Letters to the Editor

Letter: A call for lecturer diversity

Monday, October 24, 2016

To the Editor:

There are many gates at Brown and even more gatekeepers — explicit and implicit — that contribute to the University’s history of institutional racism. Last week I attended a lecture and witnessed one of these gates at work. The 24th Annual Harriet Sheridan Literature and Medicine Lecture was held in room 117 in MacMillan Hall and hosted Gavin Francis to speak on the topic of parallels and metaphors between writing and healing.

Like others, I was impressed by Francis’ accomplishments not only in medicine but in worldly travel and book writing. As the lecture and dinner continued into the evening, I observed Francis’ predilection for the classic literature of the Western canon and the humanist lens such interest gave him. Yet the limitations were apparent. When I asked him about non-white and non-Western authors worth reading, Francis was not able to contribute much beyond acknowledging that other cultures also have a long history of healing. Such a stunted answer came to me as a surprise considering that Francis had traveled from Scotland to New Zealand by motorcycle and had spent several months in India.

I do not fault Francis: It is difficult to answer questions on the fly and even more difficult to think through a lifetime’s mental library. But I do think this lecturer’s disinterest with diversity and non-canonical work must be placed in the larger history of the Sheridan lecture series. According to my research, in the past 24 years, the Sheridan series has invited 13 white men, eight white women, three men of color and no women of color. If I use these statistics, then as the lecture approaches its 100th year perhaps only 12 or so men of color, while maybe no women of color will have spoken at the Sheridan lecture podium. I think that is an example of institutional racism. We must actively resist it.

Annual lectures contribute to the Brown experience, and as such we must expect them to embrace President Christina Paxson’s P’19 “Pathways to Diversity and Inclusion: An Action Plan for Brown University.” I call on the board of the Sheridan Lecture to actively look for lecturers who identify beyond the pervasive whiteness of the non-fiction and narrative medicine writing circles. Women of color writing about health and medicine exist and deserve recognition. It might take a little more work and require asking others and networking, but it is a task the members of this university are more than ready to undertake. I further call on the leaders of all annual lectures to look at their own history of lecturer diversity. Every small gate we open will bring in more and more fresh air.

Joey DiZoglio MD’20