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Racist photo from CSU students reignites free speech debate

CSU to change racial equity policies

New incident follows other instances of racism at CSU.
Illustration: Rigby Guerrero · The Sentry

Earlier this semester, four students at Colorado State University (CSU) posted pictures of themselves in blackface on Snapchat, with the caption, “Wakanda Forever.” CSU’s leadership has come under fire for their seemingly blasé response, and the student body has continually protested.

CSU has had a multitude of racist incidents happen over the last couple years. Just after the blackface incident, a swastika was found drawn on a wall of a residence hall. In April 2019, several students shared their stories of being discriminated against within their on-campus jobs. A parent called the police on two prospective Native American students for “looking suspicious” in 2018. 

According to a press release from CSU president Joyce McConnell, “The image shared did not violate Colorado State University’s Student Code of Conduct and the First Amendment prohibits the university from taking any punitive action against those in the photo.” This response inspired a seven-and-a-half hour Associated Students of CSU (ASCSU) meeting, where students came to voice their opinions on the incident. “ASCSU representatives were there to listen, not respond,” Linzhi Douglass, Director of Diversity and Inclusion in ASCSU, said. The meeting was not limited to CSU students: community members from Fort Collins, Colorado Springs, and Denver all came to share their thoughts. 

Just days after the blackface incident occurred, President McConnell held her first Fall Address to the campus, having only been elected president at the end of the 2018-2019 school year. Some students held a silent protest throughout the event, and they were met with praise from McConnell. “I’m very, very proud of our students who are marching right now and exercising their First Amendment rights,” McConnell said in her address. 

While the students in the blackface photo did not receive direct misconduct consequences, the incident did inspire several new policy initiatives and campus events regarding diversity. At the address, President McConnell shared the new Race, Bias, and Equity Initiative, a program that was implemented at the University of Washington in 2015 to improve campus climate. According to a press release from McConnell, the university is planning on also enacting student-led initiatives and student conduct code discussions. 

But policy change and implementation is not a speedy process. “It is such a process, you have to go through so many levels of hierarchy to get it changed. Time is not on our side, but people do care about the community at CSU. For this example, we are working on requiring diversity training for students, faculty, and staff. Before releasing it, it has to be approved by different areas of campus,” Douglass said. 

While policy changes may not be immediately implemented, students continue to persevere. On both the CSU campus and the CU Denver campus, diversity programs and offices are available to educate and inspire their students. Here at CU Denver, the Office of Diversity and Inclusion provides campus resources both in the classroom and outside of it, including the Office of Equity and the Center for Identity and Inclusion. 

Douglass’ advice? Educate and respect your peers. “Because sometimes students may miss going to a presentation on how to act and treat other cultures and people from diverse backgrounds. Some people haven’t learned that, which we can’t hold against them because we can’t control how they were raised.” 

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