COLLEGE PLACE — An occurrence of what many view as stark racism is being investigated by Walla Walla University officials.

Reports that a group of students distributed photos of themselves in blackface with “Wakanda” and the university’s official logo superimposed on it earlier this month has caused backlash locally and beyond.

The image was posted March 11 on social media app Snapchat, said WWU spokeswoman Emily Muthersbaugh.

It depicts six students, five of whom have faces covered in a black substance, according to an article published Thursday in the independent, Seventh-day Adventist-based magazine Spectrum.

Superimposed over the photo is a hashtag: “#prettyHurts.”

Spectrum writer Jared Wright explained that “Wakanda” is a fictional African country presented in the recent Marvel movie “Black Panther.” The film broke ground as the first superhero film with a predominantly black cast, Wright said.

The origins of blackface can be traced to minstrel show days, when white actors would routinely use grease paint on their faces while depicting plantation slaves and freed blacks on stage, according to a 2014 Vox article.

“To be clear, these weren’t flattering representations. At all,” wrote Vox author Jenée Desmond-Harris.

“Taking place against the backdrop of a society that systematically mistreated and dehumanized black people, they were mocking portrayals that reinforced the idea that African-Americans were inferior in every way.”

The combination of elements in the students’ photo caused immediate outrage when it was shared on Facebook, Wright said in Thursday’s Spectrum article.

“Perceived as a racist mockery of the Black Panther film and of black people, commenters on social media called for swift action from the university and punishment for the students,” he wrote. “Facebook users mobilized to contact Walla Walla University administration demanding answers.”

That’s when school officials began hearing of the “anti-black, racist, social media post involving six students on our College Place campus,” they said in a released statement.

“As soon as we became aware of the post, a special task force was formed and met with five of the students involved … Demeaning others is reprehensible, and this social media post is unacceptable behavior,” according to the release.

Officials said the university condemns racism and takes seriously its mission to value all people, plus provide safety and security on its campuses.

Wright’s article pointed out that many white social media users came to the defense of the students in question, saying that the “pretty hurts” hashtag showed they were simply using facial peel treatments, not being racist.

Comments in response to an article posted to Facebook expressed incredulity that the blackface incident could be interpreted as overtly racial.

Religious segregation

Racism and prejudice has long been an issue within the Adventist church, although it didn’t start out that way, said Tim Golden of Walla Walla University.

Golden is a professor of philosophy and director of the Donald Blake Center for the Study for the Study of Race, Ethnicity and Culture at the university.

Seventh-day Adventism was formally recognized as an organization in 1863. While it’s now a global church, SDA is an American-born theology and bore the societal ills in place at that time. Golden said.

It was a time of slavery in the United States; in 1860, the country had a slave population of nearly 4 million.

Many Seventh-day Adventist founders were ardent abolitionists, but when the time came to evangelize the Adventist theology in the Deep South, it was decided that offering segregated churches was safer for all.

“Basically it wasn’t safe to have integrated churches,” Golden said, explaining the church followed Jim Crow laws for the protection of its worshippers.

However, by the 1950s, something else had evolved out of that original intent, he pointed out.

“There was a theological shift, away from segregation for safety but for the purposes of maintaining Jim Crow,” he said. “And so we have many of the problems we have in the church today.”

A separation of white and black Adventists can be seen in interpretation of biblical passages and worship styles, Golden added.

“The church today maintains the level of racial segregation not by church policy but by practice,” he said.

In larger, more diverse Adventist communities, black members often attend separate churches as a matter of comfort. At Walla Walla University, students of color are offered a church service oriented to a style they are more accustomed to, he said.

“It’s called the Berean Fellowship,” Golden said. “Of course, everyone is welcome to attend.”

Historically, Walla Walla University is not known to be friendly to people of color. The school acknowledges that and is working to address damage from racism, Golden said, noting he was speaking as a black man who voluntarily came to the school from the East Coast.

He is one of four recent people-of-color hires, including Alareece Collie, executive pastor at Walla Walla University Church and the first woman of color hired in that position, Golden said.

Goals of inclusion

Walla Walla University administrators said they recognize the imbalance of diversity on campuses and for many years have worked to promote inclusion. This incident has the potential to undo that work, they added, “and we are determined to not let that happen.”

The social media post will be thoroughly investigated by the Student Conduct Board, which will determine appropriate sanctions, officials said.

According to the university’s student handbook, consequences for violation of the student conduct code can range from loss of privileges to expulsion to withholding a degree until all sanction actions have been completed, Muthersbaugh said.

Under federal law, the school cannot release specific disciplinary and other student information.

In their statement, school officials said many people have felt hurt and angered by the recent display of racism, on campus and beyond. The school has scheduled sessions to facilitate a sharing of concerns when students, who have been on spring break for the past week, return to campus Monday.

“Additional campus resources, including counseling and spiritual support, are available. The Donald Blake Center for the Study of Race, Ethnicity, and Culture is also considering opportunities to engage and support students in conversation, and the university is planning other opportunities to educate and remind our campus community about our values and the impact of how we treat one another,” officials said in a statement.

As well, the school said it will address things head-on with diversity and sensitivity training, education and prayer.

Golden said the Snapchat posting is offensive and racist, “and it’s important to address the damage. The university is in a place where it has to protect its reputation.”

Things didn’t get this way overnight and won’t change overnight, Golden pointed out.

“It’s going to take incidences like this picture to move in the right direction,” he said. “As awful as it is, it ultimately becomes the catalyst for something good to happen.”

Sheila Hagar can be reached at sheilahagar@wwub.com or 526-8322.

Sheila Hagar has written for the Walla Walla Union-Bulletin since 1998. Sheila covers health, social services and city government in Milton-Freewater, Athena and Weston in the Walla Walla Valley.