Matt Hawn has become a focal point of one of this past year’s biggest racial controversies. The former public high school teacher in Tennessee was thrust into the national spotlight after he was fired from his tenured job for the way he taught students about White privilege.
Hawn became one of the most prominent casualties in an ongoing debate over how racism and history should be taught to students in the US. His plight has divided people in his conservative, heavily White city near the foothills of the Appalachian Mountains.
But Hawn’s improbable personal journey is as dramatic as the headlines he’s provoked.
There is nothing in his background that suggests that he’d take such a public stand against racism. Hawn grew up in a White community and says he didn’t have a single nonwhite classmate from kindergarten through high school. He says he was surrounded by people who used the N-word, flew Confederate flags and wore T-shirts declaring “The South Will Rise Again.”
So why did he turn out differently?
One way to answer that question is to examine a group of Americans who rarely come up in discussions about race. They are White people who grew up in families and communities where racism was the norm, but they rejected those beliefs early on. They zigged when everyone else around them zagged.
These aren’t the type of people who made headlines in 2021, when White supremacists waved a Confederate flag at the US Capitol on January 6, racist conspiracy theories entered mainstream politics and new voter suppression laws were enacted across the nation.
It’s easy to conclude after the events of this past year that human beings are too tribal to see past color, and racism is a “permanent feature of American life.”
Yet these racial non-conformists show that even the most unlikely people can change.
None of them claim they are free of racism. As children some of them absorbed the attitudes they saw in their family or friends.
But people like Hawn possessed an innate ability to self-correct when they were young and defy expectations at an age when the pressure to conform is the highest.
These outliers appear in history books, in news stories and in public life. Many can’t explain why they turned out so different.
Hawn, 43, says when he was growing up his family never talked about racism.
“There wasn’t anyone to have these conversations with,” he says. “It’s really hard to talk about racism in the US without someone who experienced it.”
A closer look at people like Hawn reveals at least four traits that they all share.
They can imagine being in someone else’s shoes
During the height of the George Floyd protests in the summer of 2020, filmmaker Kasi Lemmons wrote a searing essay titled, “White Americans, your lack of imagination is killing us.”
Lemmons, director of “Harriet” and “Eve’s Bayou,” said pervasive racism exists because many White people cannot imagine what it’s like to be Black. They can’t imagine what it’s like to be murdered by a police officer or to experience the constant vulnerability of dealing with racism every day.
“As a filmmaker, I help people imagine what’s it’s like to be someone else, to experience things from a character’s point of view — things they never will experience outside the theater,” she wrote. “But when it comes to black life in America, there’s only one conclusion I can reach about some white people: You don’t care to put yourself in our shoes.”
Yet there are some White people who can imagine what it’s like to be an outsider — because they are outsiders themselves.
Hawn was diagnosed at age 13 with Type I diabetes. He had to carry his blood-sugar meter everywhere, and insulin to his baseball games. He was painfully thin.
“I was very sick for a long time,” Hawn says. “My entire seventh-grade year I was sick.”
The illness made him stand out at a young age.
Rhonda Hawn, his mother, says she had a friend who gave birth to twin boys with Down syndrome. Her son was one of the few boys in their community who would visit them and take them outside to play baseball.
“Matt has always had an empathy for anyone who is different,” she says. “That made him totally different from his peers. “None of his peers were diabetic. He knew what it was like to be different, not because of his skin color but in other ways.”
They’ve been transformed by a relationship
Many White progressives say they were transformed by a close relationship or a memorable encounter with a nonwhite person.
Charles Black, Jr. was a White man who grew up in Texas during the Jim Crow era, believing that Black people were inferior. Then he met a Black man that changed his life.
In 1931, Black went to a hotel in Austin, Texas, to hear jazz trumpeter Louis Armstrong play. He knew nothing about jazz, but something shifted in him as he watched a rapturous Armstrong perform.
“He was the first genius I’d ever seen,” Black recalled in a Yale Review essay. “It is impossible to underestimate the significance of a 16-year-old Southern boy seeing genius for the first time in a black person. We literally never saw a black man in anything but a servant’s capacity.
“Louis opened my eyes wide and put to me a choice: Blacks, the saying went, were ‘all right in their place,’ but what was the place of such a man, and of the people from which he sprung?”
Black would go on to join a team of lawyers that successfully convinced the US Supreme Court to overturn the segregation of students based on race in the 1954 Brown vs. Board of Education decision.
Hawn had a similar experience. He says he began to question what many of his peers believed when he met a Black teenager in an American Legion program designed to promote teenage boys’ civic engagement. The teens spent a week together with others in a dormitory. Hawn bonded with his new friend over their love of hip hop music, sports and girls.
“He was the first African-American person I’d ever befriended,” Hawn says. “I just remember him being just like me and my friends, somebody I could instantly make a connection with.”
The transformative power of interracial relationships has been so well documented by social scientists that there’s a name for it: “contact theory.” That’s the term that Gordon Allport, one of the towering figures of psychology in the 20th century, used to describe experiences similar to Hawn’s.
In one of his most famous studies, Allport conducted surveys of White soldiers who fought alongside Black soldiers during World War II. He discovered that in companies with both Black and White platoons, White soldiers disliked Black people far less than did White soldiers who served in segregated units.
But Allport found it was not enough for Whites and non-Whites to simply know one another. Other conditions also had to be met, such as personal interaction, equal status and both groups sharing common goals. Allport’s findings, which were replicated with civilians in varying settings, proved that hatred and racism stem from lack of contact, the historian Rutger Bregman wrote in an essay describing Allport’s work.
“We generalize wildly about strangers because we don’t know them,” Bregman wrote. “So the remedy seemed obvious: more contact.”
They have been moved by a story
The Rev. Gibson “Nibs” Stroupe comes from an even harsher racial environment than Hawn. He grew up in Helena, Arkansas, during the Jim Crow era.
Stroupe was a boy when a group of Black students braved jeering White mobs to integrate White public schools in Little Rock. The President of the United States had to summon federal troops to protect them. The Black students were dubbed “the Little Rock Nine.”
Stroupe cast his sympathies with the mob. He thought Black people were inferior, almost like animals. He couldn’t imagine sharing classrooms with them.
“No one ever sat down with me and told me that Black people were inferior,” he says. “It was just in the air; you breathed it in.”
Then one day Stroupe opened a book. He was a junior in high school when a teacher handed him a copy of “Cry, the Beloved Country” by Alan Paton. The novel is a classic that focuses on a rural Black pastor’s search for his missing son against the backdrop of apartheid South Africa.
The pastor’s search stirred painful feelings for Stroupe. His own father had abandoned him when he was a kid. The pastor’s earnestness and kindness touched him. Stroupe wished his father would search for him.
Something in him shifted. He began to think of the Black people he made fun of his in his hometown.
“I remember looking up from the book’s page and thinking, ‘Gosh, they might be like us.”
Stroupe, now 75, became a civil rights activist, an award-winning author and one of the nation’s most prominent anti-racist speakers. He and his wife, Caroline Leach, became co-pastors of Oakhurst Presbyterian Church in Decatur, Georgia, whose successful efforts to build a vibrant interracial congregation drew national attention and became a model for others.
Some stories are so powerful that they can change White people who grew up in even the most racially isolated circumstances.
Charissa Johnson was raised in a fundamentalist Christian community in rural Colorado that cut off contact from much of the world. She was home-schooled, and the people she encountered were almost entirely White.
Racism in her town was common, she says. She heard people say that Blacks were lazy and lived off government handouts. Townspeople openly opposed interracial marriages. She occasionally heard them use the N-word.
“If we saw a Black person walking down the street, someone would say, ‘Oh be careful. Lock your car doors,’ ” she says.
But Johnson says she rejected much of this thinking because of her love of reading. She recalled one book in particular. Titled “Mufaro’s Beautiful Daughters: An African Tale,” it was a lavishly illustrated folktale set in Zimbabwe that centered on a father’s attempt to marry one of his two daughters to a king. The book portrays the African girls as beautiful and intelligent and the father as noble and wise.
Johnson started reading other African folk tales. Then she read the “The Diary of Anne Frank.” The girls in the books looked different than her, but she shared many of their dreams and hopes.
“I was curious about the world and about people, and finding connection with those people in the books helped break down a lot of the us-versus-them mentality I learned,” says Johnson, now 35. The stories inspired her to take a stand when she was in the fourth grade.
She was attending a home-school enrichment program with other students when she noticed how a Black girl was being treated. None of the White students would play with the Black girl in their physical education class. Young Charissa approached the girl, introduced herself, and asked if they could be PE partners.
“It didn’t just make sense to me,” she says. “Nobody ever wanted to partner with her. And so we became friends. We would run together, and she became my buddy. It was a lot of fun.”
They are willing to pay the price
During many of his sermons, Stroupe made an observation that made some White parishioners squirm in their seats.
He said he didn’t learn racism from unapologetic racists like members of the Ku Klux Klan. Nice White people taught him how to hate.
“I had been taught racism by my family, my church, and my teachers — by really decent white people in my hometown on the Arkansas side of the Mississippi River Delta,” Stroupe wrote in a 2018 essay in The Atlantic.
One of the biggest challenges any White racial non-conformist faces is being expelled by their tribe. It’s hard to break from family and friends who see you as an oddity or a traitor.
Stroupe had to break with his mother, Mary, who viewed the civil rights movement with suspicion. When he was a teenager, he started to ask her about it to sort through his evolving perspective.
“Don’t mess with this, Nibs, and don’t fret about it,” she told him. “It is not our business.”
He didn’t take his mother’s advice. After high school, he enrolled in a church program that took him to New York City where he forged friendships with Black people for the first time. He became a civil rights activist. He even dated a Black woman. He decided to go into the ministry.
When he returned to Arkansas to bring the good news to the nice White people in his church, many rejected him. Church elders told him that going to the North had corrupted him.
“They said that I had gotten ‘Yankified,’ ” Stroupe recalls.
But Stroupe was willing to jeopardize the relationship with his mother and his community for his beliefs in racial justice.
And eventually, his mother became a convert and supported his civil rights activism. Stroupe, the author of five books, is currently working on a memoir about his relationship with his mother.
“I learned from my mother and church that God loved me and God loved everybody,” he says. “The question was, who is everybody? Once I could make that connection with Black people being part of everybody, then that was really it.”
Hawn, too, is paying the price for his beliefs.
His parents have stood behind him. But some people in his staunchly conservative community denounced him on Facebook, and the lengthy dismissal process, which ended with his firing last May, has worn him down at times.
School board members said they didn’t fire Hawn because he taught students about White privilege. They said he treated the concept as a fact, and didn’t offer students opposing points of view.
Hawn’s firing came the same month that Tennessee legislators passed a law dictating how public school teachers should talk about race in classrooms. The law was passed as heated debates spread nationwide over critical race theory, the idea that systemic racism is part of American history and institutions, and that racism remains an everyday experience for most people of color.
A school official said Hawn’s firing had nothing to do with the passage of the law.
The school board voted in December to uphold Hawn’s firing. He’s considering appealing the decision.
Hawn says he misses teaching and has financial worries now. A GoFundMe page has been set up to help him.
“What am I going to do for health insurance?” he says. “I’m a Type 1 diabetic.”
But he still calls himself an “anti-racist teacher,” and says there’s a need for people like him in small towns.
“If I didn’t teach those lessons, I wouldn’t be doing my job,” he says. “It’s important for teachers to see, in light of these bills and laws, that if you get caught up in all of this (debate over teaching about racism) that there are people out there to support you.
“And if no one does, I will. At least you’ll have one.”
History shows that compassion can bloom in the most unlikely places
But even just one person who refuses to conform can change history. A South African man showed how.
Abraham and Constand Viljoen were identical twin brothers and Afrikaners, members of South African’s dominant White ethnic group.
Both were indoctrinated from birth to defend apartheid, the brutal system that denied Blacks and other people of color equal access to political and economic power. They were taught that Blacks were biologically inferior, and to dread the “Black danger” — a scenario in which armed Blacks would pillage and take over South Africa.
But then their paths diverged. Abraham became a minister, joined the underground resistance to apartheid and became a close ally of Nelson Mandela, South Africa’s first Black president. His brother became chief of the South African Defense Force, which crushed Black dissent and, some say, assassinated Black activists. He was apartheid’s ultimate enforcer.
Afrikaners called Abraham Viljoen a traitor. But he helped save his country from a civil war in 1993 when he brokered a meeting between Mandela and his brother. Constand Viljoen’s disdain for Mandela changed after he met the anti-apartheid legend over tea in Mandela’s home. When Mandela was inaugurated a year after their meeting, Constand Viljoen saluted him in the halls of Parliament and would later call him “the greatest of men.”
Abraham Viljoen’s example could help us today. The news is filled with stories about White people acting in blatantly racist ways. Racism can seem like apartheid once did: ineradicable.
Yet we are also surrounded by people like Abraham Viljoen. They show us that compassion can bloom in the most unexpected places. And while many people are taught to hate, there are others who seem born with the instinct to question those messages.
It’s time we started paying more attention to them as well.