In the six weeks since the account was started, more than 250 posts have accumulated on the Instagram page @blackatpepperdine, sharing a variety of stories ranging from classroom microaggressions (commonplace remarks, questions or actions that either intentionally or unintentionally convey negative prejudice toward certain groups) to slurs to racially-charged sexual assaults.
Though many authors have identified themselves in the comments, each submission is anonymous. So are the owners of the account, who declined an interview with The Malibu Times for the sake of maintaining anonymity and safety.
The anonymity allows “for people to share what’s happened to them without fear of retaliation, especially for students who are still currently there,” Olivia Robinson, a Black 2020 graduate of Pepperdine who was co-president of the Black Student Association, told The Malibu Times. “You have to think about the degree of shame a lot of these stories bring, unfortunately, and the degree of trauma people carry from remembering these things.”
Only 50 years ago, a Pepperdine security guard killed Larry Donnell Kimmons, an unarmed Black 15-year-old, when he tried to use the gymnasium basketball courts on the original South Los Angeles campus. Students who graduated decades ago have submitted stories, some of which are identical to those being shared by current students. “They’re not just random experiences that people find themselves in,” Robinson said.
Particularly numerous are stories that mention Greek Life, the dating scene, and the economics and theatre departments. Paige Elson, a Black 2017 Pepperdine graduate, said she feels that during her time at Pepperdine, the theatre department failed to give its Black students opportunities by consistently selecting plays from the first half of the 20th century, sidelining Black students as supporting characters, refusing to pair Black students with white romantic leads and casting according to stereotypes. She believed these plays were chosen to please Pepperdine donors, rather than students of color, who, she noted, paid to attend the school and deserved equal shots at full-bodied educations.
Elson brought this complaint “every year” at Pepperdine, she said. Eventually, in her senior year, she created a showcase for Black students because they felt so unseen. “Now [Pepperdine] wants to act like they never knew. We told you guys. You didn’t care.”
Robinson also used her time at Pepperdine to raise awareness. She worked with the administration and spearheaded multiple efforts—outreach programs, diversity initiatives, table talks—to make the campus more hospitable to students of color.
@Blackatpepperdine follows years of student activism that has already been going on—but may be among the first to reach an audience outside the Malibu campus.
University representatives confirmed to The Malibu Times over email that the administration has “exchanged electronic communication” with the account owners, though their identities remain anonymous.
“Over the last several weeks, we’ve taken the time to listen to the experiences of our Black community, and we know that many of our Black students, alumni, faculty, and staff are hurting,” Pepperdine representatives wrote.
“Under the direction of President Gash,” they have formed a “Presidential Action Advisory Team … specifically to address these issues.
“The Presidential Action Advisory Team is regularly meeting as it prepares a list of recommendations to advance diversity, inclusion and belonging at Pepperdine. The team is currently finalizing the job description for the chief diversity officer (CDO) role and will plan to present it, along with a list of other initial recommendations, to President Gash in the next few weeks,” Pepperdine representatives said. The national CDO search will begin “imminently.”
President Gash himself has been mentioned multiple times on @blackatpepperdine for joking that he is “African-American” because of his work in Uganda. Elson also pointed out that Pepperdine at first chose only to address the recent slew of racism complaints with a post on the school’s Instagram, and not its Facebook, which she saw as pandering to younger members of the community while not addressing the issue to their older counterparts.
The university did not say whether or not it had taken punitive actions against specific professors who are mentioned multiple times in @blackatpepperdine posts, but representatives did say a formal grievance system exists where students may initiate processes to address individual instances of discrimination and harassment. Similarly, in response to suggestions that tenure is more difficult for Black professors to achieve, Pepperdine representatives pointed The Malibu Timesto their University Tenure Policy webpage. They said the policy is applied equally to those who seek tenure at Pepperdine.
Pepperdine alumna Dr. Elizabeth Craigg is among those alleging it is harder for Black professors to get tenure at Pepperdine than it is for their white colleagues. Craigg, a Black student who attended Pepperdine from 1994 to 2004, now teaches English and political science at community colleges around Los Angeles. Her dissertation explored the nuanced history Pepperdine has in Southern California’s Black community. Many of Craigg’s family members received their teaching credentials from Pepperdine; she also said Pepperdine’s Los Angeles campus (the school only moved to Malibu in 1972) was a huge influence on the development of the Church of Christ in Black communities. “In many ways, Pepperdine was ahead of the curve,” she told The Malibu Times.
Then again, many times it was not. Only a few years ago, a wave of racist social media posts on the app YikYak forced then-President Andrew K. Benton to make an address. The YikYak scandal happened during a time when the #BlackLivesMatter movement was making national headlines, similar to how the @blackatpepperdine account popped up as the nation reckoned with the police brutality brought centerstage by the murder of George Floyd, an unarmed Black man, on Memorial Day.
Each person who spoke to The Malibu Times for this article spoke of the growth they experienced at their alma mater.
“I have a love-hate relationship with Pepperdine,” Craigg said, adding that she did not want to “trash” the school. “There are smart people there,” she said, though those people “have not always been successful” in their efforts to change campus for the better.
Robinson, too, had a complex relationship with her alma mater. She described her college years as “a challenging experience,” but she “loved being there.
“If we didn’t care, we wouldn’t have tried.”