It started with an eight-word tweet by a Drexel University professor on Christmas Eve: “All I want for Christmas is white genocide.”
George Ciccariello-Maher said he meant his post to be satirical, a way to mock white supremacists who use the term to oppose interracial marriage or other dilution of their race.
But his words unleashed a torrent: Thousands of emails and phone calls. A campaign to have him fired. Another that bashed Drexel for not defending him. Death threats.
Drexel boosted security when students returned after winter break. They assigned Drexel police to guard Ciccariello-Maher’s house over the holidays.
“Words can have consequences,” said Lori Doyle, senior vice president for university communications, “and this quickly developed into a safety issue with Professor Ciccariello-Maher and his family and numerous Drexel staff members receiving threatening e-mails and voicemails.”
She wonders what other fallout may follow.
“Our applications and fund-raising remain strong,” Doyle said, “but we don’t know yet if there will be a long-term impact on our reputation.”
It’s been an education for Ciccariello-Maher, 37, an associate professor of politics and global studies, who teaches radical theory and has written on the Venezuela revolution.
Ciccariello-Maher, who is white, began a yearlong sabbatical in Mexico in August and was back in the States for the holidays. He was celebrating Christmas Eve with his wife and 6-year-old in New England when he saw the controversial Twitter backlash to a State Farm Insurance ad, showing a black man proposing to a white woman.
He was incensed that commenters were calling the ad another nail in the coffin of whites, using the hashtag “white genocide.”
“White genocide,” he said, “is absurd, a paranoid racist fantasy. We should be making fun of it, because it’s not real.”
He tweeted. Twitter erupted. Ciccariello-Maher, now back in Mexico, said in a phone interview that he had no idea of the backlash that was coming.
He got more than 100 death threats and 250 voicemails, he said. Family members were harassed on Facebook. Even his mother got a call at home in Maine.
He tweeted again: “To clarify: when the whites were massacred during the Haitian Revolution, that was a good thing indeed.” He meant, he said, that it’s always legitimate to resist white supremacy and slavery.
He blames far-right and neo-Nazi groups for deliberately misinterpreting his tweets in an organized campaign.
“We celebrated Christmas with this creeping concern that we didn’t know what the consequences of this whole campaign would be,” he said.
At Drexel, president John Fry was inundated with hundreds of emails and calls from colleagues, students, friends, and strangers, who didn’t understand the tweet was meant as sarcasm and thought the professor was inciting violence.
Drexel issued a statement on Christmas, calling the tweet “utterly reprehensible” and “deeply disturbing,” but did not take disciplinary action against Ciccariello-Maher, noting that his tweets were protected speech.
That unleashed another round of response, much of it from academics locally and nationally who complained that Drexel’s response was infringing on academic freedom.
“Drexel's ideal response would have been simply to state that faculty members' views expressed on their own time and outside the university do not reflect the views of the university,” said Chloe Silverman, a Drexel associate professor in politics and the Center for Science, Technology & Society. “Condemning the statement was neither necessary nor appropriate, and represented, I think, a willingness to accede to the demands of those upset by the tweet and to accept their interpretation of it as the correct one.”
Ciccariello-Maher’s tweet was done on his own time and not connected with his work at Drexel, something known as “extramural speech,” under the American Association of University Professors academic freedom policy.
The policy doesn’t protect all speech, said Gregory F. Scholtz, associate secretary and director of the Department of Academic Freedom, Tenure and Governance. Criminal speech, harassment, speech that incites violence and speech that reflects bad teaching and bad research can get a professor in trouble. But Ciccariello-Maher’s tweet doesn’t appear to fall into those categories, Scholtz said.
“Satirical speech about matters of public concern by professors should not be sanctionable,” he said.
Still, said Terry Hartle, a senior vice president at the American Council on Education, the tweet showed “a colossal lack of judgment. Falsely shouting fire in a crowded theater has consequences. So does falsely hoping on Twitter for white genocide.”
Drexel, Doyle said, communicated to Ciccariello-Maher “the importance of exercising appropriate judgment and clear and accurate communication going forward.” She pointed to its academic freedom policy that says positions held by faculty create “special obligations” to exercise “appropriate restraint” in public speech.
Ciccariello-Maher said he felt unsupported by Drexel’s administration. Its statement, he said, fed into allegations by the far right, emboldened by the election of President Trump, that he hated white people. Universities will be under more pressure to stand up to such tactics, he said.
“A strong and more aggressive defense of faculty speech goes a long way,” he said.
Christmas wasn’t the first time he got questions from Drexel over his comments on social media.
In 2015, he tweeted “#BringBackFields, then do him like #OldYeller” about a South Carolina school police officer who lost his job after he body-slammed a black female student during an arrest.
“Off the Pigs,” he tweeted last summer. He used stronger language in November when a North Carolina police officer was not charged in the shooting death of a black man.
“It’s very difficult for me to respond calmly to something like that,” he said.
Does he want police murdered? No, he said. But he believes “police do play a huge role in upholding white supremacy.” He wants that to end.
He said his fierce sense of social justice came from his mother, who “has always fought for what was right.”
Born in Maine, Ciccariello-Maher grew up poor, one of three siblings, his father a carpenter and his mother a probation officer. The family shopped at the Salvation Army store and lived without electricity for nine years, said his mother, Linda Maher.
He got his bachelor’s in government and economics at St. Lawrence University in New York and his master’s in social and political science at Cambridge. He came to Drexel seven years ago from the University of California at Berkeley, where he got his doctorate in political science.
Maher said she doesn’t agree with all of her son’s political positions. She cringed when she heard him call police “pigs.”
But she’s proud of him for holding to his beliefs.
“He’s very active and very antiestablishment, and that’s OK,” she said.
Public access to his Twitter account, with more than 16,000 followers, had been blocked amid the controversy. With a new book coming out, he has since restored it. His mother wants him to be more careful. She didn’t understand the white genocide tweet until she looked it up.
“Maybe tweeting isn’t the avenue that you want to go,” she said she told him. “You can’t get your full meaning across.”
Ciccariello-Maher said that because he was terribly misunderstood, he will be more careful.
“I will take whatever precautions I can to be clear about when I’m being satirical,” he said, “or when I’m being serious and think twice about whether these words will be completely taken out of context or misrepresented.”