Letter to the Editor: Professor Gretchen North issues an apology for the Orientation panel

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In response to the letter from students concerning the faculty panel at Orientation, I would like to apologize for getting the panel off on the wrong foot. Quite simply, in setting the tone for the panel’s commentary, I blew it. The faculty members on the panel were asked to speak to the students about the summer reading, as they have in the past, and as is also customary, we were selected from different disciplines. As a biologist, I was asked to address the question of the biological reality of race, a topic that also came up in a number of the summer reading assignments. I began my comments by saying, “I am probably the least qualified member of the Occidental Biology Department to address this topic.” However, I then went on to say that the department takes the issue of race very seriously, has frequently discussed race and the literature on it formally and informally, and often addresses race and related topics in class. 

In preparation for the panel, I read or re-read several articles on the biology of race, most notably one that I recommend to all who are interested, “Taking Race Out of Human Genetics: Engaging a Century-long Debate About the Role of Race in science, ” by Michael Yudell, Dorothy Roberts, Rob DeSalle and Sarah Tishkoff (2016; Science 351 (6273), 564-565). Roberts was a visiting scholar at Occidental in 2017, and I attended a highly enlightening discussion she led in Professor Renée Baran’s course on genetics. Thus, though there are others at the college more qualified than I to open a discussion on the biology of race, I am not unqualified. Certainly, the two other faculty members on the panel, professors Patricia Cabral and Aleem Hossain, are highly qualified by their own professional achievements and disciplinary interests to address multiple issues pertaining to people marginalized by race, ethnicity and other forms of identity. Panel moderator Associate Dean Ron Buckmire, beyond his own professional work, has initiated several programs and policies to make science and math more inclusive at Occidental.

 I personally, however, am guilty of speaking too lightly of profoundly serious matters. My choice of words was meant to downplay my role as an expert and to emphasize the importance of student voices and student actions in my classes, in the life of the college, and in the world at large. My comment that white invaders “behaved impolitely” was meant to be sarcastic, but I should know by now that one does not use euphemisms for rape and enslavement. I apologized for my choice of words when called out at Orientation, and I repeat that apology now. Words matter, and I am deeply sorry to have used the wrong ones.

Sincerely,

Gretchen North

Professor of Biology

Occidental College