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Wharton Center removes display of black figures after racial bias complaints

February 3, 2020
<p>The Wharton Center photographed on Aug. 23, 2019.</p>

The Wharton Center photographed on Aug. 23, 2019.

Photo by Matt Schmucker | The State News

A model of prominent African American figures was removed from the Wharton Center for Performing Arts at Michigan State on Jan. 31 after complaints of its offensive presentation.

“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,” University Spokesperson Emily Guerrant said. “Regardless of the intent of the display, its impact cannot be ignored — people were hurt and offended.”

The Wharton Center agreed to racial bias training with employees and volunteers that will center its attention on the difference between intentional and unintentional racial bias, Guerrant said.

“We sincerely apologize to our community members and have immediately removed the display,” Guerrant said via email. “As we enter Black History Month, it’s important we not only recognize the many contributions of African Americans, but we remember the history and confront all bias."

Director of Patron Services at the Wharton Center, Nina Silbergleit sent an apology to staff and said Wharton Gifts will be closed this coming week and will likely re-open on Saturday.

"I can only say with full humility and a heavy heart I missed it and I am sorry with every ounce of my being that it has caused so much hurt and outrage for everyone, from the people who called out the display originally, to the Wharton Center staff, volunteers and community, MSU and the Lansing community at large," Silbergleit said via email.

Silbergleit said "the display was done with no malice," but she understands that fails to make it any less heinous.

"Saying that it was a bad judgement is certainly not going to calm the waters," she said.

Genetics senior Zaria Contejean said she wants MSU to take action instead of issuing an apology because it shows that they don’t respect the black community.

“We are constantly saying the same things,” Contejean said. “It kind of makes it ... a hard environment to feel comfortable in and we are consistently seeing things like this with no progress.

Psychology senior Labria Weaver said incidents like this occur often.

“It’s just really inconsiderate and completely contradictory to the diversity that they try to put on this campus and make it seem like it’s their main goal, but they don’t take into consideration the people that might be affected by the statements or things they do that really hurt us,” Weaver said.

Accounting junior Gabriella Winters said her concern was that nobody suggested that the display went through many people and somebody should have thought maybe they should have avoided this or "ask a black person how they would feel if they saw this."

“I am a little disgusted, especially with the previous instances of racial insensitivity last semester,” Winters said. “You would think that MSU would be more considerate of other races and maybe have more people of color on their decision making bodies so that incidents like this wouldn’t happen.”

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