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Thursday, February 29, 2024
A UW-Madison professor showed a lecture slide in class Monday labeling an image of a black woman as “animals.”

A UW-Madison professor showed a lecture slide in class Monday labeling an image of a black woman as “animals.”

Professor’s PowerPoint slide labels black woman as animal, sparks outrage

A lecture slide that showed a black woman above the word “animals” in a UW-Madison lecture Monday sparked student outrage on social media.

A student in the class tweeted a picture Tuesday of the PowerPoint slide, which appeared in a lecture of Botany 123. The message posted with the photo read “UW is definitely still #TheRealUW if y’all was confused.”

Professor Caitilyn Allen, the instructor of the course, said the day’s lecture topic was the Irish potato famine, which was caused by an organism called oomycetes. In an attempt to illustrate that oomycetes are no more related to fungi than to plants and animals, she showed a rough tree of life diagram featuring the controversial image.

Allen said at this point in the lecture a student asked her why she chose the image of the woman.

“I explained that too often scientific images represent all of humanity as a white male and I wanted to present humanity in a more representative way and especially as a farmer because this class is about agriculture,” Allen said. “I've done research in both Uganda and Guatemala and I respect and admire the women farmers of the developing tropics.”

She said another student approached her after lecture and explained how attaching the word “animals” to a picture of a black woman was offensive, because of the non-biological, derogatory implications.

Allen addressed the issue and apologized in lecture Wednesday.

“I feel it was a mistake for me to have used that image because in addition to my intended and inclusive biological meaning the image also communicated an unintended and negative social message,” Allen said to The Daily Cardinal. “I’m distressed that I inadvertently offended students. Certainly my intention was the opposite, but I do understand how it came across in a very bad way.”

She said she has not received any more feedback about the image. She has used the slide in previous semesters, but this is the first time it has received criticism. Allen said she will not use the image in her PowerPoint in future semesters.

UW-Madison spokesperson Meredith McGlone said the university is aware of the tweet, and reached out to the student, but had not heard back as of 9:28 p.m. Tuesday. She said the university provided the student a link to the bias incident report page.

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“It's really important to know that help is available to students encountering issues like this in the classroom through the bias response team and other resources, particularly within the Division of Student Life,” McGlone said.

Nina Bertelsen contributed to this report. 

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