Beat It! Defeat It! Racist Cookies

Promoting activism in teacher education

By Bree Picower

Illustrator: The Gothamist

Was the baker drunk?.
Photo: The Gothamist

Beat it! Defeat it! Racist cookies: We won’t eat it!” chanted 38 undergraduates from the New York University Childhood and Special Education Teacher Education Program as they stood in front of the Lafayette Bakery in Greenwich Village, holding signs and chanting as part of one of their classes. As their professor for the last two semesters, first for a multicultural curriculum design course and now in a course on integrated children’s literature, art, and technology, I knew that this group of preservice teachers had an awareness of social justice issues. They were excited about the idea of teaching from a social justice perspective, but had little firsthand experience taking social action themselves. In fact, only a handful of my majority white and middle-class students had ever participated in a public protest prior to this cold February evening. So how did we get to this moment where they passionately chanted, cheered, and talked to people passing by about “racist cookies”?

An email had circulated earlier that week through the NYU Department of Teaching and Learning about Lafayette Bakery. The owner was selling “Drunken Negro Head Cookies” in “honor” of President Obama. Yes: Drunken. Negro. Head. Cookies. (link to myfoxny.com story). When I received the email, I realized that the bakery was across the street from a field trip site that I had planned to take my students to the following week. As a teacher educator focused on social justice education, I began to wonder about how to take advantage of this teachable moment by incorporating this incident in my course. I sent the link to my students and asked them to bring one of our texts to class, The Kid’s Guide to Social Action, by Barbara Lewis.

Developing Classroom Skills

When the students arrived in class, my co-instructor and I played an updated news clip showing a protest in front of the bakery. The students discussed their reactions. Shock, outrage, disgust. Aminah talked about the amount of time, energy, and thought that must have gone into creating each of these caricatures?the effort the baker put into widening each nose, expanding the lips and coming up with a name he felt suited these cookies. These preservice teachers had already practiced designing social justice units, so on this night I had them break into groups and use the formats that we had been using throughout the year to create lesson plans and units to teach about this incident. Using The Kid’s Guide to Social Action and keeping in mind the mandated literacy and math curricula in NYC schools, my students quickly brainstormed and created five-day units that integrated rigorous academics with this social issue. Essential questions and enduring understandings started to emerge: “Students will understand that racism is an issue that has affected us in the past and still affects us in the present.” “Can we distinguish the line between freedom of expression and the issues of oppression?” “As a society, how can we hold people accountable for their actions?” “What tools can we use to express our ideas on social injustices?” One group made historical connections to the Greensboro sit-ins by incorporating Freedom on the Menu, an elementary-level book that one student had just read as part of a book club assignment. Another group planned a lesson that used the same methods that the baker used to spread racism to teach anti-racism by holding a “recipes for respect” bake sale in front of the bakery, offering “diversity donuts” and “social justice shortbread.”

As Mariel said, “During the lesson planning activity I felt all of my anger about the cookies coming forward, but because I was planning this unit that covered the incident, racism, and social justice, I felt like I was able to take action in an effective manner.” By providing an outlet for the outrage that many of them expressed, the students could do more than complain about the bakery?they could apply their teaching skills and desire to teach for social justice into tangible classroom activities. [The lesson plans are available online at http://www.edliberation.org/resources/records/beat-it-defeat-it-racist-cookies-we-wont-eat-it/view.]

Taking Action

After sharing their lessons with each other, I mentioned that it just so happened that all 38 of us were going to be in front of the bakery tonight. “Perhaps you might like to do something?” I asked them. Possibly because of the recent election and their excitement over Obama’s victory, or perhaps because of the obvious ugliness of these racist cookies, the students were ready for action. In the past I might have had some students who were ambivalent, but I was delighted that this year, the whole room was abuzz.

Julia shouted, “Can I go buy spray paint?” She seemed sincere.

Holding back my smile, I responded, “While I appreciate your enthusiasm, it’s actually hard to get a teaching job with a police record.”

After some discussion, students decided that we should hold a mini-protest in front of the bakery. When I asked them what protest chants they knew, the room went quiet. One student meekly offered, “Hell no, we won’t go,” further confirming that these 20-somethings had never before participated in, let alone organized, a protest. One student suggested making posters, so the students excitedly made posters with slogans such as “bake love not hate” and we carried them to the bakery. Standing in front of the bakery, chanting and holding signs, the students talked to people passing by and cheered as cars honked in support.

Deanna described what it felt like to participate: “Amazing! I have never participated in a protest before and . . . it felt really exciting and powerful to be a participant. I was surprised at how many people actually stopped to listen to us and/or read our posters. I’m not sure that I ever fully grasped the power of protests and how they can really spread the word very quickly!” By standing up for their beliefs with a group of peers, the preservice teachers’ understandings of protest transformed from something intimidating and “radical” to something empowering and accessible.

Implications for Teacher Ed

Within the field of social justice education, there is a call for teachers to use education as a vehicle of social change, helping students use academic skills to critically analyze and take action to change the material conditions of their worlds. There is a huge gap, however, between this vision of what teachers should be doing and the experiences and inclinations of the largely white, largely middle-class cohorts of teacher education students. If teacher education for social justice is to be effective, we must attend to this gap.

One of the first challenges is helping preservice teachers who don’t have firsthand experience to think critically about issues such as racism or inequality, and to recognize the systemic structures that perpetuate them and their role within that. Many writers and multicultural education courses address these structures and help students to think differently about who their students are and where they come from, but they often stop there. If we want teachers to translate these understandings into action, we need to go further.

Social justice education and activism are more than mind-sets, they are also skill sets. Social justice educators must be able to recognize opportunities to incorporate social issues into the curriculum; integrate issues into the mandated curriculum; ensure rigorous academic skills are being taught; justify their choices to students, parents, and administrators; assess social justice understandings; and have experience organizing social action projects, such as letter-writing campaigns, protests, boycotts, etc. Considering that many preservice teachers have not engaged in such activities themselves, it is crucial that teacher educators provide opportunities for their students to do so.

When asked to reflect on the activity, all 38 students said that they felt they developed skills they could use in the classroom from participating in this project. From collaboration with colleagues to increased confidence, the students gained hands-on experience integrating social justice with traditional academics and planning for and taking social action on an issue they cared about. Deanna said, “I developed the skills to introduce an important (and controversial) issue to my young students in a productive and safe way. I developed the skills to plan and organize some sort of social action around the issue in order to make others more aware of what’s going on and to hopefully bring about change.” In fact, the lesson plans her group developed used literature book clubs, collages, and family interviews to help students learn about different manifestations of racism. Deanna’s group felt this would create a historical context for the students to better understand the bakery incident.

The overwhelming majority of my students responded that when they first read about the bakery situation, they wanted to do something about it, but didn’t know what to do or how to go about doing it. My students, like many teachers, go into the profession with the hopes of “making a difference” but don’t have the mind-set that when they see an injustice, they can and should take action.

Even those who recognize and are angered by injustice don’t necessarily have the skills needed to navigate a system that in many ways is set up against the best interest of their students. When aspiring teachers know that they can take action against injustice, they can go past good intentions and feel empowered to help their students do the same, while integrating academics. As Kristin summarized, “Both the process of collaborating and the resulting protest were a window into the power we hold as individuals.

“More importantly, this experience opened a door to opportunities of being history makers with our students.”

Bree Picower is an Assistant Professor/Postdoctoral Fellow at New York University and a core member of the New York Collective of Radical Educators, NYCoRE.org. She is the co-editor of Planning to Change the World: A Planbook for Social Justice Teachers.