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. And it'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.
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 later tweeted that some people had made "aggressive & ignorant comments" during the question-and-answer session. One white student, she said in a statement, "questioned whether I had the authority to address issues of race and white privilege on campus." Students in the room began shouting at each other, she said, until she asked faculty to follow up with the questioner and other students who were upset.
Some students apparently walked out of the talk and congregated nearby. At one point, Capó Crucet said, students were waiting outside of her hotel, so the university changed her accommodations.
It's unclear how or when, but students started burning the author's books,which was chronicled by social media postings:
so after our FYE book's author came to my school to talk about it... these people decide to burn her book because "it's bad and that race is bad to talk about". white people need to realize that they are the problem and that their privilege is toxic. author is a woman of color. pic.twitter.com/HiX4lGT7Ci
- elaina⭐️ (@elainaaan) October 10, 2019
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 that 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."
Despite the response from some students, Capó Crucet said others told her they could relate to the protagonist in the book and were thankful Georgia Southern had assigned it.
"To think of those students watching as a group of their peers burned that story -effectively erasing them on the campus they are expected to think of as a safe space -feels devastating," she said in a statement released Friday.
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 agoin 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 and set a fire, and police broke up the gathering.
Experts say threats to free speech on college campuses usually come from the political left, 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 the 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.
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Latinx author speaks on race. Georgia Southern students burn her book