The First Casualty in the War on Critical Race TheoryBreaking News
tags: Tennessee, academic freedom, teaching history, critical race theory
The first time Matt Hawn suspected that he might run into trouble for what he was teaching was last August. His contemporary-issues class was discussing the events in Kenosha, Wisconsin, where protesters had taken to the streets after a police officer was filmed shooting 29-year-old Jacob Blake in the back. Hawn showed his students a picture of Kyle Rittenhouse, the 17-year-old accused of killing two people and injuring another during the protests, to demonstrate the concept of white privilege. “What are we going to do about racism in the U.S.?” he asked his students.
The principal of Sullivan Central High School, where Hawn taught, pulled him aside at a football game. Apparently, Hawn had mistakenly posted the images from his contemporary-issues class to another class he taught on personal finance. A parent had seen the materials and complained. Hawn corrected his error and apologized. A couple of weeks later, he heard from a county official, warning him that teachers are expected to provide students with access to varying points of view. “Of course,” Hawn replied. By October, the August lesson was circulating among students and parents on Facebook.
Then, in January, a group of rioters took over the U.S. Capitol. Hawn wasn’t quite sure how to talk to his students about what had happened, so he decided to focus on the 2016 election instead. He assigned an Atlantic article by Ta-Nehisi Coates, “The First White President,” which argues that Donald Trump was elected on the strength of white grievances. A parent complained about the slurs used in the piece and accused Hawn of not presenting multiple points of view. The central office issued an official reprimand. In April, to address the trial of the Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin for the murder of George Floyd, Hawn showed his students a performance by the poet Kyla Jenée Lacey, titled “White Privilege.” A couple of weeks later, Hawn received notice that the director of schools wanted him fired.
All of this is intensely personal: Hawn was raised in Kingsport, one of the three cities nestled near the Appalachian Mountains that anchor Tennessee’s northeast diagonal point. His parents also grew up in this community. He is contesting his dismissal because Sullivan County is where he wants to teach, and he hopes to be back in the classroom in the fall. But significant barriers lie ahead. I spoke with Hawn about how he got here and what comes next for him and education in his state. Our conversation has been condensed and edited for clarity.
Emma Green: When you were growing up, was there a lot of racial diversity around you?
Matt Hawn: There was not. I don’t remember there being a nonwhite person at my high school the entire four years I was there.
Green: What kinds of lessons were you taught, either implicitly or explicitly, about race?
Hawn: We were taught the civil-rights movement, the differences in the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee and the more quote-unquote militant Black Panthers. But that was really about it. Looking back now—and I just came across this term within the last 10 or 15 years—I was taught the “Lost Cause” fallacy: Slavery was a benevolent institution. The Civil War wasn’t fought over slavery but for states’ rights. People in the South were defending their homes from northern aggression, and it’s hypocritical for northern states to point a finger at the southern institution of slavery when they employed children and workers in terrible conditions. I grew up thinking that.
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