Posted on December 14, 2021

A White Teacher Taught White Students About White Privilege. It Cost Him His Job.

Hannah Natanson, Washington Post, December 6, 2021

Matthew Hawn checked his phone to see if the wait was finally over.

It had been five months since he was fired for teaching about white privilege at a high school in rural Tennessee. Two months since he had fought to regain his job at an emotional three-day hearing, becoming a symbol of the acrimonious debate over the way race, racism and history should be taught in America’s schools.


A lifelong resident of Kingsport, Hawn was well aware his liberal views made him an outlier in his overwhelmingly white, mostly conservative community. But that had never mattered before. He had taught in the Sullivan County school system for 16 years without any trouble. And he had taught the class that got him fired, “Contemporary Issues,” for nearly a decade without a single parent complaint.

Then at the start of last school year, he made a pronouncement during a discussion about police shootings that would derail his career. White privilege, he told his nearly all-white class, is “a fact.”

Hawn apologized after at least one parent objected. But a few months later, he assigned the Ta-Nehisi Coates essay “The First white President,” spurring more parent complaints. This time school officials issued a letter of reprimand to Hawn for one-sided teaching.

After that, Hawn promised to stay away from the topic. But in late April, a student mentioned white privilege during a class discussion about the trial of Derek Chauvin — the white Minneapolis police officer who murdered George Floyd by kneeling on the Black man’s neck — and Hawn could not help himself. He navigated to YouTube and pulled up “white Privilege,” a scathing and profane four-minute poetry performance by Kyla Jenée Lacey.

“Oh, am I making you uncomfortable?” the Black writer demands at one point. “Try a cramped slave ship.”

“I will probably get fired for showing this,” Hawn joked before hitting play. Less than a month later, he was.

His firing comes amid a tsunami of conservative outrage about critical race theory, an academic framework for examining systemic racism in the United States that educators contend is rarely taught in public schools.


But in May, the same month Hawn was fired, the Tennessee legislature passed a law banning it from its schools and forbidding educators from teaching that “an individual, by virtue of the individual’s race or sex, is inherently privileged, racist, sexist or oppressive.”

At least 11 Republican-led states have now passed laws or approved resolutions censoring what educators can say about race in K-12 classrooms, according to a Washington Post analysis. Dozens more are considering similar policies.


Sullivan Central’s small number of progressive teens often chose Hawn’s classes, as did students who identified as LGBTQ, partly because Hawn kept a blue-and-yellow equality sticker pasted to the filing cabinet by his desk. But every year, a large portion of his contemporary issues class was white, conservative and spoiling for a chance to debate a real live liberal.

The makeup of the class was not surprising in Kingsport, a town of about 54,000 nestled in the foothills of the Appalachian Mountains that is about 90 percent white. The median household income is roughly $43,000, well below the national average, and most Kingsport residents work at a large coal gasification plant owned by Eastman Chemical. The town is staunchly Republican, mirroring Sullivan County, where 75 percent of voters chose Donald Trump in both 2016 and 2020.

The high school was even less diverse in the final years Hawn taught there: Its student body was approximately 95 percent white, 2 percent Hispanic and less than 1 percent Black and Asian.


Hawn discovered the concept of white privilege during President Barack Obama’s tenure, he said, and began mentioning it in class.

He always presented white privilege as an incontestable truth, although he said he urged students to do their own research and challenge him if they disagreed.

His classes began focusing more on race during the Trump years, especially after the deadly Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville in 2017 and Floyd’s murder three years later.

At the same time, though, the tolerance for those kinds of discussions was shrinking in Kingsport, said Gloria Oster, 68, who taught high school English to Hawn and thousands of other students in the town before retiring in 2005.

During her 30-year career in the classroom, Oster said, she assigned Sullivan County students books she thought would challenge them. That included Toni Morrison’s acclaimed “Song of Solomon,” which details a young Black man’s quest for cultural identity. Once, Oster said, a White mother approached her to complain about the inclusion of the book on a summer reading list, but concluded she trusted Oster to teach it the right way.


When Oster read about Hawn’s conflicts with the school system, she reached out to him on Facebook to offer her support. They began getting together for lunch or dinner at local restaurants.

Eventually, Hawn told her about the first mistake he had made – and how it triggered the torrent of trouble that followed. It came in late August 2020, as he was trying to upload a video of the day’s contemporary issues lesson to Google Classrooms.

In the video, Hawn compared the fates of Jacob Blake and Kyle Rittenhouse. Blake, a Black man in his late 20s, was shot seven times in the back and side by police in Kenosha, Wis., leaving him partially paralyzed. Rittenhouse, a White teenager from Illinois, drove to the same area of Wisconsin and shot and killed two men, wounding a third, before surrendering, unharmed, to the same police force. A jury later acquitted Rittenhouse of all charges under the state’s self-defense law.

“My question to you, and this is going to be a tough one,” Hawn said to his class on Aug. 27, 2020, “is how is that not a definition of white privilege?”

Tired after a long day of hybrid teaching, Hawn accidentally uploaded the video to the folder for his personal finance students, where a parent spotted it. The parent immediately contacted Sullivan County administrators to complain.

And someone slipped a 17-minute snippet of the video to Chad Conner, 48, a lifelong Sullivan County resident who runs a marketing agency and is known for his participation in town and county politics. Conner was stunned by what he saw.

Hawn was leaving no room for discussion, Conner said, instead forcing students to accept his personal view of what happened in the Blake and Rittenhouse cases and what it meant for the country. {snip}


Conner later posted the video of Hawn to Facebook.

“Local teacher teaching kids about why they have white privilege and why the cops should be defunded,” Conner wrote. “Is this acceptable behavior for someone responsible for shaping the minds of our children?”


Hawn removed the video from the personal finance folder and apologized to those students and their parents. He also stopped the contemporary issues lesson on Blake and Rittenhouse, worried the topic was too sensitive to discuss in a virtual format. Hawn would pick it back up when he returned to teaching fully in person, he decided. But he never got that chance.

Just after winter break, a Trump-supporting mob stormed the U.S. Capitol, leaving five people dead in its wake and more than 130 police officers injured. In response, Hawn assigned his contemporary issue students the Coates essay on the 2016 election, in which the well-known Black writer argues that white racism drove Trump’s ascendance.

Four days later, a parent emailed the school board to complain that the article’s explicit language was inappropriate and that Hawn had failed to offer an opposing viewpoint.

On Feb. 3, the school system issued a letter of reprimand to Hawn for “neglect of duty and insubordination.” He had violated the Tennessee teacher code of ethics, which states that an educator shall “not unreasonably deny the students access to varying points of view,” Ingrid Deloach, the assistant director of Sullivan County Schools, told him.

“Your job is not to teach one perspective,” Deloach wrote. “Your job is also not to ensure students simply adopt your own personal perspective.”

Hawn fumed at this characterization of his teaching style. He had planned to assign several more stories about Trump’s election, he said, including a piece from The Hill that examined Trump’s skillful use of social media in firing up his base.


Then came late April.

The trial of Chauvin had just wrapped up, and students in Hawn’s fourth-period contemporary issues class wanted to talk about the guilty verdict.

Faith Jones, now 19, remembered asking: What if Chauvin had not been found guilty? Wouldn’t that have been an example of white privilege?

Hawn decided to let the poet Kyla Jenée Lacey speak. He clicked to YouTube.

Jones and several other students in the class later said they remember a group of white boys throwing up their hands in anger during the poem.


One of those boys complained to administrators, his classmates said. Within two weeks, Hawn was fired.

In the letter of dismissal, Director of Schools David Cox called the Lacey video “inappropriate” and wrote that Hawn had failed to learn anything from the previous reprimand.

Hawn wrote a letter to school officials begging them to reconsider.

He now realized, he wrote, that his discussions of White privilege “would be more appropriate for a college level … course” and promised to expose his students to “varying points of views.”

It did not work. In June, the school board voted 6 to 1 to uphold his termination.

Hawn appealed again, sending his case to an independent hearing officer.


He prepared frantically for a three-day hearing in late August, at which he and roughly a dozen former students – including Simcox and Thomas – testified that he was a devoted teacher who deserved another chance.

They were countered by a teenager, identified only as “T.S.,” who was in class on the day Hawn played the Lacey video. The teen said that he and his friends felt belittled by Hawn for voicing objections to the poem.

“Some students disagreed with the video,” T.S. said, according to a hearing transcript obtained by The Washington Post. “Hawn blew it off like it didn’t need to be discussed.”