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University of Wisconsin-Stout's blackface costume controversy

These white people allegedly won an off-campus costume contest voted on by UW-Stout students.

These white people allegedly won an off-campus costume contest voted on by UW-Stout students.

A photo of a Halloween costume gone wrong has triggered a debate at the University of Wisconsin-Stout about racism.

Presumably inspired by '90s Disney flick Cool Runnings, four white people dressed up as the Jamaican Olympic bobsled team. Rehashing the millennial classic might have been a resounding hit if it wasn’t for one not at all insignificant detail — the blackface.

The picture of the alleged students wearing black face paint, Jamaican colors, and a faux bobsled circulated on social media with claims that they were victors of a costume contest voted on by students.

“My initial response was instant anger,” says Desmond Taylor, a recent UW-Stout graduate. “It was a blatant disrespectful post that was mindless.”

Taylor, who was born in Jamaica, now lives in Milwaukee. However, working at a bar near campus while in school he says he often saw people in blackface Halloween costumes.

Although Taylor says he recognizes three of the four people in the photo as UW-Stout students, university spokesman Doug Mell has only confirmed that one attends the school. In a university-wide letter sent Wednesday, Chancellor Bob Meyer wrote that the contest took place at an off-campus business [see update below].

“Incidents of hate or bias are not welcome here,” he wrote.

Emotions were high as the school’s Black Student Union discussed the photo this week.

“We had people leave the room early yesterday, students crying about it,” the group's president Yasmine Coulibaly recalled Thursday. “It was kind of intense.”

While some were “outraged” by the photo, others — including Coulibaly — contend that the Cool Runnings reenactors may not have known the history of blackface or understood that their actions were offensive. But the 21-year-old senior says “racially motivated” incidents, including verbal and physical altercations at bars between students and community members, are common.

“I don’t like to throw shade about schools, but I have to say this school has had a lot of history with this stuff,” Coulibaly says. “It’s like every year something like this happens.”

Mell isn’t aware of any past incidents. However, last fall a white Menomonie-area man blocked a black student in a campus parking lot, called her a racial slur, and threatened to kill her in a fit of road rage. UW-Stout police were reportedly alerted of the incident. The man, Ronald Grundeman, was convicted of a hate crime this week stemming from the confrontation and sentenced to 15 days in jail, according to the Leader-Telegram.

Taylor says he had “countless racist encounters” while attending Stout, involving both students and non-students. He’ll never forget the day he was walking to class when a man in a pickup truck drove by and pelted him in the head with a full can of soda.

“He said, ‘I’m going to kill you,' N-word,” Taylor recalls. “I’m standing there in shock and awe like, ‘Did this really just happen?’”

While Mell says the school is committed to making everyone feel welcome, Coulibaly wants school officials to encourage professors to adopt more culturally diverse curriculums.

“I feel like we only learn about one culture in school and that doesn’t help with situations like this,” she says. “Really, people don’t know that what they’re doing could be offensive because they never get to learn about it.”

[Update]: On Friday, Mell wrote that the chancellor’s letter pegging the costume contest to a “local downtown business” was “based on erroneous information.” The photo and contest took place in Minnesota, he wrote without further specifying.