Anger spread across campus social media last week after a photo posted to Instagram showed a sophomore in the tunnel level of Rush Rhees Library mimicking a painting of a black man with his hands raised.
The painting, “Nameless,” depicts a man in a “Hands up, don’t shoot” position, surrounded by chalked text from the controversial 2018 proposal to arm some Public Safety officers.
“That painting basically sums up how we feel as black students on this campus,” Douglass Leadership House Vice President and junior Ivana Baldie said. “To see someone making a mockery of that not only makes a mockery of the movement but it makes a mockery of us as individuals.”
The painting’s text includes a quote from civil rights activist Ella Baker: “Until the killing of black mothers’ sons is as important as the killing of white mothers’ sons, we who believe in freedom cannot rest.”
In the painting, the black man stands with a solemn face. In the picture posted Feb. 26, the sophomore — who appears white — looks into the camera with an open mouth.
Screenshots circulated online as students criticized the photo as mockery of the Black Lives Matter movement.
“That it occurred during February—Black History Month—and on the anniversary of the murder of Trayvon Martin, seems especially offensive,” read a Feb. 27 email to the student body from Director of the Office of Minority Student Affairs Norman Burnett, Dean of Students Matthew Burns, Director of the Burgett Intercultural Center Jessica Guzmán-Rea, Dean for Diversity Beth Olivares, and Dean of the College Jeffrey Runner.
The sophomore in the photo, Selina Bilsel, apologized the day it was posted.
“I truly did not understand the severity of my actions and the impact I have had on the entire U of R community,” Bilsel wrote on her Instagram story. “I did not realize the context of the photo or the message the artist was trying to communicate.”
Bilsel added, “I have already contacted the Intercultural Center about how to further learn from and address this issue I have caused for our campus.”
Neither she nor sophomore Serena Uong, who took and posted the photo according to members of her sorority, responded to an email from the Campus Times.
Bilsel’s sorority, Kappa Delta, said in a statement to CT, “Our members are deeply dismayed and do not condone the racially insensitive behavior that is indicative of a failure to recognize one’s own privilege.” According to the statement, disciplinary action is being taken.
Uong’s sorority, Sigma Delta Tau, told CT they could not provide a statement at this time because all statements must be approved by the national chapter.
Also circulated online was a screenshot that seemed to show a message from Bilsel saying the picture was taken because her shirt was the same color as the painting.
Baldie said she saw in Bilsel’s apology implications about the visibility of black people to others at UR.
“By her saying that she didn’t know what it was, it shows you how invisible we are as students,” she said.
Minority Student Advisory Board (MSAB) president and senior Tara Eagan — who was, with Baldie, a leader against the 2018 gun proposal — wrote in an email to MSAB members shortly after the photo was publicized, “To not intend to be offensive does not negate the fact that it was.”
She urged members to file bias-related incident reports. The Feb. 27 email from administrators said many such reports on the matter had been received.
The painter of “Nameless,” senior Lara Andree, wrote in an email to CT that she hoped “that through this experience, our administration can become an ally for students of color that feel unsafe and angry as a result of the photo.”
Some were concerned about the magnitude of the response to the photo.
Junior Muamer Brka criticized the student body’s response in a meme posted on the Facebook group Ever Better Memes for Meliora Teens with the caption “p.s. this witch-hunt has to be one of the most ridiculous things i’ve seen in my time at UofR.”
Brka said believes Bilsel’s actions were wrong, but he “saw posts that were calling her to get suspended from school, to get her removed from her sorority, and to get her expelled from school — some people were going that far.”
Public Safety Director Mark Fischer said on Friday that his department reached out to Bilsel due to initial concerns about a few of the social media posts. Fischer told CT that none were directly threatening, the measure was taken out of “an abundance of caution,” and that there is no longer such concern.
Eagan said that it’s important to make sure the photo is seen, to call attention to everyday examples of racism on campus.
“A lot of people come here and they think that [because] we’re at a top 30 university, racism doesn’t happen on this campus,” she said, “and it happens every frickin’ day. Every day it happens.”
Black Student Union president and junior Oluwasegun Owoyele said he hoped administration would take action in response to the photo.
“I think people are tired of restorative circles and ‘How are you feeling? What can we do to change this?’ And there’s no actual change,” he said.
On Monday, students found that the painting “Nameless” had been altered. Andree — the painter — had erased the background text of her painting that morning. She told CT it was something she had meant to since the painting’s creation, but now seemed like a good time.
The only text on the painting now is written at the very bottom: “How are you complicit?”
Editor-in-Chief Wil Aiken, Managing Editor Efua Agyare-Kumi, and Opinions Editor Hailie Higgins contributed reporting.
Correction (3/5/20): Sophomore Serena Uong’s first name was initially misspelled as Selena.