Harvard dismissed a Title IX complaint from a transgender student this month who alleged comments Anthropology professor Arthur M. Kleinman made during a public confrontation in a General Education class in September constituted sexual misconduct.
The complaint stemmed from a heated exchange during General Education 1093: “Who Lives, Who Dies, Who Cares? Reimagining Global Health” over Zoom Sept. 15, during which Kleinman told the student, Kai De Jesus ’24, that she would likely be murdered in rural China due to her gender identity. Kleinman apologized a day later for expressing himself “somewhat clumsily” and told the class he regretted any harm his comment had caused.
De Jesus filed a Title IX complaint against Kleinman over the incident on Oct. 1, alleging that the comment was unwelcome conduct based on her gender identity that created a hostile environment for her in the classroom.
“I no longer feel as comfortable speaking up in class or asking questions,” she wrote in the complaint, which she provided to The Crimson. “It deeply affected my education.”
The exchange began with a discussion of 20th-century philosopher Frantz Fanon’s writings, which defend the use of violence and lay out the difficulty of including white people in anti-colonial struggles. Kleinman expressed his opposition to that position during the lecture, arguing that violence begets further violence.
During the question and answer session, De Jesus argued Fanon’s theories should not be dismissed outright because, as a transgender woman of color, she had benefited from the exclusion of white people in certain contexts because it made her feel safer. De Jesus said she began her question with “while I don’t believe we should kill all white people” before arguing that Fanon’s theories have some merit, but she believes Kleinman and others misheard her.
During her question, she referenced a quote attributed to 20th-century Nation of Islam leader Elijah Muhammad calling white people blond-haired, blue-eyed devils.
Kleinman said in an interview that De Jesus’s question amounted to a “diatribe against whites.”
“It seemed to me for sure this was bordering on hate speech, and I had to intervene,” he said.
Kleinman said he meant his response to explain that in a global health course, it is important to recognize that violence takes place in many different societies and is not only perpetrated by white people.
Kleinman said he “completely” rejected any view that the comment was a personal attack towards De Jesus or transphobic. Faced with the same situation again in the future, he said he would respond the same way, only being much more careful with his word choice.
“I apologize for a clumsy use of language, but my intention and what I was trying to do was to deal with something that I feel you can't just let stand in any course, but certainly a course like this,” he said.
De Jesus said she filed the complaint because “it shouldn’t be normal” for a professor to discuss their student’s potential murder.
“I’m not looking for punishment, I’m looking for safety,” she said. “I just don’t see how I’m supposed to learn when I’m being told I’m going to be killed, and I don't see what academic usage that type of language serves.”
De Jesus said she has suffered violence due to her gender identity in the past. A man tried to drown her after she came out as transgender and wore nail polish, she said. She also cited her arrest by Boston Police last year while she was protesting at a controversial “straight pride” parade; the charges were later dropped.
After a month-long investigation, Harvard’s Office for Dispute Resolution — which investigates formal Title IX complaints — dismissed the complaint, finding that the alleged conduct would not have violated FAS policy as it was not “pervasive” or “objectively severe,” according to a letter sent to De Jesus Nov. 6.
Harvard spokespeople Jonathan L. Swain and Rachael Dane declined to comment on behalf of ODR and the Faculty of Arts and Sciences.
Several students in the course said Kleinman’s comment made them uncomfortable, and bordered on hypocrisy because the course bills itself as focused on decolonization and caregiving.
“That kind of comment is completely unacceptable, particularly within this global health context that we are thinking about, ‘how do we best care for people,’” Alejandro C. Eduarte ’23 said. “It was really disheartening to see firsthand that Kai — a trans woman of color — was directly just not valued in that class.”
Jenny J. Yoon ’23 said Kleinman’s comment “didn't seem right” to her in that it erased individual experiences. She added that she felt faculty should note their own backgrounds and positions of power over students when responding to students’ opinions.
“It’s important for everyone’s narratives and experiences to have equal say, in that kind of situation where there’s an inherent power dynamic,” she said. “I think there could have been more productive ways to go about the discourse.”
Two students, however, noted they felt De Jesus’s comment leading into the discussion was inappropriate.
Shah Faesal, a Kennedy School student enrolled in the class, wrote in an email that “analyzed reductively,” De Jesus’s question did seem to justify “extermination of the white race to bring an end to the race problem.”
“The subject was very explosive, and the heat was expectedly high,” Faesal wrote. “But then in a debate, where the only objective is to bring out the issues and learn, if we respect one person’s right to ask controversial questions, we must respect another person’s right to give controversial answers.”
Medical School professor Salmaan Keshavjee, who co-teaches the course with Kleinman and two other professors, called the incident a “painful episode,” but said he believed Kleinman had no intent to harm.
Lindsey M. “Marty” Alexander, the class’s head teaching fellow, said in the 10 years Kleinman has been her mentor, she has only known him to bring a caregiving mindset to his interactions with students.
“I know that it pains him that this exchange left any student feeling upset, and he has apologized for it twice now,” she said. “We want to create an inclusive, safe classroom and we took actions that we hoped would do just that.”
—Staff writer James S. Bikales can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @jamepdx.