SPOKANE — Students who wore blackface to an off-campus party sparked an outcry that caused classes to be canceled last Thursday so Whitman College students and faculty could attend a daylong diversity symposium.
"This is a day that is dedicated to a campus-wide discussion of issues that are important to our Whitman community," the Walla Walla private school's faculty said in an e-mail to 1,450 students.
"To show their support of this important dialogue, on Nov. 1, the Whitman faculty voted to cancel classes to allow all students the opportunity to participate in Thursday's symposium."
Ruth Wardwell, Whitman's director of public relations, said students wore blackface to mimic the cast of "Survivor: Cook Islands," which divided the teams by ethnic origin at the start of the CBS reality show's current season.
"A series of things happened. It was exacerbated in some ways by modern communications. Photos of the students got on MySpace or Facebook, or something like that," Wardwell said. "It was offensive to some people."
A phone call to the school's Black Student Union rang unanswered, and four of its student leaders did not immediately return e-mails seeking comment.
President George S. Bridges held a "town meeting" on race relations on Sunday. Thursday's symposium was being organized by students and faculty, with the administration's blessing, Wardwell said.
"The college as a whole is looking at becoming a more diverse community in many ways. Not just in the numbers of people of color, but how all of us live in a world that is multicultural."
About 3 percent of Whitman's students are Black; Asians, Hispanics and American Indians account for about 15 percent, and about 80 percent of students are White. Tuition and fees top $30,000 a year, according to its Web site.
The symposium, which was not open to the public, was "based on scholarly research, opinion and individual perspective," Wardwell said.
CBS's segregation experiment drew criticism even before the first episode from Cook Island aired. Some New York City Council members accused CBS Corp. of promoting divisiveness. Producers merged the Black, White, Asian and Latino tribes into two mixed-race teams after just two episodes in September.
Wardwell conceded that canceling classes was unusual, but said "an innocent incident" showed that the time is ripe for a symposium on race.
"It's a great way for people of one race to learn more about customs, traditions, likes, dislikes that people of another race have," she said.
—The Associated Press