A Boise businesswoman says she meant no offense for the remarks she made during a University of Idaho commencement address that has since sparked criticism from attendees.
Meg Carlson, president and CEO of Boise-based Prosperity Organic Foods, has come under scrutiny while talking about accepting a job nearly 30 years ago inside a smaller division of a company known as the “black cousin.”
The university released a public statement Friday saying they do not condone Carlson’s comment.
Carlson, who is white, is also the chair of Boise’s elite Arid Club. She made the remarks Wednesday as the commencement speaker at a graduation ceremony at the university’s Boise satellite campus.
Carlson is a graduate of the university – which is based in Moscow, in the northern region of the state.
“What I said is that I went to a smaller division in the company, internally that division was looked at like the ‘black cousin,’ ” Carlson said in a phone interview with The Associated Press on Friday. “I was telling a story. I thought it was a positive story because (the job) was an opportunity for me.”
Carlson declined to define what black cousin meant and did not specify what company she worked for at the time, but instead added that her comment during the address was not intended to be a racial slur.
She also questioned the need to cover the commencement in the news because she described it as a “private event.” The speech was open to the public and tickets were not required for attendees. She did not respond when this was pointed out to her by a reporter.
Carlson said the majority of her speech focused on her career and overcoming challenges.
“The comment was made at the beginning of my speech when I was talking about how I was tenacious and able to be selected to go to work right out of college,” Carlson said.
Bruce Hansen, who attended the event to celebrate his son’s graduation and has three adopted black children, described the remarks as shocking.
“I don’t think she meant to be offensive but you still don’t expect that from educated people,” Hansen said. “It hurts.”
Hansen said he approached Carlson after the event to ask her about the comment, where she told him that “black cousin” was how the employees at the time talked.
The university released the following statement regarding Carlson’s comment.
“The University of Idaho is an inclusive, welcoming institution and does not condone the comment nor the racial implications made by keynote speaker Meg Carlson at the UI Boise Commencement. Such a statement is unacceptable and inconsistent with our values of inclusiveness. The choice of Meg Carlson as commencement speaker was based on her professional success and her alumni status.
“UI did not have knowledge of the content of her address prior to the Wednesday event,” according to the statement. “UI is committed to providing an inclusive and respectful environment in which all our students, faculty and staff can succeed.”
The Idaho Statesman contributed to this report.