With the right training and greater racial awareness, teachers can help students cope with the stress of racism and discrimination
Ava DuVernay recently released the Netflix miniseries When They See Us, a dramatic narrative based on the true story of the Central Park 5. Although the ordeal of the five innocent Black and Latino boys convicted of sexual assault has been on public record since 1989, the new series brought the injustices these youth faced — racial profiling, hyperaggressive policing, detainment, public humiliation, and imprisonment — to the attention of a new generation. For many in the Black community, the series has also raised a difficult question: To watch or not to watch?
Many of our Black friends and colleagues bemoan the fatigue that comes with not just living through such events but also feeling compelled to watch, talk about, and process those events all over again. But this creates quite the conundrum: In a country where many White people do not want to (and almost never have to) talk about race, and where many Black people are tired of talking about it, who will teach our children what they must know about racism?
Some educators believe that it is noble to avoid looking directly at race, arguing that if we do not introduce youth to the concept, they will maintain a naturally unbiased stance toward others. However, researchers tend to reach the opposite conclusion, as the evidence suggests that the real damage occurs when we choose not to talk to our students explicitly about race and racism (Hughes et al., 2006). The fact is that children form strong ideas about race from an early age, whether or not the adults in their lives introduce the topic (Hagerman, 2019). Thus, we have no real choice but to put aside our discomfort and fatigue and force ourselves to address these awkward, challenging, tiring, amorphous, and ubiquitous issues in our classrooms. And, in turn, this requires us to educate ourselves, so that we can understand what living with racial stress and trauma looks like for Black students and their families and so that we can define effective ways for schools to help.
Black families’ experiences with racial discrimination
The history of social positioning in the United States has left Black families intimately familiar with the pervasive ethos and actions of a racialized society (e.g., Rosiek, 2019). From churches to courthouses, and from hospitals to schools, interpersonal and structural racism present challenges that Black families must teach their children to both endure and overcome. Black parents are charged with explaining to their children why such large disparities in wealth, health, neighborhood quality, and school achievement persist in our society. At the same time, increasingly hostile national politics have undoubtedly stoked the current rise in racially motivated hate crimes (U.S. Department of Justice, 2018), which parents must help children process. Further, in the social media era, the increased visibility of these hostilities makes racial fatigue unavoidable — families and youth of color cannot help but become witnesses to traumatic events, and these vicarious experiences are in themselves harmful (Tynes et al., 2019). Indeed, the promise of a “post-racial society,” which many saw in the 2008 election of President Barack Obama, has proven to be illusory. In actuality, in any given year, more than 90% of Black youth over age eight will experience racial discrimination (Pachter & Coll, 2009).
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By no means do the challenges of processing and negotiating racial stress disappear when children go to school (Diamond & Huguley, 2011). Many of the youth we work with have described the ill effects of being subjected to not just the overt use of racist epithets by other students, but also more subtle (and perhaps more insidious) forms of discrimination, such as when teachers and staff omit Black youth from advanced course recommendations, disproportionately scrutinize the behavior of Black boys, or choose to leave racially representative content out of the curriculum. As a result, the parents of Black children often find themselves helping their children unpack racial phenomena at the dinner table. For example, a father may have to help a son understand that it isn’t his fault that his all-Black school is physically crumbling and has some of the least‑qualified teachers in the district. A mother may have to explain that Black history started long before the slave trade, or that Black kids are fully capable of succeeding in Advanced Placement classes, even if their school doesn’t offer them.
Similarly, those parents often find that they have to go to the school to talk with an administrator who wants to suspend their child over a minor disciplinary offense (such as “talking back” or the ever nebulous charge of “insubordination”). Or they may have to go to the school to find out why a teacher said in front of their child that “My bad kids are Black kids” (an actual incident that one parent reported to us). Add to these school-based challenges the fear of having to help one’s child avoid a wrongful criminal accusation, a police beating or killing, or being murdered by a White man simply for playing music too loud, and the picture of the Black experience of parenting can become grim indeed.
The evidence suggests that the real damage occurs when we choose not to talk to our students explicitly about race and racism.
Researchers have found that such stressors tend to levy a significant physical and psychological tax on the well-being of Black families. For adults, racial stress has been shown to have serious effects on both psychological and physical health, including increased prevalence of anxiety disorders, hypertension, sleep disturbances, cardiovascular reactivity, and anger (Krieger, 1990; Williams & Mohammed, 2009). And, unlike most other stressors, racial discrimination has negative repercussions not only for the individual who directly experiences the event, but also for the family members who support them (Murry et al., 2018; Saleem & Lambert, 2016).
For Black youth in particular, the negative physical, psychological, physiological, and academic effects of racism include traumatic symptoms (e.g., hyper-vigilance about potential acts of racism), diminished self-esteem, symptoms of depression, impaired academic self-concepts, decreased school engagement, and lower academic performance, to name a few (Chavous et al., 2008; Jernigan & Daniel, 2011; Wang & Huguley, 2012; Wong, Eccles, & Sameroff, 2003). And while racial trauma is not yet widely recognized as one of the diagnostic criteria for psychological problems, these intermediate symptoms likely result in not just individual difficulties but also population-level challenges, such as academic achievement gaps and a high (and growing) suicide rate among Black children (Saleem, Anderson, & Williams, 2019; Williams et al., 2018).
Given this landscape, it is no wonder that many Black parents take deliberate steps to prepare their children to survive and thrive in this racially charged culture. Such racial socialization tends to take four forms: cultural socialization (e.g., teaching youth about race, their cultural heritage, and racial pride); preparation for bias (e.g., teaching youth about the kinds of discrimination they are likely to encounter and providing guidance on how to manage and respond to such situations); promotion of mistrust (e.g., highlighting the need for caution in interracial interactions); and/or the promotion of egalitarianism (e.g., choosing to avoid explicit discussions about race or de-emphasizing racial group membership; Hughes et al., 2006). Although contextual factors (e.g., neighborhood composition, cohesiveness, disorganization) can influence which messages adults choose to emphasize and in turn influence how their children cope with racial stress (Saleem, Busby, & Lambert, 2018), the vast majority of Black parents tend to engage in this process with their children across contexts, with cultural socialization and preparation for bias being among the most common strategies.
However, to provide racial socialization that is effective in helping young people combat the harm exacted from discriminatory stress, parents and other adults must know how to provide these messages competently. One model, the Racial Encounter Coping Appraisal and Socialization Theory (RECAST) (Anderson & Stevenson, 2019; Stevenson, 2014), underscores the need to focus on the quality of messages, rather than their frequency or simply their mere provision, with a goal of assessing how well racially socialized coping skills are understood, transmitted, received, and implemented. To instill in young people the skills and confidence to challenge racial stressors, adults must also grow in the attitudes and knowledge to prepare themselves and the children in their care for those situations where racism touches their lives. This racial communication is not in place of reducing and eliminating racism writ large; rather, it is one approach among many that need to be waged to advance the mental health and wellness of Black children at this moment.
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The role of schools
Given the physical and mental consequences of discrimination and racism experienced by the vast majority of Black children, we believe that these issues constitute a moral crisis in American education. Considering the high prevalence of these incidents in schools themselves, our educational institutions must play a leading role in alleviating racial stress. At a minimum, schools should work to eliminate discriminatory occurrences within their walls. But as the great socializer of our youth, they should also act deliberately to help students understand and cope with racial structures in everyday personal and institutional life.
It is clear that youth frequently think about and explore the meaning of race (Douglass et al., 2016), while also experiencing racial stressors at school (Jernigan & Daniel, 2011). Yet many school staff and teachers do not feel confident to address the topics of race or racism (Howard & del Rosario, 2000; Young, 2003), which leads some to adopt a “color-blind” lens, choosing not to acknowledge the existence and impact of racial stress for their students. However, such avoidance only perpetuates racial misunderstandings, allows biased disciplinary practices to continue, and creates an unwelcoming environment for Black youth.
Schools can and should take a more active approach to helping Black youth and their families address racial stressors (National Child Traumatic Stress Network [NCTSN] et al., 2017). Specifically, we urge educators to pursue three priorities:
Provide a curriculum that encourages discussions about race and racism. Inevitably, the K-12 curriculum has an effect on racial socialization, whether it gives students opportunities to study their own and other cultures, helps them learn about racial discrimination in American history and present society, or offers only silence on these topics. In their choices about what to teach (or not teach), schools send messages that inform young people’s perceptions of their racial identity, influence their sense of belonging, and perhaps affect their academic outcomes. Thus, educators should be intentional in making those choices, thinking strategically about how best to provide positive opportunities for racial socialization. For example, that could mean assigning reading materials about the pre-slavery history of Black people (materials that, at present, relatively few teachers assign), or giving students writing and discussion prompts that raise questions about race relations in the United States and abroad. Even in subjects, such as math, where race has no explicit connection to the course content, teachers can promote positive racial socialization through their behaviors and the messages they send in the classroom (e.g., by using inclusive names and examples in word problems or by pointing out traditions of mathematical scholarship in African history).
Increase teacher training to foster competent classroom practices. Many scholars have called upon schools and districts to provide meaningful opportunities for teachers to reflect critically on race, racial privilege, and identity, and to learn about and implement multicultural practices in their classrooms (Howard, 2003; Howard & del Rosario, 2010; Milner, 2010). More specifically, though, teachers require a basic understanding of racial stress and trauma. Unless they know something about childhood trauma in general, and racial trauma in particular, they tend to misinterpret its manifestations (such as irritability or distrust) as simple “misbehavior,” which in turn leads them to make disciplinary referrals rather than address deeper needs. In short, helping teachers to recognize children’s racial stress and trauma is essential to interrupting the school-to-prison pipeline (NCTSN, 2019). That takes more than a onetime training, though. Ideally, teachers should have regular opportunities to discuss students’ racial trauma and its effects on learning and classroom behavior, share their teaching strategies and resources, and work through their own discomfort to come to a better understanding of their own racial beliefs and practices. This can be undertaken in departmental or schoolwide settings, or in other reflective spaces navigated by the teacher. In essence, a dearth of opportunities in the school should not preclude teachers from seeking out the support necessary to understand racial stressors and symptoms.
Offer safe and supported opportunities for growth for teachers, parents, and students. Historically, most public schools have struggled to build productive relationships with parents of color, and teachers and administrators typically have been more responsive to parents who are middle-class and White (Epstein, 2010). But if they’re going to address the racial stress and trauma Black students experience, then schools will have to find ways to build stronger partnerships with Black parents and community members. Perhaps the simplest step is to appoint a parent liaison, somebody who can serve as a trusted resource for parents and facilitate communication with teachers and counselors. Further, schools can make a regular practice of soliciting formal and informal feedback from parents, giving them ongoing chances to raise concerns about racially biased practices (such as tracking or high rates of disciplinary referrals for Black students) and suggest changes (NCTSN, 2019). Finally, administrators can look to school-based programs such as Just Discipline (Huguley et al., 2019) and family-centered programs such as Engaging, Managing, and Bonding through Race (EMBRace) (Anderson, McKenny, & Stevenson, 2019) designed to strengthen parent-teacher relationships and provide therapeutic services in a context of racial stress and inequity.
Seeing and being seen
Television shows like When They See Us can be hard to watch, especially if they challenge us to consider how racial stress and trauma touch the lives of real children in our classrooms right now, not in the distant past of 1989. But we must keep our eyes open and push ourselves to see the realities our students face, so that we can create a racially affirming climate in our schools and develop safe and supportive opportunities for all young people to learn. That means we must be courageous, choosing to confront our own mistakes and admitting when we’re not sure how to proceed, showing the same strength and resilience we’d like our students to develop.
Although it may be challenging to know exactly what to do, we would ask you to look back to that first (beloved) day of working with youngsters. Did you have a clue how to handle the spilled milk on the little girl’s shirt? How about the curse word overheard at lunch? Or the mixed-up bus route that left two children stranded after pickup? No? Well, neither did we. However, it did not stop us from seeing the concerns of the children and providing our best efforts to redress the wrongs of that day. Can we see and respond to our Black students as facing unique and frequent challenges in the same way? Will we put our all into finding the best solution that we can for them? Or will we choose not to see these problems and continue with the instruction we had planned? The choice is clear: See the children and act.
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Citation: Anderson, R.E., Saleem, F.T., and Huguley, J.P. (2019, Oct. 28). Choosing to see the racial stress that afflicts our Black students. Phi Delta Kappan, 101 (3), 20-25.