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Michigan State removes display of dolls showing black leaders hanging from tree

Michigan State University is apologizing for a campus gift shop display of black historical figures arranged in a way that looked like they were hanging by ropes from a tree.

A spokeswoman for the university released a statement Friday on the “inappropriate and insensitive” display at the Wharton Center for Performing Arts gift shop, where a tree-like rack held dolls resembling former President Barack Obama, former First Lady Michelle Obama, and abolitionist Harriet Tubman.

“Regardless of the intent of the display, its impact cannot be ignored – people were hurt and offended,” the statement read. “We sincerely apologize to our community members and have immediately removed the display.”

Employees and volunteers at the gift shop will now undergo racial-bias training that highlights the impact of intentional and unintentional prejudice, according to the statement by university spokeswoman 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,” the statement continued. “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.”

A black graduate student told the Lansing State Journal that she was offended when she saw the display during a recent jazz concert at the center’s gift shop. Some white historical figures were also depicted, including Abraham Lincoln and Beethoven, but four or five similar trees were adorned with “a lot more” black leaders, she said.

“It’s African American people hanging from twine,” Krystal Rose Davis-Dunn, 31, told the newspaper. “That is problematic. You’re lynching black people from trees.”

Davis-Dunn, who posted a photo of the display onto Facebook on Thursday, said she spent the day before her visit in meetings with university leaders on how to bring more diversity to the 49,000-student college – where 21.5 percent enrolled are students of color, according to university data.

“I went to the jazz concert to escape from all of that and unwind,” Davis-Dunn said.

The display marks the third incident during this school year that has been blasted as racist and offensive by some black students, according to the Lansing State Journal.

In October, a black student found what appeared to be a noose on her dorm room door. Later that month, a professor’s survey was removed from a university website over complaints that it contained racist and offensive language, the newspaper reported.

“Until we start getting at the root of what’s there, it’s hard for us to move forward,” Davis-Dunn said. “This is the undoing of 400 years of racial trauma and oppression. The things that happened to people in the fight for equality is not laughable. It doesn’t happen very blatantly or very explicitly anymore, but it is institutionalized.”