The Youth Racial Wellbeing Initiative

By Dominique

School teaches us many subjects, but did anyone ever teach you how to deal with racism? It’s a strange concept; how do you teach a child about racism? Most adults don’t know how much about racism, let alone know how to teach a very serious, mature topic to a Year 4 child! But if our children are experiencing racism from primary school ages, how can we measure and support their mental health? Acknowledging racism and its harmful effects is the first step.

Racism may be an ‘adult’ topic, but the reality is, that discrimination starts early. Children can recognise racial differences from 6 months old, and can start internalising racial bias as early as two. Racism is a learned behaviour, taken up through observation of how adults interact with each other (and what they say behind closed doors). Despite laws and regulations in place, many Black British children still face racial discrimination, both in and out of the classroom. And as is the nature of children, they are very impressionable, learning how to think, speak, and act, based on what the people around them think, say, and act. This tool for children’s development is a double-edged sword; racial bias and other forms of discrimination are quickly absorbed, and can be internalised, or even replicated. This makes unhappy, underdeveloped, and traumatised children, who may go on to distribute the same trauma to their peers, and later, maybe their own children.

At BLAM UK, we aim to support, improve and raise the racial esteem and racial identity of Black children by teaching racially affirming narratives about themselves and people that look like them. Racial trauma has only recently been acknowledged as a global threat to health, and through our Racial Wellbeing Initiative, we have been able to support and safeguard the mental well-being of children around the United Kingdom. Our Racial Wellbeing Workshops give Black children an open space for group discussion to connect and support one another by processing their reactions, experiences, and feelings about Black Joy, and also any forms of racial stress and trauma. Co-delivered by Humanistic Integrative Counsellor and BACP accredited mental health practitioner, Bankole Jaiyeoba, the workshops were delivered to Primary and Secondary Schools around London, covering themes of Black joy, racial trauma and its effects, and how to process negative racial bias to help prevent internalised racism, following BLAM UK’s stance on utilising transformative, healing justice to combat racial bias.

We found that school children often understand the concept of racism, and that it is wrong and hurtful, but do not understand what race, or heritage, ethnicity, or nationality is, nor understand how our brains and bodies react to racism. If we don’t fully understand how racial identity shapes our behaviours and interactions with other people, how can we ever change them for the better? Clearly defining definitions of identity, race, and discrimination builds the structure for navigating racial bias; we introduced this to our pupils through word association games. These help our brains to engage with the content by offloading  information from our schema, or working brain, by writing down our immediate thoughts, and also can reveal our subconscious thoughts as well. It also got the pupils comfortable with sharing their thoughts, no matter how random they might be! I also found that most of the participants’ understanding of mental health was limited only to bad mental health; the idea that you only need to take care of your mental health when it’s bad, which is when you go and see a doctor. We wanted to challenge this idea; just like your physical health, your mental health will naturally fluctuate, and you must take preventative, ongoing care of your mental health, the same way you take ongoing care of your body through exercise, healthy eating, cleanliness etc. Mental health should be spoken about all the time, not just when it’s gotten bad, to help break the stigma around mental illness, and promote mindfulness and other forms of transformative self-care. 

Racism can be overt, such as slur-calling, open discrimination, or covert, such as micro-agressions, implicit biases, and subtle commentary. It can be very uncomfortable to challenge racial bias, and it can be hard for a child to be able to articulate to another person why the interaction was racially biassed, or to articulate the impact that has had on their feelings. Our workshops were a safe space for Black children to talk about their racial experiences, and despite articulating your feelings being a challenge, the conversation would not stop flowing. Black British children from ages 7-18 all had an experience, opinion, or answer to share, with the most common theme being they felt that school didn’t care about tackling racism. Some children even found that whilst they felt uncomfortable, they didn’t realise what happened was racist until they had reflected on the situation, highlighting the difficulties of addressing racial bias, particularly in school with white elders in positions of power. In our workshops, we covered understanding what race, racial trauma, and wellbeing all are to ensure everyone has the same level of understanding. We also covered similar lived experiences, practising how to recognise and articulate emotions and racial bias and its traumatic effects, as well as techniques, skills and advice we can use to protect our mental health and safeguard our racial wellbeing.

Stress, in all its various forms affects us individually, but regardless of our emotional reaction to stress, it affects our brains chemically the exact same way. The amygdala in the brain controls hormones, specifically hormones that trigger our ‘flight, fight, or freeze reaction’. When exposed to stress, such as conflict, or public speaking, or roller coasters, or first dates, the amygdala in our brains fires, causing a waterfall cascade of different hormones, such as adrenaline, that make butterflies in our stomachs, sweaty palms, nausea, trouble thinking etc. Some people may become angry and upset, raise their voice, or withdraw, hide, and cry, or maybe completely shut down, and become unreactive. Even if the stress isn’t direct (for example, if you see a racist social media comment, if you read something tragic in the news, etc.) our brains can still have that chemical reaction, which affects our bodies and minds. Often, we are unaware that our brains produce these chemicals, and it’s only when we see the emotional reaction to the stress that we even acknowledge the stressor to begin with. For school-children, the brain is still developing and learning how to cope with stressors and build resilience. For myself, I found it important to explain the why behind our brains chemical reactions and its effects on our behaviour to help foster an understanding of why we feel or react in certain ways. A solid understanding of our identities, bodies, and wellbeing is the first step to implementing change and supporting our good mental health.. When the body is in the flight, fight, or freeze response, the primary way to cease the amygdala producing stress hormones is to regulate your breathing, allowing blood (carrying oxygen, stress hormones, lactic acid) to regulate back to normal levels. As discussions around race and trauma can be triggering for some people, we utilised the 4-2-6 breathing technique to regulate our autonomous functions before leaving the classroom. 

Some of our Year 6 participants already had an advanced understanding of emotional management, and had their own stress management strategies, such as counting to 10, fidget tools, slow breathing, and even a quick game of football, to trick the brain into thinking the threat has passed. For the students that had difficulty identifying their emotions and stressors, we practised a grounding technique to help increase mindfulness and bodily awareness; the Body Scan exercise calls attention to each part of the body, bringing awareness to tension held within the muscles and joints, as well as grounding one into the present moment, helping prevent escalating feelings and calming the mind. This also helped some students become aware of their fight-flight-or-freeze response and its effects on their bodies, calling attention to when stress is building without their realisation.

Testimonial from Mr King, Henry Fawcett Primary School-

“I feel the workshop went really well and that the students benefited from the knowledge they gained! The mental health [sections] of the  workshop were very useful and helped the student[s] to understand the science behind controlling your emotions and what can happen if you let your emotions get the better of you. It gave the children a platform to express any concerns they may have about race or mental health in an appropriate non judgemental environment. ​”

Just like other subjects, tackling racial conflict and trauma, and maintaining positive mental wellbeing requires practice. Self-care may sound easy- take a bubble bath, exercise, treat yourself! But actually, controlling your emotional output and safeguarding your esteem is incredibly difficult; the institutionalisation of racism can make one feel isolated, othered, and is incredibly straining on your brain, increasing your cognitive load and contributing to burnout. This is even harder for children and young adults, whose prefrontal cortex (the part of the brain that controls decision making) isn’t fully developed. Practising talking about difficult topics sets our children up for navigating these conversations in their future, as well as gets them to reflect on their past interactions with racial bias. 

Trauma affects us all in different ways, often in ways we don’t notice, and the practice of mindfulness, particularly acknowledging your mental and physical reactions to stress, helps us develop resilience, as well as establish boundaries to safeguard our mental health. Many of our participants said that they relied on talking to a friend or family member to help them destress, and that ranting or sharing their experiences with someone made them feel better about the situation, and helped them to move on. I found that the atmosphere of the workshops fostered a safe space to allow sharing to happen between the participants, and once one person shared their experience, they encouraged another person to share theirs. I found the workshops ending with a few still-interested pupils lingering to continue speaking their truth, excited to have a community ready to listen and empathise with them, and happy to have their feelings and experiences validated. Nearly every workshop had each pupil in agreement; that their schools did not take racism seriously. 

In addition to learning how to identify our racial identities and biases, we also need to learn how to practise safeguarding our racial identities and mental health. A strong understanding of racial identity and mental health, leads to a strong sense of self and a strong sense of self leads to confidence and high racial esteem. Sense of self is a combination of images and words we associate with ourselves, and if the words we think about ourselves are negative, they will in turn negatively affect the image we have of ourselves. Likewise, feeding ourselves positive words and images will positively impact our self-image.Good mental health means being confident, safe, and secure, as well as being resilient to the stressors of life. Building a strong sense of self gives a firm foundation for building up confidence, which in turn, will improve mental health. Joyful self-expression of your identity can be done internally, or externally. Internal joy comes from the mental principles that enable good mental health, such as world-view, imagination/ambition, and inner conflicts/fear. External joy comes from the physical principles, or situations, that can impact mental health, such as instant gratification, exercise, physiological needs, career, and relationships. The external joys are often focused upon more heavily, as these things teach us how to problem-solve, to recognise and fulfil our needs and desires, and how to take action. However, external expressions of joy only indirectly impact your wellbeing, whereas, internal expressions of joy directly influences your wellbeing through teaching us how to recognise and process emotion. Emotions are a way for our subconscious to communicate with our conscious mind, and being present and in tune with all our emotions allows us to directly impact our wellbeing.  expresses our internal joy. In addition, there is also Black Joy, or cultural and ethnic expressions of Joy, that strengthens our self-image and redefines our relationship with our race, as well as other people’s.

In the context of discrimination, the simple act of authenticity and cultural expression is radical self-care. Our workshops also highlighted that experimenting, testing, and trying different ways of joy expression and self-care is going to have the greatest impact; as you grow and your situation changes, so will your coping mechanisms, so we must continue to practise being self-aware and strengthening our self-image in order to maintain our good mental health. The Body-Scan and 4-2-6 breathing techniques were a huge hit, with one student commenting “it was easy to do and made me feel better, but it’s hard to remember to stay mindful”. This idea was echoed by a few other participants; that mindfulness is a simple, easy thing to do, but it is hard to get our brains to turn off and to remain mindful.

The acts required to take care of one’s wellness is an ongoing, developing process that evolves with our personalities. Childhood is a fundamental developmental period to begin this process of emotional regulation, building self-esteem and creating resilient individuals well-equipped to not only successfully navigate stressors such as racism, but also for social progression and transformative justice. In addition to being able to navigate through racism when it’s happening to us, we also need to be able to navigate through the trauma racism leaves behind. The exploration and expression of Black Joy that inspires, celebrates, and uplifts Black culture, is a form of Radical Self-care. Racial wellbeing is a conscious effort to promote cultural expression and self acceptance to equip us with the tools we need to tackle racism. By reinforcing the positive associations and joys of Black culture,  we also promote positive self-image and self-affirming cultural expression of identity, as well as actively reject white supremacist ideology.

Finally, we spent the last part of the workshops focusing on the BLAM UK values of Transformative Justice (TJ), a framework approach for responding to violence, harm, and abuse (i.e. racism) without creating more violence and/or reducing the violence. TJ is achieved without reliance on the state interventions such as school exclusions or the foster care system, not dissimilar to the ethos of the Black Panther Party. TJ also promotes preventative measures against violence, such as accountability, resilience, self-identity, healing, and community. The students came up with their own examples of TJ with the prompt “An eye for an eye makes the whole world go blind”, which was a fantastic opportunity for healing by allowing the students to reflect and verbalise the resolution they desired in their own life experiences, as well as recognise how to address conflict without inflicting more harm.  As an accompaniment to the Racial Wellness Workshops, we distributed our Racial Wellness Creative Booklets, designed to promote Black joy and positive Black representations of art, language, and practical resources to help build racial esteem. These workbooks help facilitate the continuation of learning after the workshops, such as affirmations of Black Joy, exploring the origins and validity of Black British English (BBE), journaling techniques, ‘Pod Mapping’ to identify your community and support system, and more.

One of our partner schools, Charter East Dulwich, engaged in the programme multiple times, and have left testimonials to their experience:

“ [In] This workshop I learnt a lot, it was packed full with info. I learnt how to accept who I am for who I am, accept my race, my feelings and my emotions. If I had an opportunity to do it again I would.”
“I think this boosts a lot of people’s confidence”
“It was great and should happen more”
“It was very good, I’ve never experienced a workshop like this, thank you”

Case Study 1

“Tyler” is a self-confessed introvert, and usually keeps to himself and his small circle of friends. In the Racial Wellbeing Workshop, Tyler started to speak up and share his experiences and thoughts. He had never spoken up about his racial experiences, or really, any emotional experience, preferring to express himself through his writing, but in the safe space of the workshop, Tyler saw that the younger children weren’t sure what to say. He spoke about how teachers would call him and his other dark-skinned friends ‘gangs’ or ‘criminals’ when they were gathered together, and how the school tried to stop more than 5 Black children travelling together. He spoke about his low confidence, and how no one ever called dark-skinned, quiet, slender built men ‘handsome’, or ‘pretty’, instead of just ‘dark’, and how all these experiences made him feel.  The others in his group all nodded and agreed with him; he verbalised the shared feelings of the group, and he also spoke about how he built his confidence back up again. Tyler was a big champion of mental health, particularly Black men’s health, and urged the whole room to keep talking.

Venting, sharing, talking, all help us process and verbalise our feelings, offloading the brain and clearing the mind, as well as helps us regain perspective. Tyler spoke very fondly of his friends (the aforementioned ‘gang’) and how sharing experiences with other Black men helped prevent him internalising the racially-biased opinions of others. Most notably, Tyler said that he would have loved to have a Racial Wellbeing session earlier in his schooling, and whilst the school has made great changes to tackling racism since he began KS3, more can still be done.”

Case Study 2

“Jackson” was roped into his Sixth Form duties, asked by his teacher to attend and support BLAM UK’s Racial Wellbeing Workshop. Jackson said he had never been to therapy, and the only people he has really spoken to about mental health or racial wellbeing, was his friends and one Black teacher. Jackson told us about an incident at school where a teacher made a remark about his racial group and intelligence, which made him feel uncomfortable. Not wanting to escalate the situation, or get in trouble by ‘talking back’ to a teacher, Jackson had left the situation . It wasn’t until Jackson had spoken about the situation to a Black teacher that he realised the other teacher had said something racist. Jackson then went on to point out that often, Black children aren’t able to properly articulate and address racial bias and confront it, either because they are too young to be able to process the confrontation and verbalise their pain, or because they are scared of making the situation worse, and being labelled ‘angry’, ‘aggressive’, or ‘over-emotional’.

Understanding how the brain reacts to environmental stressors, producing adrenaline and other stress hormones automatically without our control, helped Jackson understand his reaction to his previous racially traumatic situation, and he reflected on how he would deal with it now that he is older. He said he would do a very similar thing, and go to talk to a trusted person about it, as he recognised that processing trauma requires us to talk about our experiences, or write them down. He said he felt like he could hold his own in that situation now, and to question the teacher about what their comment really means. Most importantly, he said he feels more resilient, and that even if the teacher didn’t recognise their own racial biases, he could confidently disregard their ignorance, and safeguard his racial wellbeing to avoid internalising racism.

If you are interested in learning more about the project or would like to order the wellness booklets, please email

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