Teaching Truth About Racism: What Students Need, What's Happening, What We Can Do

Students in a hallway with quote text overlayed

Though hired to lead a contemporary issues class at a Tennessee high school, Matthew Hawn was summarily fired for attempting to teach truth surrounding one of this nation’s most insidious problems: racism and its effects on the world around us.

Hawn, who was terminated after facilitating discussions and assigning readings on white privilege, is not alone.

Truth in America’s classrooms is under assault as state governments and school districts throughout the country continue to craft and introduce misguided laws intended to circumvent the teaching of truthful history surrounding race. Hawn joined with other educators and advocates for a Zoom-based roundtable discussion, titled “Teaching Truth About Racism: What Students Need, What’s Happening, What We Can Do,” in which they shared their experiences and insights into the importance of teaching truth and how these anti-truth laws negatively impact children and society.

The panelists also discussed ways that educators, lawmakers and others can support the teaching of truth. The event, presented in partnership with the National Network of State Teachers of the Year, was the latest installment of a monthly NCYL LIVE online series hosted by the National Center for Youth Law (NCYL). It is available to stream on YouTube.

Hawn noted during the Feb. 16 panel discussion that his goal in the class was to challenge students to examine and solve the issues facing society.

“How can we do that if we are continuing to segregate voices and perspectives from our K-12 curriculum?” he said. “We are expecting our students to go out into the world and solve issues without the full perspective of how we got here, and that’s unfair to them. We have to give them the tools to be able to navigate their life as adults and to improve the world that we are leaving them.”

‘Life or death issue’

Joining Hawn for the discussion was Josh Parker, who was named Maryland Teacher of the Year in 2012; Jemelleh Coes, Ph.D., 2014 Georgia Teacher of the Year and current education leadership director; Miriam Rollin, an attorney and director of NCYL’s Education Civil Rights Alliance (ECRA); and moderator Natasha Wilkins, educator engagement coordinator with NCYL’s ECRA.

Parker noted that the teaching truth is a “life or death issue” with ramifications that extend well beyond the classroom.

“When lies become the culture, there are so many things that can happen as a result. There’s so many things in this country where the degradation of people who look like me has been based on lies,” said Parker, who is Black. "Lies then, when they become the culture, need to be justified. And the justification becomes the basis for the dehumanization.”

Truth, on the other hand, has an empowering effect, the panelists noted.

Wilkins, a former educator, said that teaching her students about realities such as slavery, Jim Crow, and redlining “allowed them to understand how the past is inextricably linked to the present [and] I watched many of my students go from being disengaged to engaged.”

“I watched them begin to see themselves as valuable in the American narrative for the first time, rather than as the villain,” she added. “That sense of value and worth changes everything for a child.”

“The truth is, when we teach our children the truth about our nation’s history, they do not shrink back and hate our country as some are saying. But rather they see the vision of what we could be and take up the mantle to move us forward where past generations have fallen short.”

When students aren't being taught something, or are being misled, they can tell, said Coes. Often, students will attempt to fill those voids on their own.

“They may not be learning about [race] and thinking about it as critically as they could if they had a guide in that work,” she said. 

She added: "I had a friend who said 'follow the children, they know where the light is,' and they do. If we expose [students] to thoughts and ideas, they will ask questions. [This will] allow them to do the teaching and the thinking and we can help them connect it back to humanity — to the human spirit."

‘Moral obligation’

There is legislation aimed at impeding truth set to be introduced in more than half of U.S. states this year, and several states enacted similar legislation in 2021, Rollin noted.

These bills ban everything from books and course materials to the use of nonbinary pronouns to vague concepts like causing guilt or anguish to someone solely because of their race. Punishments for violating these laws can be harsh, including personal fines, loss of funding for schools and districts, and even criminal liability.

Hawn is among those who has felt the real-world effects of these laws; he was fired a day after Tennessee enacted an anti-truth bill in May 2021.

Hawn, who has been unsuccessfully appealing his dismissal ever since, said the entire ordeal has been “emotionally, physically and mentally draining,” but that he’s “happy to be in the fight.”

The panelists encouraged educators to do what’s best for children and to engage parents and community members in good-faith discussions about the importance of accurate teaching. Honest conversations with children help develop their critical thinking abilities, among other important life skills.

“There is a moral obligation and … ethical responsibility to teach what is there,” Parker said.

“Children aren’t just automatons that are factory widgets,” he later added. “They are fully involved human beings. With that, they are impressionable by the adults in their lives. What do you want to have on your record: That you knew the truth and didn’t protect the teaching of that; or that you risked telling the truth and providing an opportunity for the truth so that kids can become better people?”

Added Coes: "Communities of parents, stakeholders … can come together. There is a power in community, there is a power in parents, and there is a power in the collective saying, ‘This is the world we want and this is the world we want to create for our students.'"