A 31-year-old graduate was horrified by the display but none of the staff at the gift shop found it problematic.
A gift shop on the campus of Michigan State University has come under fire for depicting figurines of black historical figures hanging from trees. Michigan State University issued an apology for the "inappropriate and insensitive" display at the Wharton Center for Performing Arts gift shop and had the ornaments removed, reported CNN. It came to notice after images of the same were posted online and the university faced a backlash on Facebook. The gift shop had used a rack that resembled a tree to hang the prominent African-American figurines including Prince, Harriet Tubman Michelle Obama, Barack Obama. This comes just days into Black History Month.
The depiction of the black figurines was first noticed by an African American graduate student at MSU. Krystal Rose Davis-Dunn, 31, who attended a jazz concert at the Wharton Center for Performing Arts, had stepped into the gift shop. She noticed that the figurines that were on display right at the front of the shop. It looked like were being lynched. They also noticed a few more trees and a Christmas tree with other black figurines hanging on them. A few white leaders including Abraham Lincoln and Beethoven were also hung on the trees but it was primarily prominent black people.
Davis-Dunn was enraged by the display but still unsure she was the only one who could spot the problematic display. She checked with the gift shop employees but they couldn't see what was wrong with it. "They're black people hanging from trees," said Davis-Dunn. "I mean, lynching? It was just not registering with them." She took a couple of pictures to check with her friends and they were just as angry as her. Davis-Dunn took to Facebook and shared the images, writing: What a way to honor Black History! The symbolism in these photos explains itself. I don’t care about the artist intent nor the Wharton Center for Performing Arts gift shop intent, it’s the impact of it and the culmination of all the culturally insensitive events that have happened at MSU.
A Michigan State University spokesman issued an apology and said it would impart racial bias training to the staff at the gift shop. "We were made aware of an inappropriate and insensitive display at the Wharton Center gift shop which used a tree-like rack to hold historical black figures. 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," wrote Emily Gerkin Guerrant. "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. 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."
Davis-Dunn said there were a few figurines of white leaders but given the history of lynching, the images of leaders 'hanging' would bother African-Americans more than white people seeing prominent leaders displayed on the tree. "Seeing these prominent civil rights leaders hanging from trees felt like a degradation of the women suffrage movement and white synthesizers that were lynched during that era of civil rights," wrote Davis-Dunn in a post. Non-people of color may not be provoked or triggered by these displays, but for me and the group of people of color I was with... it was a visceral experience."
"That display was just a physical representation of the institutionalized racism within the university," said Dabis-Dunn. A 2019 Michigan State enrollment report revealed that only 7% of the student body was black. "There are people in this university that don't want me here, that do not welcome me and are not able to meet my needs as a woman of color."