To Be Young, Gifted and a Black Anteater

A fraternity's blackface video just scratches the surface of the long-standing hostility toward African-American students at UC Irvine

On a late Monday afternoon, young men and women fill rows of folding chairs at a Black Student Union (BSU) meeting in the Cross-Cultural Center at UC Irvine. They raise their hands and speak one by one.

"My friend and I were called 'nigger bitches' at a party," says a curvy girl in a yellow polka-dot dress. Groans erupt throughout the room.

"People in my dorm say I only got into this school because I'm an athlete," another member says.

UCI's Black Student Union and allies at a recent protest
Eric Hood
UCI's Black Student Union and allies at a recent protest
Kala Lacy: "UCI, I am tired of you ignoring me!"
Eric Hood
Kala Lacy: "UCI, I am tired of you ignoring me!"

A student notes the incidents on a rolling whiteboard as more hands rise.

"This guy I know was at the library, and some people came up to him and said, 'I'll give your monkey-ass a year,'" a young woman shares.

The chatter becomes louder.

"Outside the [gym], someone yelled, 'nigger' out of a car, then drove away," a man reveals.

"That happened to me, too!" another student chimes in.

BSU co-chairperson Kala Lacy stands beside the growing list, gently rubbing her fingertips against the pendant on her necklace, a soft piece of leather cut into the shape of Africa. A petite 20-year-old with perfectly curled eyelashes and big, rounded hair reminiscent of Angela Davis, she listens as more stories dart from the crowd.

"Someone wrote 'nigger' on my door."

"A fraternity held a 'Rastafari Safari.'"

"On Martin Luther King Jr. Day, a dining hall served chicken and waffles."

"They sell Afros in the bookstore."

The last one triggers a discussion about why this is wrong. Afro wigs were being sold to fans as a nod to UCI star basketball player Michael Wilder, an African-American student with a hairstyle out of the American Basketball Association.

"You can buy blackness!" Lacy proclaims in a sarcastic, faux-TV-commercial voice. "Put it on! Take it off!" She poses in the manner of a The Price Is Right model, holding the grand prize.

"It reminds me of a saying," adds Zahra Ahmed, a UCI staff member. "'Everybody wants to be us, but don't nobody wanna be us.'"

"Mm-hmm!" a few girls yell out.

Ahmed continues. "For those who are privileged enough to benefit from the oppression of others, they can buy this Afro wig and put it on and identify superficially with this black man, but at the same time, they can dress in blackface and do drive-by N-words because when it comes to the reality of everyday life, don't nobody wanna be black!"

About 50 BSU members are making final preparations for a campus protest, at which they plan to display the whiteboard filled with acts of ignorance and racism committed against them at UCI for all the school to see. The timing is critical—they need to get this out soon, while people are still talking about recent events. Days earlier, on April 24, a music video had surfaced on Facebook showing four members of the school's oldest Asian-American fraternity, Lambda Theta Delta, dancing and lip-synching to Justin Timberlake's hit song "Suit and Tie." One of them had his face covered in black makeup to portray hip-hop titan Jay-Z.

The student's use of blackface, one of the most destructive and painful offenses against people of African descent, made national headlines and sparked major damage control on campus, with everyone and anyone at UCI trying to distance themselves from the fiasco. Lambda Theta Delta immediately apologized for the video, calling it a "grave mistake of a few members," and suspended itself for a year. In a video released to UCI students, vice chancellor Thomas Parham proclaimed, "It is important that each of you know that incidents like this, while rare, do stand in sharp contrast to the values, virtues and the principles of the university."

Yet two weeks after the video emerged, a UCI freshman received a note in her backpack that read, "Go back 2 Africa slave."

Lacy has come to despise the word "rare."

"It's completely offensive!" she says. "To say that it's a rare occurrence totally ignores the experience of black students on this campus. It's erasing an entire lifetime at UCI."

Using the recent, highly publicized incidents as a platform, black students express anger, fear and frustration over what they believe is an anti-black campus climate. While they say racism isn't unique to UCI, the numbers add strain—African-Americans make up just 2.6 percent of a student population of more than 27,000, in a county where African-Americans make up 2.1 percent of 3.1 million residents. Armed with a megaphone, they're pushing for policy changes, added curriculum and programming, and more accountability from the university.

But more than anything, they want someone to listen.

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On a Facebook page called UCI Secrets, students can post anonymous thoughts and opinions on just about anything—secret crushes, sexual identity, drunken escapades. Often, the ramblings gravitate toward issues of race. One student, who identifies as half-black, responded to the outcry over the blackface video, writing, "Seriously, people, at what point will putting on brown face paint stop being offensive and just become one person not endowed with dark skin trying to look like someone who is? Will no non-black person ever be able to impersonate a black person simply because doing so was a derogatory act nearly a century ago? Or does the entire human race have to consult the history books every time we make a joke or do anything publicly?"

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