State News

Outcry brings removal of two what-were-they-thinking displays at MSU gift shop

February 01, 2020, 12:24 PM by  Alan Stamm

A new Michigan State flare-up has multiple ironies. It involves racial insensitivity right before Black History Month and happened at a building named for an African American couple -- Clifford and Dolores Wharton.

"Offensive display raises eyebrows at Wharton Center," says a Lansing City Pulse headline.

"We sincerely apologize to our community members," says MSU, which removed this display Friday amid online objections. (Photos: Facebook/Krystal Rose Davis-Dunn)

Managers at the campus performing arts hall "rearranged its gift shop following several complaints about an offensive display that showed African American figurines hung by rope from a tree," staff writer Kyle Kaminski reports at the alternative paper.

Pictures of a new sales display at the Wharton Center circulated across social media earlier this morning. It appeared to feature small dolls of prominent African Americans — like Michelle Obama, Diana Ross and Prince — hung by twine from a small wooden tree. And officials said they’ve since recognized their mistake.

A second hanging tree, shown below, had two African American dolls and two white ones dangling from branches in a suffragette tribute -- if that's the right word.

Kaminski quotes the university's response:

"Regardless of the intent of the display, its impact cannot be ignored. People were hurt and offended. We sincerely apologize to our community members and have immediately removed the display.

"We have work to do, and MSU remains committed to creating a culture that is inclusive and safe for all faculty, staff, students and visitors."

Gift shop staff and volunteers will get sensitivity training that "focuses on the impact and understanding of intentional and unintentional racial bias," adds spokeswoman Emily Gerkin Guerrant.

This hanging tree display also was removed Friday morning.

The arts center is named for a 92-year-old author and civic leader, Dolores Wharton, and her 93-year-old husband Clifford, MSU president from 1969-78 and the first African American leader of a major U.S. university. 

Awareness of the unthinking display first was spread by Krystal Rose Davis-Dunn, a Detroit native studying social work at MSU and working as a public health advocate at Ingham County Health Department. "At the Wharton they are hanging prominent black figures from trees," she posted Thursdasy night on Facebook with the photo above. "What a way to honor Black History!"

Her post, shared more than 2,200 times in less than two days, generates a predictable firestorm. Display critics include nationally prominent sociologist Carl S. Taylor, a MSU professor who posts Saturday (in part):

My alma mater, Michigan State University has found an ugly manifestation [of cultural challenges] in one of our true gems. ... What would prompt anyone to such a racist act? ...

There are excuses, rationalizations, posturing that all ignore the truth. Those voices are not taking into account that silence, excuses or downplaying this behavior is exactly what is plaguing this nation at this very moment. ... This is not a moment of excuses. This moment tells me that ignorance is our enemy.

This is ignorance and it is violence normalized in American society. This not kids play, not a college prank. Much more than a training session [is needed]. This is about leadership across the board -- families, individuals, collective bodies, professionals, children and even foes. We need serious action to fight the ignorance of all, not just cherry-picked targets.

Here's a sampling of comments on Davis-Dunn's and Professor Taylor's Facebook pages:

  • "Is there a culture of indifference or outright hostility?" -- James Weathers

  • "Wow this is absolutely disgusting. I cannot believe this was allowed." -- Cambree Page-Strout

  • "This reminds me of the song 'Strange Fruit' by Billie Holiday." -- Vanetta Johnson

  • "Two days ago I was faced with a blatant symbol of racism, ignorance, and stupidity. I went to see a Jazz concert at Wharton Center for Performing Arts. I was still on a musical high after seeing the show, so I decided to walk into the gift shop to peruse. I look up and see this. I felt nothing but disgust, rage, and sadness." -- Paule Equality-Jackson, MSU vocal music student

  • "This is very disappointing and I wish I were there to speak with the individuals who made this decision and all the other individuals that allowed it to continue. Unacceptable." -- Jessica Garcia

  • "They just love seeing us hanging from a tree, don't they" -- Zelena Pace

  • "This is how they choose to start the month of February." -- Lisa Monique

  • "That is beyond unacceptable." -- Marisa Robinson

  • "I showed this picture to my 14-year-old son and he immediately picked up on the underlying message." -- Lisa Tookes

  • "Why would someone think that this is okay?" -- Nucleus Shelton  

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