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October 1, 2020

Confronting Inequity / Healing Black Students' Pain

If schools aren't addressing racism, they aren't fully addressing trauma.
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During my school years, I learned about white scholars, white inventors, white ideas, and white theories. I didn't read a book about a writer of color until I was in high school, and even then, it wasn't a part of the official curriculum. I was expected to find myself in narratives of enslaved Africans, of the three civil rights leaders I learned about each year, and of Black struggle. I did not see myself reflected in the fair faces with blonde hair and blue eyes that I read about or saw in magazines and on television. I became convinced that ingenuity could only live within whiteness.
I searched for stories about Black biracial children with immigrant mothers and absent fathers, about Black children who lived in cities and invented games because going outside was sometimes too dangerous. I searched for stories that represented me, that portrayed Black love, Black excellence, and Black joy.
As I was looking for myself in stories and lessons at school, I was watching news clips of Rodney King's assault by police officers in Los Angeles. I was listening with horror as newscasters recounted the story of Amadou Diallo, an innocent man shot 19 times by New York City police officers (who were later acquitted). And still today, violence against Black bodies continues, most recently with the murders of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and Ahmaud Arbery. Each unnecessary death fills me with anxiety about whether I can ever be free of the trauma of witnessing the dismissiveness with which our country treats Black life.
And make no mistake, these impressions do cause trauma. A 2018 study in The Lancet found that police killings of unarmed Black people have adverse effects on the mental health of Black people, but no effect on white people (Bor et al., 2018). The images from such incidents also have adverse mental health effects on Black and Latinx youth (Tynes et al., 2019), who have had to witness and experience racialized terror over and over again.
Just imagine the damage done to our Black students' psyches when, at school, they are made invisible in academic content and yet blaringly visible through over-surveillance, policing, and demoralizing media coverage. And what do white children learn from these very same triggering images of Black death and the white-centered curricula? They learn how to un-see and devalue Black lives.
Indeed, our trauma work must include not only addressing the toxic stress of racism, which we know contributes to adverse mental and physical health effects in people of color (Comas-Díaz & Hall, 2019; Williams, 1999), but also confronting the dangers of white privilege. Racial trauma work is just as necessary for white children because the ignorance and bias that feeds racism, which originates from the acceptance of white supremacy, inflict harm, too.
To ensure that all children, especially Black youth, have the privilege to live full lives, educators must confront racism and the resulting trauma from it. If we don't, we are not really doing equity work, and we are not really trauma-informed or trauma-sensitive. We are just saying we are. We are just maintaining the status quo and making ourselves feel better. If we truly care about the future of our young people and our nation, we can no longer be passive about racial justice. We can no longer walk away and ignore the pain our students are feeling.

Confronting the Status Quo

Teaching to prevent and mitigate racial trauma requires, first and foremost, that educators commit to racial justice, to being anti-racists (Simmons, 2019). I have grown impatient with the many teachers I support who tell me how scared they are to talk about race and to make mistakes. Though I understand this fear and desire, we have to stop centering white tears over Black lives. We cannot let our emotions paralyze us from engaging in anti-racist teaching. We have to start somewhere. We may well make mistakes on our anti-racist journeys. We may say the wrong thing. We may offend someone. What matters most, however, is that we learn from our missteps and bounce back instead of turning our backs on the problem.
As we engage in racially just pedagogy, we must be careful not to retraumatize students by showing pictures or videos of police- or vigilante-related violence against Black people. Instead, focus on teaching students how to identify and analyze racial bias in media and provide ways for them to reach out to media outlets with their findings to advocate for fuller stories. Empower students to disrupt single narratives of Blackness. Most important, center students' realities in the content you teach. This means affirming and valuing students and their communities in our teaching.
I encourage educators to interrogate, with an antiracist lens, the curriculum, learning experiences, and school policies to which our Black students are subject. Ask whose realities and histories are reflected in what they are learning. Whose are not? Who will feel valued? Who will experience belonging? Who will not? It is our responsibility to mitigate the trauma of erasure that so many Black students have experienced. Go above and beyond what textbooks tell us is our history, introduce diverse voices and experiences through literature and mentors, and expose students to better media resources so that all students see and believe in Black heroism, Black ingenuity, and Black success.
Lastly, we must create opportunities for students to share their feelings freely in courageous and safe spaces centered on healing. It is crucial to provide young people with resources and activities for healing and engaging in self-care and to share accessible therapeutic and counseling supports.
Antiracist pedagogy requires deep, courageous work. It is important to understand that we cannot trauma-inform away racism. We cannot tweet away racism. We cannot read away racism. We cannot "intervention" away racism. We cannot deep-breathe away racism. Educators, and especially white teachers, have to roll up their sleeves, look inside themselves, sit with discomfort, reflect on what they can do better, and then live and teach with racial justice as their guiding principle. This work starts with us, but it cannot end with us. It must include dismantling old oppressive systems and structures and building anew.
Editors' note: A version of this column appeared on the ASCD InService blog on June 5, 2020.

Bor, J., Venkataramani, A. S., Williams, D. R., & Tsai, A. (2018). Police killings and their spillover effects on the mental health of Black Americans: A population-based, quasi-experimental study. Lancet, 392(10144), 302–310.

Comas-Díaz, L., & Hall, G. N. (2019). Racial trauma: Theory, research, and healing: Introduction to special issue. American Psychologist, 74(1), 1–5.

Simmons, D. (2019). How to be an antiracist educator. Education Update, 61(10).

Tynes, B. M., Willis, H. A., Stewart, A. M., & Hamilton, M. W. (2019). Race-related traumatic events online and mental health among adolescents of color. Journal of Adolescent Health, 65, 371–377.

Williams, D. R. (1999). Race, socioeconomic status, and health: The added effects of racism and discrimination. Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences, 896, 173–188.

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