An entrance to Kansas State University in Manhattan, Kansas. (iStockphoto)

A photo of a former Kansas State University student ignited racial tensions on campus and beyond, the latest sign of how quickly offensive comments can be exposed and spread on social media, and how raw these issues are at many colleges.

The photo, which shows two white women with darkened faces making hand gestures, was captioned “Feels good to finally be a [racial slur]” and was apparently posted on Snapchat by one of them, Paige Shoemaker, who had been a student at Kansas State.

It was quickly shared on social media by people horrified by the image — some shocked, and some saying it was a sign that racism was common on campus.

The photo showed her and her friend with their faces blackened and the comment “Feels good to finally be a [racial slur].”

“Unfortunately, I wasn’t surprised,” said Muenfua Lewis, a senior majoring in finance who is a former president of the Black Student Union. “I think really it just brought to light a lot of the issues underlying at this university and at most universities and things students of color deal with.”

It’s hardly unique to Kansas State, he said, referring to protests over racial issues at campuses nationally, from the University of Missouri to Yale: “I think it’s just ongoing in higher education, with a lot of systemic issues that inhibit historically underrepresented students from being the best they could possibly be on campus.”

Hundreds of students rallied in solidarity with minority students at Yale University in New Haven, Conn., on Nov. 9. (Facebook/John M. Hagedorn)

He said many students are angry, but they are also eager to make real changes at the university. His group has been requesting the creation of a multicultural center, mandating classes on diversity for all students, putting an anti-racism policy in writing and ensuring need-based scholarships are available.

Pat Bosco, the vice president for student life and dean of students, issued a statement Thursday which read, in part:

I have become aware that one of our students posted a racially offensive photo today on social media and used one of the most derogatory words in the English language. This photo has students, faculty, staff and other members of the K-State family upset. It rightly should, as there is no place for racism at our university, regardless of what the intentions may have been. K-State prides itself on being one family, no matter your race, ethnicity, gender, sexual orientation or abilities. All members of the K-State family deserve to be treated with dignity and respect.

Later, Zelia Wiley, the interim associate provost for diversity, issued a statement saying that the “involved person is not currently enrolled at the university. It is our understanding the second individual in the photo is not associated with the university,” and described some of the university’s efforts to address the problem, including support for people upset by the incident.

Wiley praised multicultural groups on campus for raising awareness, saying, “This racially offensive photo with a derogatory message has upset the K-State family and is not in concert with our principles of community. Such messages on social media are harmful to all.”

Shoemaker did not immediately reply to questions Friday. Fusion reported that she had told them via text message that she was wearing a cosmetic clay facial mask in the photo and said: “It was sent in a joking manner to our friends. I am the least racist and most accepting person you will meet. Never would I send it in a derogatory way.”

A campus sorority posted on social media that she was no longer associated with their chapter.

Taj Brimmer, a senior and vice president of the Black Student Union said Bosco had come to meet with students, talking with them for an hour on Thursday and that they appreciated the administration reaching out to students whom she described as “a little disheartened, a little disgusted,” and ensuring they felt supported. Some students also talked Thursday night, in person and via social media, about the issues.

“We’re still shocked about the ignorance of others that are in our community,” Brimmer said. “But we’re just using this as a platform to discuss why the multicultural center is important and why diversity is important. … We have students from small rural white towns who have never seen an African American student before, or even a student of color. Being able to break those barriers, have those awkward conversations — it’s like baking a cake. We have all these ingredients. We have to raise the heat to have it be sweet.”

Jessica Van Ranken, the student body president, said Friday evening in a text message that, “We have seen a great deal of anger and frustration that racist behavior of this nature still exists and is present in the K-State community. Students have also expressed a desire for systemic issues which perpetuate hateful and divisive culture to be addressed. Organizations like the Black Student Union have taken strong stances and made it clear that there is still work to be done in order for our university to move forward in the area of inclusivity and the celebration of diversity.”

 


Kansas State University Black Student Union statement (Courtesy of Bryan Davis)

Jennifer Jenkins contributed to this report.