/A professor spoke about whiteness at Georgia Southern University. Students burned her book.

A professor spoke about whiteness at Georgia Southern University. Students burned her book.

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A Latina author challenged students at Georgia Southern University to think about their whiteness. Some of them refused and burned her books instead.
JaQuaylon Taylor / USA TODAY

A Latina author challenged students at Georgia Southern University to think about their whiteness. Some of them refused, and burned copies of her book instead. Andit’s 2019.

Jennine Capó Crucet, an author and professor at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, was at the university to give a talk for a reading series for first-year students. Her book, Make Your Home Among Strangers, is about a Hispanic girl from a poor family who has been accepted into a selective college in New York. (The author didn’t immediately respond to a request for comment from USA TODAY.)

During a question-and-answer session, some students questioned why the author had been critical of white people. 

“I noticed that you made a lot of generalizations about the majority of white people being privileged,” one student said, according to the student newspaper, The George-Anne. 

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Capó Crucet tweeted later that some people had made “aggressive & ignorant comments,” during the question-and-answer session. 

Some students apparently walked out of the talk and congregated nearby. It’s unclear how or when, but they started burning the author’s books, which was chronicled by social media postings: 

The George-Anne also posted pictures of students criticizing Capó Crucet for making comments critical of “white people.” Many students said they disagreed with the actions of those burning the books. 

John Lester, a vice president of communications at the university, wrote in an email the incident was within the students’ First Amendment rights. But, he said, “book burning does not align with Georgia Southern’s values nor does it encourage the civil discourse and debate of ideas.”  

A second event was canceled at the request of the author’s representative, Lester said.

Russell Willerton, chair of the university’s department of writing and linguistics, said his department had disavowed the incident. “We were compelled to show our support for Prof. Crucet, to call our students to handle their frustrations in better ways, and to say that the actions of a few do not represent the Georgia Southern University that we are proud to serve.” 

The student body at Georgia Southern University is 63% white, about a quarter black and 6% Hispanic, according to data from the federal government.

Book burning has long been considered one of the most aggressive forms of anti-intellectualism, a reputation earned in part by similar activities that took place nearly a century ago in Nazi Germany. College campuses, in contrast, pride themselves on their openness to intellectual diversity. 

That hasn’t stopped conservatives from accusing college campuses of political indoctrination. In fact, about 3 in 4 Republicans say colleges protect students from views they might find offensive, according to a recent report from the Pew Research Center. 

In recent years, protesters on college campuses have shut down conservative speakers in high-profile incidents that added fuel to those concerns. Among the most prominent was a speech at the University of California at Berkeley by Milo Yiannopoulos, a far-right provocateur. In that case, protesters broke windows, a fire was set, and police broke up the gathering. 

Threats to free speech on college campuses usually come from the political left within a campus, who are accused of not being able to handle opposing beliefs. Critics sometimes call these people “snowflakes.” On the other hand, conservative criticisms usually come from off campus, said Jeffrey Sachs, a professor at Acadia University who writes about issues of free speech on campus. In this one case, that trend has been reversed. 

“Here the ‘snowflakes’ at issue are not social justice warriors on the left, they are the social justice warriors of the right,” he said. “In this case, the snowflake critique meets its mirror image.”

Conservative students may turn to outlets like Campus Reform or the College Fix, two media outlets critical of left, to leak stories about their professors or administrators to express their disapproval, Sachs said. But this incident is more direct.

Sachs said he had no issue with the students posing tough questions to the author during the question-and-answer session. And he cautioned against chalking up the event as part of a larger trend of free speech issues on campuses. But he did say the incident was striking regardless. 

“It certainly strains the norms of what we expect from students,” Sachs said. “These are rare episodes, but they deserve to be taken seriously.”   

Education coverage at USA TODAY is made possible in part by a grant from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. The Gates Foundation does not provide editorial input.

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