Lillian White is the Texas teacher who was fired from her job after she refused to stop wearing a Black Lives Matter mask on campus. School administrators argued in emails, which White made available online, that the school’s dress code forbade any kind of wording or symbolism on masks.
According to the emails, White expressed willingness to wear a different mask if the school implemented an anti-racism action plan. But she insisted on continuing to demonstrate her support for the cause in the meantime. The headmaster fired her via email on September 5 but wrote that the record would state that she “quit without good cause.”
Here’s what you need to know:
1. White Was Told to Stop Wearing the BLM Masks Because Teachers Were Not Supposed to ‘Discuss the Current Political Climate on Campus’
White, an art teacher, created several masks for herself with messages such as “Silence is violence,” Justice delayed is justice denied” and “No justice no peace.” In July, she wore these masks to campus when Greater Hearts Western Hills reopened for teacher workdays and training sessions. As White told KENS-TV, there did not appear to an issue at first. “For about a week and a half I was wearing these masks and no one said anything. A couple of the other teachers came up and asked for some if I had any extras and I made them some.”
But by the end of July, White received a text message from the assistant headmaster that took her by surprise. According to White, the message said” “Hey can you start bringing a different mask on campus? We don’t discuss the current political climate on campus. Parents will start coming around more now. Thank you!” (White told CNN that while she never encountered any parents or students on campus while wearing her BLM mask, she was “harassed by some parents” when she posted photos of herself on social media).
White reached out to the executive director of Greater Hearts, Andrew Ellison, about the issue on August 4. In her email to Ellison, White shared the response she sent to her boss:
I can wear a new one, but I made all masks to show my support of equal rights for all, and have vowed to wear only those for the duration of this pandemic. I do not quite understand why this is a problem, I should hope all students and faculty at Great Hearts would be happy to know I will love all of my students and treat them all equally, regardless of race, religion, or gender. And if anyone is offended by the idea of equal rights for all students at our school, does that really seem like the kind of person that belongs in the Great Hearts family? Our motto is Truth, Goodness, Beauty. These transcendentals are inalienable rights, and Great Hearts should be proud to declare that they work unceasingly to provide them to scholars of all colors and creeds. As the great philosopher Cornel West so powerfully and eloquently put it, “We’ve got to fight all forms of dogmatism, all forms of self-righteousness, all forms of believing one has a monopoly on TRUTH or GOODNESS or BEAUTY.”
White went on to say she disagreed “with the reduction of Black Lives Matter to a political statement when it is a human rights issue.” She added that the school should be willing to reassure all of its students that their lives matter, regardless of their skin color.
Ellison responded by assuring White that her boss was simply complying with a policy that had been implemented across the charter network. He said that school leaders decided to ban all logos or wording from facial coverings. Ellison explained the policy would include logos such as the autism awareness puzzle, a mask with a sports logo on it or messaging supporting the police. He further argued:
It’s not inaccurate to think of the reason behind the policy as being “keeping politics out of our schools”, but it is bigger than that. It’s about the Great Hearts vision of the call of the teacher, a call that includes leaving at the door a whole host of our passions and allegiances and activities and expressions and causes and identifications, no matter how worthy they are, when we come to mold the hearts and minds of our students. So while I might have a particular interest in classic be-bop jazz, love of a particular non-curricular author, devotion to the teachings and values of my own religious faith tradition, and zealous support of a presidential candidate, as a teacher I leave those things behind when I come to school. At work I teach and espouse and model the Great Hearts program and vision, not my own.
Ellison ended his email by using White to abide by the school’s dress code by wearing a solid-color mask. He said he hoped his email made te policy “at least a little less arbitrary or incomprehensible.”
2. White Expressed Concern About a Letter Sent to Parents That Referenced ‘Riots & Looting’
These are incredibly difficult times. From uncertainty and fear related to the pandemic, to the enduring pain of racism and the more recent unrest due to riots and looting, we are all unsettled. We must commit ourselves to one another with all love, sobriety, and an unwavering commitment to what is true, good, and beautiful. As we proceed together through these times, some things need to be said clearly:
Great Hearts deplores bigotry and its crushing effects on all those subjected to it. We stand with the Black community and all Americans who are suffering. And we pledge ourselves to contribute to an America where racism, violence and disregard for the rights of others do not happen, because such acts find no home in the hearts of a great people.
White expressed concern that Scoggin had chosen to highlight “riots and looting.” She argued:
Mentioning the few moments of riots in the same sentence as the entire movement is a tact used by media to discredit the purpose of the movement as well as the millions of peaceful protests, which are incomparable in volume to the few small scale riots. Especially considering the fact that most of the violence at the BLM protests is enacted by racist spectators and the brutal law enforcement agencies which the Black community is terrified of in the first place. To start the letter with that sentence does little to instill a trust in the institution that utters it.
According to White, Ellison never replied to this email.
3. Lillian White Pushed for Greater Hearts to Issue a Statement in Support of Black Lives Matter
White’s next step was to contact Scoggin directly on August 17 via email. She told him she was writing “out of concern for the mental and physical safety of my scholars and their families” and that her following request came from a moral obligation:
I am requesting that Great Hearts make a public, permanent statement on their website saying that Black Lives Matter. I have heard all the excuses saying this violates the standard of not discussing the current political climate. I have seen the note sent by you at the end of last school year. Neither of these are an adequate or just response to the needs of our scholars, their families, or our community.
I have spent almost a decade devoting myself to providing a safe and caring environment in which children can develop their love of the pursuit of knowledge, I will not stop now. I am holding you accountable to stand with your scholars and their communities. Not addressing the issue for fear of social repercussions is repugnant. No school system who prides itself on upholding TRUTH, GOODNESS, and BEAUTY could possibly believe that standing silent while others suffer is morally true.
Scoggin responded two days later and requested they discuss the issue over the phone. White replied that she would be fine with a phone call and requested that they both record the call in order to avoid “claims of hearsay.” Scoggin then replied that it would be better if the stuck to email. In her reply, White stated that in addition to the mask issue, she wished to speak with him about an anti-racism action plan.
On August 24, Scoggin wrote to White and included a portion of the letter he had sent to parents in June, specifically the part about how Great Hearts “deplores bigotry.” He said he would “discuss with my colleagues if we should make this statement, or a version of it, a standing part of our website.”
4. White Was Fired Days Before the Start of the New School Year
White had been willing to wear a different mask if her employers agreed to more fully address the issue of implicit bias and put out a statement on its website expressing support for the Black community. In her second email to Ellison on August 8, White explained her reasoning:
I have no problem avoiding political statements mask-wise, as long as I know that all of my coworkers as well as scholars and their families (current and potential) have already seen a public statement of Black Lives Matter support on the Great Hearts website.
I am proud to know that I work for an institution that supports justice for all, I would like the rest of the world to know that as well. I would greatly appreciate it if Great Hearts could put a public statement of their support on their website homepage, just as the schools which I linked in the original letter did.
On September 3, White was contacted by Great Hearts Western Hills headmaster Matthew Vlahovich. He mentioned that the faculty had two important training sessions coming up and asked White to “comply with the GH approved mask policy” if she was coming onto campus. She replied:
I must let you know that my commitment to wearing the BLM masks until I can get Dan Scoggin to implement an anti-racism action plan stands. I will have to show up and get sent home. I understand the consequences, but there is no way I could live with myself if I did not stay committed to this cause.
On September 5, Vlahovich responded by acknowledging that White had had conversations with Great Heart leadership about the mandatory dress code and how it applies to face coverings. He explained that her decision to continue to wear BLM masks meant she could no longer work at the school:
We deeply respect your convictions, and we sincerely wish you well in whatever advocacy you might choose outside the school; however, the organization maintains a dress code in order to sustain a scholastic culture of learning in which students and faculty participate together across time. Without that culture, our ability to serve students and families would be diminished or destroyed.
Your e-mail of September 3 restated your refusal and that you understood the consequences and that you would continue to “show up and get sent home.” Your failure to comply with policy is unfortunate, especially at this time of student need.
Your decision and refusal to report to work as directed is a “quit” without good cause, and will be recorded as such effective September 4, 2020. You will receive, under separate cover, notice of any benefits continuation and COBRA notice. Your final paycheck will be issued in accordance with Texas payday law.
White explained to CNN that she never questioned her decision about the masks. “This is a human rights issue and I did it for my students who experience racial injustice in school… If you’re scared about what parents are going to say because a teacher is supporting equal rights, you need to reevaluate the kind of people you’re catering to. By staying silent, Great Hearts is only supporting racist parents.”
Great Hearts has insisted that White’s termination was solely about a dress code policy.
5. White, Who Has Been Teaching For 10 Years, Is Continuing to Push for an Anti-Racism Action Plan
Since she was let go from Great Hearts, White has continued to push for the school to incorporate an anti-racism action plan into the curriculum. She launched an online petition and as of this writing, more than 3,300 people have signed it. She explained on the petition that she wants the school to implement “anti-racism training for all employees (including board members etc.), diverse representation in curriculum, and a team on each campus to implement and monitor this plan.”
White explained to KENS-TV she has received a lot of feedback from parents and community members since her firing. She said some of the messages have been supportive but that she received plenty of negative attention as well. “Even though I don’t teach there anymore, I think that all this backlash, especially the negativity from parents and the fact that I was fired because of this, means that this is a conversation they still need to have.”
White has been a teacher for about 10 years and had been about to start her second year of teaching art at Great Hearts, KENS-TV reported.