Offensive display raises eyebrows at Wharton Center

Staff removes racist imagery after several complaints


FRIDAY, Jan. 31 — The Wharton Center for Performing Arts has rearranged its gift shop following several complaints about an offensive display that showed African American figurines hung by rope from a tree.

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.

"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," said MSU spokeswoman Emily Gerkin Guerrant. "We have work to do, and MSU remains committed to creating a culture that is inclusive and safe for all facult, staff, students and visitors."

The dolls were presumably being sold to commemorate Black History Month, which begins tomorrow, but it’s unclear who decided to organize the sales display in such an obviously offensive manner inside the gift shop.

Gerkin Guerrant, however, said any employees and volunteers responsible for the display will soon undergo racial bias training that "focuses on the impact and understanding of intentional and unintentional racial bias."

Krystal Rose Davis-Dunn posted images of the dolls on her Facebook page earlier this morning. And the feedback was immediate: Black figurines hanging from trees is tied to overtly racist imagery, she said, noting she also later confronted gift shop personnel who have since removed the display from store shelves.

“It’s beyond disturbing,” one person said on Facebook. “Such a blatant lack of cultural humility.”

“The culture of this place can’t be healthy for any black person,” said another.

The Wharton Center, for its part, has a lengthy history of commemorating Black History Month every year. This year, the honorary month will be recognized in part through Damien Sneed’s North American tour of “We Shall Overcome: A Celebration of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.” that is scheduled for Feb. 14 at 8 p.m.

"As we enter Black History Month, it's important we not only recognize the many contributions of African Americans, but we remember history and confront all bias," Gerkin Guerant added. 

Editor's Note: This story has been updated to include additional comments from an MSU spokeswoman. 


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