They Were Accused of Wearing Blackface. Now They’re Suing Their College.

They Were Accused of Wearing Blackface. Now They’re Suing Their College.

Last winter, students at California Lutheran University received a message from their president with disturbing news.

“Two racist incidents involving social-media posts by Cal Lutheran students occurred in the last week,” the email from Chris Kimball said. “Blackface and the N-word evoke white supremacy, anti-Blackness, and remind us that a violent, racist past is still with us today.”

The university condemned such speech, he wrote, and promised to hold accountable those who were responsible. There would be a forum on race and equity that was meant to start a dialogue, and the university would “develop the institutional capacity to dismantle racist behavior.”

Kimball didn’t offer much detail about the incidents in question. But a lawsuit filed last week by 24 members of the women’s softball team and three coaches alleges that it was well-known on campus that the message was about them. That January, softball-team members had broken into groups to perform lip-syncing routines for their teammates. One group drew fake beards on their faces and wore curly Napoleon Dynamite wigs and “hip-hop clothing,” the complaint said, and lip-synced the theme song for The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air TV show. They posted pictures of the event on social media.

We acted from a place of ignorance and had no intention to cause any sort of harm.

In the suit, filed in the U.S. District Court for the Central District of California last week, the team accuses Cal Lutheran administrators of misinterpreting the students’ costumes as blackface. The members and their coaches say the university, its president, and its vice president for mission and identity “allowed the softball team and their coaches to be publicly shamed and harassed, placed in fear for their safety, and to otherwise suffer lifelong injury to their mental health and reputations.” They asked for damages, but did not specify an amount.

The softball team alleges that the university manufactured “a sham racially-derogatory event” and punished the team “to deceive the public into believing that the university is active in combatting racism on campus,” the complaint says. This was all, the suit says, an attempt to distract the community from the university’s poor record of racial inequality. The team claims in the suit that the university’s accreditor was investigating Cal Lutheran “in part for its history of racial and gender equality-related failures.”

In a statement, university officials said they would defend themselves in court. The complaint is “riddled with a host of issues,” Karin Grennan, Cal Lutheran’s media-relations manager, said in an email. They include “misstatements and falsehoods regarding issues that already have been investigated and found to be without merit,” she wrote. The university hired two separate law firms to review the softball team’s allegations and “neither found any policy violations.”

The statement also said that Cal Lutheran “is not, nor has it ever been ‘under investigation’” by its accreditor. The university received a “notice of concern” in 2020, which does not mean it was out of compliance, the statement said. The university has made “changes and enhancements” to address the issues related to the notice, and those changes will be shared in 2022, the university said.

The university’s accreditor, the WASC Senior College and University Commission, said in a statement that Cal Lutheran’s accreditation was reaffirmed in 2015 for 10 years and that a “special visit” took place at the midpoint of that 10-year cycle. The accreditor does not consider the special visit an investigation but “a review” and an opportunity to follow up on designated issues. Among other topics, the accreditor’s special visit at Cal Lutheran focused on “diversity among students, faculty, staff, and board; student achievement gaps for students of color, particularly African American students; and campus climate related to fostering diversity.”

Kimball, the president, did not respond to a LinkedIn message seeking comment. He left his role as president in 2020.

The sprawling, 63-page complaint describes a host of issues at Cal Lutheran. But the center of the complaint is the lip-syncing performance. According to the complaint, five of the softball players decided to dress like “dudes” in a “boy band.” They picked The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air theme song for two reasons: They grew up watching the show, and most of the softball team “related to the show’s premise” because they had moved to an affluent suburb of Los Angeles — Cal Lutheran is in Thousand Oaks — from far-away, humble households. Two of the five wore Napoleon Dynamite wigs that were branded as such because they matched the curly blondish-brown hair of the eponymous character in that movie. They performed their routine. They posted photos and videos of it on Instagram.

A few days later, an administrator told the head coach, Debby Day, that a Cal Lutheran staff member had told President Kimball that the softball team had posted a “blackface” performance on social media, the suit said. The coach responded that the players weren’t wearing blackface. None of the three coaches who sued the university had any issue with the performance, “most notably” DeAnn Young, “who is African American,” the complaint said. But Coach Day said the team would take the images down to avoid confusion.

Still, in the first week of February, Kimball sent the email to the campus community, the complaint said, explaining that the students who had worn “blackface” would be held accountable. (The other student whom Kimball referred to, who allegedly said a racial slur in an unrelated incident, is not part of this lawsuit.)

The softball team wasn’t identified in the email, but the team’s complaint says that members of the Cal Lutheran community knew who it was about, especially after a student “confirmed on social media that he understood said email to be referring to the softball team.” The student newspaper, The Echo, covered the president’s message, as did the local Ventura County Reporter, under the online headline: “CLU Softball Team Accused of Blackface.

The women on the team wrote an apology, which was reprinted in their complaint, and shared it with university administrators. “Even though the beards were perceived as blackface, no blackface was worn,” they wrote. “Nevertheless, we acted from a place of ignorance and had no intention to cause any sort of harm.” According to the complaint, the administration never shared the letter of apology with the campus.

The university has a responsibility to identify and respond to behavior that is inconsistent with our values.

The softball team was scheduled to travel to Texas for a week to play in six away games. Instead, the complaint alleges, the president canceled its trip and placed its coaches on administrative leave pending an investigation. The team met with Kimball, who told them that he didn’t think any member of the team intended to do anything racist, the complaint says, but he drew a distinction between intent and impact. The players also met with Cal Lutheran pastors — a meeting that they said was to get them to confess.

The team hired lawyers, who met with Cal Lutheran’s lawyers. Soon after, the softball team received an email from an assistant dean informing it that “there will be no individual student-conduct process related to the performances,” which team members took to mean they would not be disciplined.

But on the same day, Kimball sent another email to the campus. In this one, he wrote that “the university has a responsibility to identify and respond to behavior that is inconsistent with our values.” He said that recently “students were recorded doing performances in which there were exaggerated characterizations of Black people and culture,” which had offended many on the campus.

“While some have questioned the university’s use of the term ‘blackface,’ and whether such a definition is solely limited to using makeup on one’s face,” he wrote, “the university used the term as it is often used by historians — comedic performances of ‘blackness’ by whites in exaggerated costumes and makeup. Regardless of how one views this particular definition, it does not change the nature of the underlying conduct.”

In its complaint, the softball team says its members had “suffered extreme and irreparable damage to their reputations and mental health.”

The campus’s racial climate was already fraught. Two days after the president’s second email was sent, 100 students participated in a walkout to protest what they saw as a lack of response to the incidents by the administration, according to the Ventura County Reporter. Students told the newspaper that racist incidents were common at Cal Lutheran, and that the students the president referenced in his emails needed to be held accountable.

The softball team’s complaint refers to the protesters as “a mob” that stormed the university’s administrative building demanding that the team be expelled. The team members say they were harassed and bullied online and thatthey feared for their safety. At least one softball player told administrators that the team needed professional mental-health services, the complaint says.

Around this time, the complaint alleges, one of Kimball’s social-media posts from 2014 started to recirculate. It included a picture of another Cal Lutheran administrator wearing a dreadlocks wig and a knitted black, yellow, red, and green hat. Kimball’s caption read: “So proud that Bob Marley is our VP of Advancement.”

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