This week, members of University of California, Los Angeles' Sigma Phi Epsilon fraternity and Alpha Phi sorority got the education they probably least expected. On Tuesday, both greek organizations co-hosted a party called "Kanye Western," at which many students who are not black dressed in so-called "gangsta" garb and painted their faces black. But their night was effectively ruined when actual black students showed up and brought up how offensive the party was.
On Thursday, many of the university's black students attended a rally on campus, holding signs that read "our culture is not a costume" and, merging the popular refrain Black Lives Matter with the school's mascot, "Black Bruins Matter."
Janay Williams, who currently chairs the Afrikan Student Union, said she witnessed the party on Tuesday night with attendees' faces smeared in what appeared to be black and brown soot. According to the Daily Bruin, Williams urged the administration to admit that the incident was an act of racism and to work toward institutional change. "We hope the chancellor hears us, and the world hears us, because the truth is that UCLA is racist," Williams yelled outside of the chancellor's office, the Daily Bruin reported.
Sigma Phi Epsilon released a statement Thursday apologizing "for the offense and hurt we caused to our fellow Bruins" and to contend that party did not include blackface. "Some of our guests attended the event dressed as miners in reference to the Kanye West song 'Gold Digger,' but their attire had nothing to do with race. This does not excuse our lack of judgment in not recognizing the inappropriateness of the party theme and that other costumes were offensive."
UCLA released its own statement on Thursday, saying it is investigating the incident and that both Greek organizations have been placed on immediate interim suspension from all social activities. The statement read, in part:
"While we do not yet have all the facts, the alleged behavior is inconsistent with good judgment as well as our principles of community. We remind students that while they are free to celebrate in ways that draw on popular culture, their specific choices can cause harm and pain to fellow members of their community. Put simply: Just because you can do something, does not mean you should."
UCLA has found itself in the middle of several racially fueled controversies in recent years. In 2011, a white student named Alexandra Wallace ranted in a video about "hordes" of Asian students in the library who annoyed her during finals, Color Lines reports. "I'll be like deep into my studies in political science theories, arguments and all that stuff, getting it all done and typing furiously, blah blah blah," she said in the video, according to Color Lines, "and right when I'm about to reach like an epiphany, over here somewhere, 'ooh ching chong ling tin tong ooh.' Are you freaking kidding me? On finals week?" That video went viral, and Wallace later apologized and withdrew from the university.
In 2014, a flier with racist and sexist messages was anonymously sent to the UCLA Asian-American Studies Center and its rival school's campus, the University of Southern California. Both universities opened investigations into the posters.
According to several current and recently graduated UCLA students who spoke to Mic, headline-grabbing racist incidents on campus are often fueled by daily offensive interactions — known as 'microaggressions' — that students of color face.
"We deal with [racism] on a daily basis," Devin Murphy, a 22-year-old political science major at UCLA and former student body president, told Mic. Murphy described a predictable pattern of outrage he's experienced during his time on campus: A racist event happens, it draws media attention, the affected communities ask the administration to step in, the school issues a statement and very little changes. "I want this to be an opportunity for black students to really be heard on our campus," Murphy told Mic. "UCLA is a microcosm of the real world. When we say black Bruins matter, we really mean that our lives matter."
Kamilah Moore, a recent graduate who formerly chaired the school's Afrikan Student Union, said her four years at UCLA were constantly spent consoling other black students who felt they had been victimized on campus. She described several incidents of black students being called racial slurs while walking along the university's fraternity row or being physically harassed by campus police. "When I was a junior, I had to go to the hospital and couldn't focus on my classwork because I was so drained by trying to prove that I belong to be here," Moore told Mic, referring to what she calls "racial battle fatigue," which she says impacts many other students of color on campus.
UCLA has one of the lowest percentages of black students on campus than any other school in the University of California's vast educational system. Black students currently make up 4% of the undergraduate student body — 1,189 out of nearly 30,000 undergraduate students — while Hispanic students make up slightly less than 20%. Black student enrollment has declined significantly since a 1996 ballot measure called Proposition 209 did away with affirmative action in California.
Current students of color have made those dwindling numbers a central focus of their campus organizing, like in a 2013 spoken word video that went viral by noting that the campus has more NCAA championships than black male freshman.
The numbers aren't much improved in the university's graduate schools. In 2014, just 33 of UCLA's roughly 1,100 law students were black, according to a video law students made to raise awareness. One student in the video says, "I feel my classmates' eyes on me, particularly if we're discussing something that brings race, and especially race and gender, into play. It's so far from being a safe space that it almost feels like staying at home would be better for my mental health, for myself, than being in class."
For current students, overtly racist incidents put their small numbers in perspective. In 2008, roughly half of the school's black students graduated in four years, and about 80% graduated in six years, which is below the university's averages for all freshmen: about 70% graduated in four years and 90% graduated in six years.
"Because our numbers are so low," Devin Murphy, the former student body president, said, "the university should do everything in its power to make sure that every black student graduates."
Correction: Oct. 10, 2015
An earlier version of this story misspelled Devin Murphy's first name as "Devon."