How has race impacted your life?
"Students would pull on my hair and say, 'I wanted to see it bounce.' When I would report that to teachers they would say, 'Well, just let them do it one time.'"
My parents were married in the 1970s. They were high school sweethearts. My dad is Black, my mom is White, they're out of that Loving v. Virginia generation — legal to be married, but hearts hadn't really changed yet. Many people on my mother's side did not want them to get married, and one of the big reasons they said was, “What about the children? Won't they be confused? Won't they be bullied?” That's probably the biggest impact; even before I was born, the work my parents had to do, thinking about how to raise a Black biracial child.
What I find doing this work is everyone is confused at some point about their identity. More or less. But for me, race led to the microaggressions that I experienced. Strangers would just walk up to me and touch my arm and tell me how beautiful my skin was. Or students would pull on my hair and say, “I wanted to see it bounce.” When I would report that to teachers, they would say, “Well, just let them do it one time.” It impacted the lessons that I pulled, how I even saw my learners. I would create lessons around boundaries and consent. I have an explicit lesson I would teach about hair. All of the learners created their own boundaries about their hair. Maybe a personal boundary would say, “You may never touch my hair,” or “Please ask before touching my hair and then respect what I say.”
Why is talking about race in the subject(s) you teach necessary?
It really does affect all of my students, through either White privilege and White immunity, or an anti-Black lens. I think of White privilege as the social and psychological advantages of being White. The ways in which people aren't touching my White students’ hair or touching their skin. Those are privileges: they know when they come into a classroom; their identity will be affirmed. They will feel what Erik Erikson talks about as a harmony, because their outer reality is going to mirror their inner experiences. And then, for anti-Blackness, it's the social and psychological disadvantages of having Black skin or darker skin. They don't know what microaggressions they're going to receive on any given day, how to respond, and then when they’re reported to a teacher, are they actually going to be supported versus ignored or their experience minimized. It's important for me to educate the whole child: the social and emotional impact, but then also the academic side, the cognitive side of what racial literacy is.
What was it like teaching this lesson or unit plan?
Sometimes students would go home, and their families would reiterate the myth again. It wasn't enough just to send the letter home.
I taught this lesson twice. The first time I had students fourth through sixth grade. It was November, and we were doing a classic food drive. I noticed that some of my students had stereotypes about people who shop at the food bank, and people who need help with receiving food, so I decided to plan our lesson. As we kept going through it, more and more stereotypes of what learners thought and felt came out. A lot of their discomfort was around the idea of poverty and being helped. It was an insecurity for them. I learned to make sure to communicate with families right off the bat, especially for certain families, to educate them as I was educating the learners, because we were debunking myths: For instance, that people choose to shop at a food bank, because they're taking advantage of a system. Or people ask for money, because they're too lazy to get a job. Sometimes students would go home, and their families would reiterate the myth. It wasn't enough just to send the letter home.
When I taught the lesson again, with my own children since I homeschool them, we were able to go a lot deeper. When I read the story of Patience to them from Tell Me Who You Are, I created some vocabulary cards around words that she used, like food equity and desert. We also did a map of where Patience lived in Colorado. Reading her story in the very beginning offered us the heart part of doing racial literacy, putting a face to what we were talking about. It took us about four weeks to go through the entire lesson, and I continued not only revisiting Patience's story, but also using her name as if we really knew Patience. She also allowed us to be able to write our own story around food equity.
It felt really, really good to teach a lesson with so many ahas, for learners to really start to see at a young age, how poverty is created by design, how we really could eradicate poverty here in the United States, specifically in Texas, if we really chose to do so. And how the powers that be didn't do that. But it was also disheartening to see the learners feel such a sense of powerlessness. The first time, we were thinking of ways to create sustainable action beyond a one time food drive. When we wrote letters to our local representatives, we only received one letter back: “Thank you so much for your concern.” One more thing. I also absolutely have grown since the simulation activity. Originally, each of the learners received $6 and we walked to the nearest corner store, and they were able to see how far $6 can go. It can re-traumatize students. Instead, they can just do it on their own, when they go grocery shopping with their families.
How did your community react?
The lesson really changed the way that people do life, and the way that they see how they can, in fact, through micro-actions disrupt systems.
When I taught it in the classroom, everyone loved the activity. I didn't receive any backlash whatsoever. It's what our administrators needed. They actually have continued to do lessons around food equity, even after I've left that school. They now have an ongoing partnership with the Houston Food Bank, so they no longer do just a one-time, November food drive, but hold one every single month. Students really enjoyed the interactive aspects of the lesson, going on the internet, finding the local grocery stores, mapping them out, finding where the food deserts are, where the food swamps are. They enjoyed finding their house on the map, asking how long would it take for them to walk to a grocery store if they were without transportation. And I still have parents to this day reach out to me and say, “You know, I went to the grocery store the other day and my child reminded me that we needed to pick up a couple cans of beans or a couple jars of peanut butter to donate.” The lesson really changed the way that people do life, and the way that they see how they can, in fact, through micro-actions, disrupt systems.
What would you like to tell any educator looking at your work right now?
I would like educators to know that racism is learned, and so it can be unlearned. Anti-racist work can be scary work, but it's doable. Every single year, I grow and I evolve. The more I listen, and the more I learn and the more I talk and the more I try, the more appropriate my actions become. I want them to know that they can do it, too.
BRITT HAWTHORNE'S Lesson plan:
TYPE: Lesson (full class) TITLE: Exploring Structural Racism through Food CONTENT AREA: Social Studies/Social Justice/Identity/Geography
GRADE LEVEL(S): 4th to 6th Grade
DESCRIPTION: In this unit of study, learners will explore how food can be used as a tool to build healthy communities. Learners will also discover the structural advantages and disadvantages of living in a food desert and actionable steps to create food equity.
Click below to download a PDF of Britt Hawthorne's full lesson plan.
Extra resource: Powerpoint: Definitions and Worksheet