Black, white and gray: The complex legacy of the Shades of Cal Poly Instagram account
Shades of Cal Poly is run anonymously. They have chosen to remain anonymous.
In their second year at Cal Poly, communications and ethnic studies major Rey Smith was in a survey of Africana studies class taught by a white professor. One day, when describing the oppression faced by a black man, Smith heard the professor use the N-word. Smith, and the only other student in the class with black ancestry, were appalled.
“We were both just stunned like we didn’t know how to react,” Smith said. “And it seemed like we both wanted to say something but she just keep going and we just, I don’t know, trauma response I guess, just didn’t.”
Smith had essentially blocked the event out of their mind, but after George Floyd’s murder in 2020, the memory resurfaced. They wanted to share their story, so they submitted it to Shades of Cal Poly — a student-run Instagram account that emerged after active social and political movements in 2020.
“Limited by the pandemic, we felt the need to do something, anything, about the injustices happening at the time,” the account administrators told Mustang News. “In particular, we were frustrated by Cal Poly — both the administration and the community — because despite being outspoken about support for larger social movements, there was so little discussion and action taken.”
The account’s goal was to open up a dialogue surrounding discrimination faced by the people at Cal Poly and by the administration, particularly individuals who belong to marginalized communities like people of color, LGBTQIA+ and women. Shades of Cal Poly works to provide individuals with a safe space to share their experiences in depth without their personal information.
When scrolling through the account, Instagram users can find hundreds of submissions detailing experiences or opinions about discrimination on the Cal Poly campus. For many students on campus, the content found on the account is reflective of their environment.
“Sometimes when I do see those posts I do feel like it is a pretty accurate representation of Cal Poly,” freshman landscape architecture major Li Ow-Wing said. “My right to exist, at peace with my identity, was never questioned. But here it has been questioned multiple times, to the point where I don’t even want to talk about it anymore.”
Having similar stories dealing with discrimination shared to one account has also allowed students to find community through their shared experiences.
“A positive outcome is that it just connects people that feel the same way and have experienced similar things, and that is an important part of processing trauma,” Smith said.
The account offers resources to students on their account, like story highlights on reporting incidents directly to Cal Poly, and information about Safer and Ombuds services. Alongside this, the team of student administrators created a database documenting all posts that have been published to easily access submissions.
Individuals can send in stories anonymously through a submission form available on the account. Stories with names of students, profanity or grammar mistakes are not published on the account, but otherwise, the administrators say they post all eligible posts to initiate conversations.
“Originally, we did not intend to post all of our submissions. However, as we read each of the hundreds of stories that came in, we came to realize that each one is important to somebody. That’s their story,” the administrators told Mustang News. “The idea of picking and choosing whose story has value felt wrong. Like playing god, in a way.”
When creating the account in 2020, the administrators of Shades of Cal Poly decided to prioritize anonymity, as they felt students would be more comfortable sharing their stories if their identity was protected. However, protecting anonymity came with some sacrifices, they said.
“We acknowledge that there is no way to truly validate the information we receive. For this reason, we also choose to protect the identity of students who are referenced in the stories,” the administrators told Mustang News. “We do not, however, protect the identity of Cal Poly staff and faculty members or organizations; as they maintain a position of power over so many students and often keep that position for many years, we found it imperative to allow submissions to name them so that patterns could be identified.”
For some individuals, the lack of validation for submissions is troubling since the account has a wide reach. Shades of Cal Poly currently has 6,500 Instagram followers and 1,265 posts, most of which contain sensitive information and large claims.
“I don’t know, the lack of research is a little bit concerning,” Ow-Wing said. “Because they have a lot of followers of students who go to this school and may not actually take the time to actually think about what they’re reading.”
Recently, the account has faced some backlash for recent submissions posted. Due to their open policy of allowing all eligible submissions to be posted, some that have been published have centered on individuals who do not belong to minority groups. One post, in particular, received negative attention, which read:
“I once had a class in which I was the only European-American male and a conservative Catholic. If I offered a conflicting opinion during class, some of the other students and professor would be dismissive and condescending. Several times throughout the course the professor even referred to the previous Pope as ‘the Nazi Pope.’ I felt like my opinions and religious beliefs were being invalidated because of my ‘whiteness’ and because I didn’t agree with the far-left ideology of the professor and my classmates.”
Though publishing submissions like this one creates conversations around differing opinions, it highlights the voices of what some, including Ow-Wing, may consider privileged people, the opposite of what the account originally sought to represent.
With recent posts, the account has been criticized for shifting away from its original intentions. Despite Shades of Cal Poly’s mission to prioritize minority experiences, Smith’s story which was submitted more than a year and a half ago has yet to be posted on their platform. Now a senior, Smith believes the account has strayed from being a helpful source for minority communities at Cal Poly.
“I just don’t see any way that a person or persons could be okay with the type of stories that are being highlighted now,” Smith said. “It’s just another example of disappointment that oppressed groups at Cal Poly face because even a platform meant to center us is focusing on this.”
Individuals like Smith believe that the account could fix these mistakes by exercising more judgment over what gets posted as well as acknowledging the criticism it has faced, including a possible apology and working to re-center diversity, equity and inclusion.
Ow-Wing also proposed having a change in administrators, to potentially consider people with a more diverse background who aligns with the original ideology of the account.
“But if that’s not going to happen, the best thing for them to do is deactivate,” Smith said.
Though Smith sees that Shades of Cal Poly can change to produce a more substantial impact, they believe that it should not be the responsibility for a student-run account or the minority students who submit their stories to the account to enact social change on campus.
Rather, the administration should make more quantifiable advancements in addressing discrimination on campus, going beyond the bare minimum.
“They just do not do a good job of notifying their students about the resources available. It’s always ‘resources are available if you need’ but they don’t tell us what,” Smith said. “And they do sometimes but it’s not in a way that is actually absorbable…and proactive. The responsibility is always on us to seek those resources out.”
To Smith, Shades of Cal Poly is ultimately just a reflection of the current state of campus, and can only do so much when the campus’s administration holds all the power to enact physical change. Shades of Cal Poly can be found @shadesofcalpoly on Instagram.