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

These days, college students have become notorious for playing with racial taboos through parties themed after cultural stereotypes. "Ghetto fabulous" galas, such as the infamous 2010 "Compton Cookout" at UC San Diego, come complete with fake teeth grills, do-rags, butt pads and gang signs, while Mexican-mocking affairs showcase girls feigning pregnancies and guys in border patrol uniforms.

"Racism is not new," says Tamara Storey, UCI's senior student-affairs specialist."There is a gray area that is coming up now that makes it seem new. We have lots of artists using the word 'nigger.' We have lots of students using it just as another word. So students don't know. They're wondering, 'Should I use it? Is it okay to use it? Can I use it if I'm black? Can I use it if I'm not black?'

"If I didn't know the history of blackface, I might think it's tacky, but not racist," Storey adds. "We need to figure out how to educate our culture. How do we change the climate that says this is okay?"

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!"

This education process often begins with black students themselves. For many, college is an opportunity to explore and connect with a heritage they may have only read a few pages about in their high school history books or celebrated once a year during February. And if the black students themselves know little about the historical context of their culture, imagine going to a school populated by kids with no clue whatsoever.

That's what Lacy encountered upon enrolling at UCI. Growing up in a mostly white neighborhood in San Diego, Lacy often felt isolated. Classmates taunted her with racist remarks—she remembers one student telling her she was only good for shaking her ass or picking cotton—and she let them. "I couldn't explain the different feelings I felt," she says, speaking calmly while softly rubbing her right arm. She sits on a campus bench next to her backpack, speckled with buttons: "I heart being black," "Stop Racism" and "This Revolution Will Not Be Privatized."

"It was like, 'I know I'm angry, but I'm not exactly sure why.' I know what they said is messed up, but I don't really have the words to explain why that wasn't right."

Lacy says a black community was something she was looking for in potential colleges, and "I really liked what I saw at UCI." But when she arrived at the university, subtle stereotyping popped up everywhere. People would come up to her and touch her hair without asking, or they would ask if she could teach them how to dance. "Someone I've never met before just assumed I was sassy," she adds. "They were like, 'I've never met sassy black Kala.' And I was like, 'I have never met you before. Where are you getting that idea from?' It was just different things like that all the time. People would change their language around me, saying, 'Hey, girl, wassup?'"

One day, while waiting at the bus stop underneath the bridge on Campus Drive, a white woman who may or may not have been a UCI student started firing racial slurs at her: "nigger bitch," "nigger slut" and "Go back to your nigger pimp." With other students standing nearby and staring silently, Lacy didn't know how to react. "Things go through your mind like, 'Okay, well, fight her. Make her hurt how you're hurting right now,'" she says. "But being a black student, you understand what happens when you're the body that's making violence happen."

Lacy found comfort in the school's BSU, as members shared similar stories and frustrations. "That's when I felt like I wasn't so different, like I wasn't crazy to be mad at all these people who had done me wrong," she says. She started taking African-American studies courses, where she gained an academic vocabulary for discussing issues of race, and she eventually took on the role of BSU co-chairperson alongside her friend, Ainaria Johnson. Standing up for the black community has become her mission.

"This is more of a chance for me to say the things I didn't get to say when I was growing up," she says. "I'm in a much better place because I have the language, I have the history, I have the means. It's almost sort of a redemption for high school Kala, who never said anything."

*     *     *

The music video featuring four members of Lambda Theta Delta was created as a promotion for the fraternity's annual event celebrating the entrance of new brothers. It was uploaded to YouTube with the disclaimer "No racism intended. All fun and laughter."

When Lacy saw the video, she says she was "surprised, but not surprised." She immediately contacted her fellow BSU board members. "I was like, 'When are we meeting to discuss what we need to do?'" she recalls. "I knew this was one that we couldn't just let slide by."

Before the video could go viral, Lambda Theta Delta posted a lengthy apology to its Facebook page, stating, "The collective house is aware of the great ignorance of the video as it perpetuates a gravely offensive stereotype against African-Americans. . . . We apologize for its creation as well as any mental anguish the production has caused to the community. . . . Regardless of the circumstances, the video proves the existence of racism and ignorance today."

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