Students and alumni react to racist photo in old RIT yearbook; St. John Fisher also issues statement

Feb 20, 2019

Students and Alumni at the Rochester Insitute of Technology are reacting to a racist photo in a student run publication from the 70’s that resurfaced Tuesday.

RIT issued a statement that says a number of offensive photos had previously been removed from online versions of RIT yearbook, but they remain in hardcopy versions.

One photo in question, posted by an alumnus on their Facebook page's comment thread shows a person in blackface surrounded by people dressed up as KKK members. 

Carlos Villegas is a 4th year business management major at RIT and the Vice President of the ALANA Collegiate association, which stands for African, Latin, Asian and Native American.

He says frankly he wasn’t shocked at the photo, that these mindsets weren’t rare back in the 70's when the photo was published.

But he wonders how those people have grown over time.

"Who knows if they still have these types of mindsets or if they’ve passed them down to their children? It’s scary to think about how these types of people are conducting job interviews. They could be your boss. You know like every other workday process, it’s scary to think about, they hold this type of power."

He adds that he is glad RIT at least acknowledged the fact the photos exist in their statement

"I understand this was a student run publication so it wasn’t entirely RITs fault. But I feel like they gave a little bit too much power to the students, to the point that this appeared in a yearbook photo and it wasn’t entirely checked up on or that RIT didn’t stop it."

He says its 40 years too late to really do anything about the photo being in the yearbook, but hopes the school might consider investing in diversity programs or more money into the budgets of organizations like his. He says that leverage might grow their community more.

Christopher Coles graduated from RIT in 2004 with an AAS in Sign Language Interpretation. He said his initial thoughts were “who are these 10 individuals and where do they currently work?"

He says wants to know where the action behind the apology is.

"So certainly I mean there are a lot of educational symposiums made and there’s a lot of consortiums that are being formed that we're going to come and talk about this. But I feel like that’s reactionary, and that’s not preemptive. And that’s again like, I found out that you’ve been keeping a 40 years secret and now we want to talk about it."

David Gorecki was a computer science major and graduated from RIT in 2012. He says he wants RIT to really own the situation by posting all of the photos in question. 

"I see nothing in this post that suggests that anything really going to change, that they're going to take any action to actually try and address any kind of issue here. They don’t even really say what their goal from this discussion series that they’re hosting really is."  

David Munson, President of RIT said the photos "should have been completely unacceptable back then and Today they condemn them in the strongest possible terms.”

The university will hold a discussion on the photos as part of their ‘Gray Matter’ series. That’s Friday from noon to 2pm in the Allen Chapel of the Schmitt Interfaith Center.

Reporters from USA Today and the Democrat&Chronicle combed through hundreds of college yearbooks from around the country, finding a number of racist images.

Also on Wednesday, St. John Fisher College issued this statement:

"Early this afternoon, St. John Fisher College learned of deeply disturbing and offensive photos from past College yearbooks.  These photos do not reflect who we strive to be and have no place in an institution of higher education.

Given other recent incidents that have involved members of our campus community, we have redoubled our efforts around issues of race, diversity, inclusion, and equity.  As upsetting as these photos are, we will use their existence to further the useful and productive dialogue now taking place within our community.

Since our founding, St. John Fisher College has always aspired to represent the virtues espoused in the Basilian motto—goodness, discipline, and knowledge—in our beliefs and actions.  I want to assure our campus community and the community at large that we remain committed to representing those virtues and that respect, open-mindedness, and integrity are of the utmost importance to the College."