Students burn book after talk on white privilege by Hispanic author

Later talk by the novelist had to be cancelled as the university could not guarantee her safety

Alex Horton
Saturday 12 October 2019 12:41 BST
The incident involved students from Georgia State University
The incident involved students from Georgia State University (Getty)

The white students gathered around the fire, speculating why parts of the book were not already engulfed in flames.

“It’s a hard cover!” shouts one male student in a video amid laughs as ripped-out pages burn, torn from a novel written by a Hispanic author who had suggested white people are treated differently in society.

That angered some students at Georgia Southern University.

In response to Jennine Capo Crucet’s talk on the Statesboro, Georgia, campus Wednesday, where she focused her discussion on white privilege, students gathered at a grill and torched her novel “Make Your Home Among Strangers” – about a first-generation Cuban-American woman struggling to navigate a mostly white elite college.

The tension began at a question-and-answer session following the talk, the university’s student newspaper the George-Anne reported.

“What makes you believe that it’s OK to come to a college campus, like this, when we are supposed to be promoting diversity on this campus, which is what we’re taught,” one student said at the microphone, the paper reported. “I don’t understand what the purpose of this was.”

Ms Crucet responded that white privilege was evident within the question itself.

“What’s so heartbreaking for me and what is so difficult in this moment right now is to literally have read a talk about this exact moment happening and it’s happening again. That is why a different experience, the white experience, is centred in this talk,” she said.

Following the event, Ms Crucet praised some of the “very amazing, brilliant students” she met.

“At the signing, we hugged & cried,” she tweeted. “I’m happy to know them and also legit worried for their safety.”

Other students had a different reaction and used photos and videos to troll Ms Crucet on Twitter. One student sent a photo of ripped pages to Ms Crucet over Twitter.

“Enjoy this picture of your book!” a tweet captured by the George-Anne said. “Have a nice night, Jennine. :-)”

That tweet and others collected by the paper were later deleted. That particular account, from a student identifying as Caitlin, appears to be entirely deleted.

Ms Crucet, an associate professor at the University of Nebraska, said in a statement on Friday that during the event and at the book signing that followed many students told her they had seen their own experiences reflected in the story of the novel’s protagonist.

“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.

The university is not planning to discipline any students for the burning incident, said Jennifer Wise, a university spokeswoman.

“While it’s within the students’ First Amendment rights, book burning does not align with Georgia Southern’s values nor does it encourage the civil discourse and debate of ideas,” the university said in a statement.

Ms Crucet said on Twitter another event scheduled for Thursday was cancelled “because the administration said they could not guarantee my safety or the safety of its students on campus because of open-carry laws.”

Ms Wise said the event – a discussion with some first-year classes – was cancelled at the request of Ms Crucet’s representative.

Other students were dismayed over the book burning, a violent rejection of speech most notoriously associated with Nazi Germany.

“It makes me feel like we are being represented really badly. It makes me feel like these people make us look as a school and even as a freshman class really ignorant and racist,” Carlin Blalock, a freshman music education student, told the George-Anne.

“Just seeing it happen, I know they didn’t read the book or they didn’t care. It’s so disrespectful to even think about doing anything to that book because that’s her life story. I wish I could have been there to do something about it.”

PEN America, a speech and literature advocacy group, said the book burning was “deeply” disturbing in a statement.

“Book burning has a long history as a tactic to intimidate, silence, and denigrate the value of intellectual exchange,” said Jonathan Friedman, the group’s campus free speech director.

“Students have the right to exercise their own freedom of expression and book burning is also a protected act of expression. But this symbolic gesture aimed not just to reject or refute ideas but to obliterate the very paper on which they were written.”

Mr Friedman also said the university’s statement did not go far enough in response.

“It behooves the university to educate its students about why book burning is so inimical to open discourse and free expression.”

Ms Crucet concluded her statement on the incident by saying that her “book began as an act of love and an attempt at deeper understanding,” adding that, “I hope GSU can act from the same place and work to affirm the humanity of those students who might understandably feel unsafe in the aftermath of the event and the book burning, and that the campus continues the difficult and necessary conversation that began in that auditorium.”

The Washington Post

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