“I don’t understand what the point of all this was,” she told Crucet.
The crowd at the author’s talk erupted in jeers — but by this point, it was unclear whom the students were targeting.
About a half-dozen students arrived at the grassy quad with their copies of Crucet’s novel, “Make Your Home Among Strangers,” a book about a Cuban American woman who becomes the first in her family to attend college. Some students ripped pages out of the thick book, piling them on the grill.
Then, they started a fire.
'Almost a slap in my face'
What unfolded at Georgia Southern in mid-October illustrates the difficulty of tackling the subject of race in the classroom and in grappling with latent racial tensions that pervade many majority-white college campuses.
The book-burning “was almost a slap in my face,” said Keyshawn Housey, a 21-year-old student government officer who is studying history. He was on the committee that pushed the school to add lessons on diversity to the curriculum. “It just shows that the work that we’ve begun needs to continue.”
The incident proved heartbreaking for faculty and students who had helped select the book and create a curriculum for first-year students intended to tackle themes of race and class more directly. They had hoped this year would mark a turning point for the university.
Last year, in an exchange that was posted to social media, a white student mistakenly texted a black classmate that her Instagram page was “not too n-----ish.” The student claimed she meant to say “triggerish,” but that defense was met with skepticism. The event, which resulted in no discipline for the student, made national headlines and brought embarrassment to the campus.
In response to protests, the university hired a diversity consultant to assess the campus climate, and tapped a team of faculty and students to recommend changes to “First Year Experience,” a required course for freshmen and others new to the campus. They picked Crucet’s book to spark conversations about race and class and privilege. Now, their response to one racist incident had spurred another.
Many educators believe that college provides the ideal forum to talk about race — and they view teaching students about racism as essential to fighting it.
“We need to learn about inequality and address it because it’s the right thing to do,” said Laurie Cooper Stoll, a professor of sociology and criminal justice at the University of Wisconsin at La Crosse who studies how elementary, middle and high schools teach students about racism. She also teaches college students about the subject. “It’s a justice issue.”
But tackling race in the classroom is difficult, and universities and instructors are often ill-equipped to do it. Many students arrive on college campuses, for example, with a poor understanding of slavery because K-12 schools have not done a good job teaching it.
Brielle Harbin, a political science professor at the U.S. Naval Academy who has researched how race is taught in university classrooms, said the subject is fraught with emotion. Students often arrive at college with existing views about race and racism, and the subject is deeply personal — even when taught from a historical perspective.
“You have to, as an instructor, not just talk about race as an intellectual subject but also figure out how to respond to people’s emotional reactions at the same time,” Harbin said. “You’re just dealing with a lot of different dynamics.”
The book-burning comes at a time of increased campus activism, especially around the issue of race. The emergence of Black Lives Matter and the growing power of social media helped fuel the resurgence. At the University of Missouri in 2015, students rose up to protest the school’s inaction following racist incidents. With the help of the football team, which threatened to boycott a game, they forced the resignation of the university president.
Students at several other schools followed suit, pressing for measures to make their campuses — many of which were off-limits to nonwhite students for decades — more inclusive. They sought funding for multicultural centers, measures to increase faculty diversity, and, as was the case at Georgia Southern, more robust diversity education and training.
Elsewhere, students have pushed leaders to strip racist names and symbols from campus property at several universities, including the University of Maryland, where the football stadium was once named for a segregationist president, and the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, where students pressed officials to remove a statue commemorating Confederate soldiers.
Schools throughout the country are still dealing with the scourge of racist threats. Some students at Syracuse University left the campus in November after being rattled by racist and anti-Semitic incidents, including racist graffiti scrawled on dormitory walls and anti-Semitic emails sent to faculty members.
While leaders of Georgia Southern decried the book-burning, they remained steadfast in not punishing the students involved, saying their actions were protected under the First Amendment. Administrators’ failure to hold students accountable raised the ire of students of color, and in heated forums, they told administrators they feared for their safety.
The university campus, a mix of classical and modern buildings built around a central promenade, sits in a community with a long history of racial strife. Statesboro, surrounded by cotton fields, made headlines for gruesome lynchings carried out by white residents in 1904, described in vivid detail in newspapers throughout the country.
Scores of black residents fled for their lives and resettled in the North. Black students did not arrive on Georgia Southern’s campus until 1965. Students who have attended the school recently said racism lingers, taking the form of slurs from racist classmates and insensitive remarks from faculty members.
Georgia Southern recently consolidated with two smaller state universities, but the bulk of the students — more than 18,000 — attend classes in Statesboro. The remaining 8,000 students are split between two smaller campuses and an online program. About a quarter of all the students are black, and 60 percent are white. Latino students make up about 7 percent of the student body and Asian students 3 percent.
The book-burning did not so much expose fault lines of race as deepen them. Segregation on campus is visible: Black and white students generally dine at separate tables in campus cafeterias. Fraternities and sororities remain largely segregated, no longer by rules but by social forces. Black and white students generally go to different parties and different bars. A bar that catered to white students had a dress code that seemed to target black patrons: no basketball shoes and no gold chains. Some black students report being harassed by white classmates hurling racist epithets, and some white students report hearing slurs passed around freely in all-white company.
The experiences of black and white students are so divergent that black students have come up with a name for their parallel universe: Black GSU.
“It’s a tale of two schools: Some people went to Georgia Southern, and some people went to Black GSU,” said Kierra Nixon, who graduated in 2017. Nixon recalls walking through campus her freshman year when a white man pulled up next to her in a truck. “The only good n----r,” he told her through the window, “is a dead one.”
McClain Baxley, editor of the George-Anne, the student newspaper that broke the story about the book-burning, said he frequently hears homophobic slurs: People using the word “gay” as a synonym for “bad,” for example.
A diversity report, commissioned last year after protests in response to the text-message controversy, showed that such events are not isolated. A consultant interviewed and surveyed more than 5,000 people, including faculty, staff and students. Fewer than 40 percent of black respondents said they felt “valued and belonging” on campus, compared with half of white respondents.
The consultant warned of potential backlash against efforts to make the campus more welcoming to students of color and LGBTQ students. Some respondents said white men were the real targets of discrimination, and dismissed the existence of transgender people.
“I think it is a shame that being a white male at GSU has been degraded to a point that we are talked down to, set up as examples and generally treated as the ‘Bad Guys,’ ” one respondent wrote. “We are quickly being relegated to a second class here and in the higher education system as a whole simply for being Caucasian.”
“Drop all the diversity horse manure and leftist politics, judge people based on the content of their character, not skin color, ethnicity or gender, sexuality or whatever,” wrote another.
The report was published in the fall term, just as the school rolled out the revamped “First Year Experience” course. Some of the classes are large — 60 students or more — and taught by academic advisers, not professors. It proved a less than ideal environment in which to have conversations about race, and many classes had not yet broached the subject by the time they were urged to attend Crucet’s speech.
Crucet, who declined to comment through her publicist, delivered her address at the Georgia Southern Performing Arts Center. She spoke about how she struggled to see herself, a Cuban American from a working-class family, in an academic setting, much like the protagonist in her novel, Lizet.
And then she told of the time, during another campus talk, when a white woman broke down in tears, interrupting Crucet’s address to tell her it was racist to suggest that the woman’s university — whose faculty was overwhelmingly white — should hire only people of color.
“I asked her what she would call the de facto system currently in place. The one that’s led her college to have a faculty that is almost entirely white. ‘Isn’t that system racist?’ I asked,” Crucet recalled. The woman broke down, telling her “that’s so wrong.”
Crucet recalled her reaction: “There is no more precious commodity than a white woman’s tears. I said to the student, ‘Of course you feel that way. You are white. Doing the right thing is going to seem like unfairness for you.’ ”
Her words rubbed some white students at Georgia Southern the wrong way. Some grumbled as she spoke about the “inherent unfairness of white-dominated culture.”
After Crucet concluded her talk, a white student in the balcony stepped up to ask a question.
“So I notice that you made a lot of generalizations about white people being privileged, and I just wanted to know what makes you qualified to come to a college camp—,” the young woman said, halting as jeers began rising from the audience. “I’m not saying you don’t have qualifications.”
“So I’m asking you what makes you believe that it’s okay to come to a college campus like this when we’re supposed to be promoting diversity throughout this campus, which is what we’re taught,” she asked. The crowd erupted in boos. “I just want to know why you came here to tell people that white people are privileged.”
'It's not my fault I'm white'
Jackson Carter had no intention of burning his copy of Crucet’s book, but after seeing the Snapchat message about a book-burning, he wanted to see what was happening. He said four or five people put their books on the grill and lit them with a cigarette lighter. About 30 people milled around. Other people walking past took video and posted it to Twitter, where it went viral.
Carter, an 18-year-old freshman, said he doubts the people who burned the books recognized the fraught history of the act — how it was used to erase stories and cultures, how it often foreshadowed violence. The students, he said, mostly seemed upset with the way Crucet talked about white people.
“It was just 18-year-olds just being stupid, honestly, at the end of the day,” Carter said. He said he understood their anger and said he did not necessarily see eye-to-eye with Crucet on everything. But he was frustrated his peers resorted to “burning her books instead of learning why she felt that way.”
Another student tweeted to Crucet a video of her books burning on the grill, saying “@crucet I’m glad you enjoyed @GeorgiaSouthernU today!!” according to an image captured by the George-Anne newspaper.
On a pleasant evening less than a week later, young women gathered on the lawn near the grill to do homework, their notebooks, laptops and book bags spread on a blanket. The book-burning had been the talk of campus — and they did not understand why. Two of them had torched their copies of the books. All took issue with Crucet’s speech.
“She made a lot of assumptions about white people in general,” said one student, who did not burn her book but defended the students who did, saying Crucet’s remarks upset a lot of students. She spoke on the condition of anonymity because of the backlash other students faced. “I didn’t choose my race. It’s not my fault I’m white.”
“It’s hard for us to feel a ton of remorse,” she said, “when there are other people burning the American flag.”
“Most of us didn’t think about why we were doing it,” said another student, who had put her copy of the book on the grill. A copy of “1984,” which she was studying in class, lay nearby.
For many students of color, the incident added to their suspicion that they were unwelcome on campus. If white students reacted this way to talk about white privilege, how could they have frank discussions about the way race has shaped the lives of students of color? Some wondered aloud if they should have picked one of Georgia’s historically black colleges, rather than settling in at a “PWI” — predominantly white institution.
The campus responded with a teach-in on book-burning. Students seized the moment to once again highlight their grievances with the university, staging a protest at the grill and writing down things they hoped to “extinguish” — white privilege, administrative inaction — and then dousing the words with water.
At the teach-in, students packed a lecture hall, lining the walls, sprawled on the floor. Aysha Miller, a 20-year-old sophomore studying psychology, leaned against a wall. During the question-and-answer portion, Miller got to the heart of the challenge.
“How do you make people apologize for something they are not sorry for?” she asked. “How do you teach people who do not want to be taught?”
Crucet, it turns out, had given an answer, before her talk ended, before the students burned her book, before she left Statesboro in the middle of the night. When the young woman asked the question in the balcony after Crucet’s talk, the author told her:
“We’re not going to figure this out today, me and you, talking this way,” she said. “But I really do encourage you and whoever this young person’s instructor is to really follow up and have that compassionate conversation that’s patient and that allows for progress to be made and for understanding.”