her viral video, “Don’t Cash Crop My Cornrows.” Stenberg calls out white celebrities such as Miley Cyrus and Katy Perry for appropriating the “fashionable” aspects of black culture without acknowledging the racism that community members experience every day, especially as police brutality against blacks is becoming increasingly apparent. She defines cultural appropriation and its consequences as follows:
“Appropriation occurs when a style leads to racist generalizations or stereotypes where it originated but is deemed as high-fashion, cool, or funny when the privileged take it for themselves. Appropriation occurs when the appropriator is not aware of the deep significance of the culture that they are partaking in.”
Cultural appropriation, as Stenberg defines it, estranges people from their culture, challenging their ownership of it and transforming it from a source of empowerment to a source of ridicule and dehumanization.
Thus emerges the #BlackBruinsMatter and #BlackLivesMatter movements, both efforts towards the reclamation of black identity.
#BlackBruinsMatter raises the question: What if UCLA loved its black students as much as it loved black culture?