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Larry Learns a Lesson

The sexism scandal’s over—but there’s still work to be done

By Sarah M. Seltzer, POP AND FIZZ

Larry Summers may not know what he’s talking about, but when he talks about what he knows, he can be surprisingly perceptive.

The strongest Summers-lovers were probably fully behind the Prez when he said a few years back that certain vitriolic anti-Israel comments could be “anti-Semitic in effect if not intent.” Summers is Jewish (and so am I, for the record). When his own group was involved, he showed sensitivity and subtlety—even if his critics missed it. Rationally or not, many Jews’ identities are tied strongly to Israel’s. So the virulence of some anti-Israel sentiment can hit us where it hurts, even if, like me, we disagree with Israel’s policies.

Back then, Summers knew that no one in a community talks into a void. He realized that it’s important to keep one’s audience in mind, their personal experiences, their feelings of displacement or alienation, their fear—that’s the “effect” he was talking about.

Although he was blasted for those comments, they showed an understanding of subjectivity which he hadn’t demonstrated in his well-publicized spat with Cornel West. Perhaps he saw that notorious argument as a man-to-man talk, without realizing how important West was as a role model and teacher to so many students at Harvard. And when West packed his bags, Summers’ actions were taken by many, in Harvard’s black community and beyond, as threatening—in effect if not intent.

And then a few weeks ago Summers decided to talk about women in science, downplaying the role of discrimination when it came to their scarcity. Not a woman himself, Summers made comments that were sexist in effect if not intent.

Summers couldn’t apply the understanding he had about anti-Semitism when it left the range of his own experience. Certainly, putting oneself in the shoes of someone whose secondary sex characteristics or skin color are different is not something one can do with an economic regression. It’s hard to have such awareness; we all make insensitive comments without meaning it, and we all take our privilege for granted at times. We learn how to treat other people with understanding only through experience.

Maybe before this incident, Summers thought “innate differences” proved that he, a man, simply couldn’t demonstrate that kind of empathy or understanding. But he’s learned his lesson. The experiences of women, his friends and colleagues, many from cultural milieus or on career trajectories similar to his own, have turned him from brash to contrite.

It’s a moment to seize. Larry Summers was hired to “shake things” up at Harvard and move us into the new millennium. This means, among other things, shaking off the vestiges of sexism, racism, and classism that are still very much present here, where existence as an undergraduate means having to deal with the legacy of a very, very old boys club. It’s not always easy.

When you have to walk past eight final club mansions owned and occupied by (admittedly changing but still largely) rich white male undergraduates—just look at the parking lot outside the Fly—it’s not easy. When you stare up at portraits in every dining hall and classroom and see no one that looks like you, when your dorms are named after known bigots—Former University President A. Lawrence Lowell makes Summers look positively PC—it’s not easy.

When your classmates assume you’re rich just because you’re white, or that you’re on financial aid because you’re black, when you’re the only woman in your physics class, when your friends and roommates stand in the back of their final club and leer at short-skirted girls (or they are those short-skirted girls), it’s not easy.

When books written by people from your ethnic group, gender, or sexual orientation are one-tenth of the curriculum in a class, it’s not easy.

When feminist and gay are still dirty words, when your peers say you should just “get over” your worries about racial inequality, when they drag you out to a fancy birthday dinner because they assume you can afford it, it’s not easy.

Maybe after this week, Larry Summers can finally understand all this. It isn’t easy for him either. He makes the kind of mistake we all make, and is genuinely chagrined, but still finds himself in the eye of a still-brewing storm and mounting faculty criticism.

Let’s hope that once the faculty airs its grievances, we all—Summers included-—stay focused on opening Harvard’s doors to all, and closing Harvard’s legacy of exclusion for good. Then this scandal can have a positive result, dare I say it, in effect if not intent.

Sarah M. Seltzer ’05 is a English concentrator in Lowell House. Her column appears on alternate Fridays.

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