Racial trauma can be described as the mental and emotional impacts that a person experiences as a result of exposure to racism. This exposure may be direct, for example by being on the receiving end of racist insults or frequent microaggressions, or more ‘indirect’ such as hearing distressing news about a racist incident or witnessing a video on social media. Racial trauma can be experienced in systems and institutions. In schools and other educational institutions, young people can have experiences that contribute to racial trauma.
School policies about dress and behaviour may target Black students. They can serve as a way for schools to police their hair, the way they talk, the language or actions they use to express themselves, and punish them for it. In addition to school policies, interactions between school staff and peers also contribute to racial trauma. Racist peer-on-peer bullying, microaggressions from school staff and classmates, and hearing racist language all contribute to racial trauma. A study published by the youth charity YMCA revealed that 95% of young Black people had heard racist language at school. In a focus group conducted as part of their study, young Black people revealed they expected to hear racist sentiments and experience racism because they were Black.
In schools alone, the restriction, punishment and policing of Black students that is enforced via policies, alongside microaggressions, bullying, and racist sentiments heard by Black students when they interact with their wider school community greatly contributes to their racial trauma. When it is considered the amount of time young Black people spend in the education system, the need to actively undo the trauma they face becomes extremely urgent.
Racial wellness is essential as it works to undo the harm that is caused by racial trauma. For children, racial wellness is particularly important as it equips them with the practices, techniques, and confidence needed to work through racial trauma from now, in their childhood, to their later lives. It is extremely important to be aware of racial trauma in young Black people, its effects and how to cope with these effects. Symptoms of racial trauma are extremely similar to symptoms of other mental health difficulties. They can include and are not limited to:
- Sadness and depression
- Low self-esteem
- Trouble concentrating
- Feeling as though you need to be constantly alert/on guard
Racial wellness in schools is vital for the wellbeing of all students, but it is crucial for Black students who are affected by racism and who are susceptible to racial trauma. Schools can actively encourage racial wellness and incorporate it into wider school culture by creating (and maintaining) an environment which allows Black students to feel listened to, cared for, taken seriously, and one which allows them to be safe expressing themselves and sharing their experiences. Generally, schools will need to review and amend (or even completely remove) their existing policies that negatively impact or police Black students, as well as giving training to staff, providing specific wellbeing services to students, and ultimately transforming school culture to be one which truly does not condone racism or discrimination on any level.
For training, schools can also partner with organisations like BLAM who can provide school staff with appropriate training programmes and workshops to provide insight into what constitutes racial trauma, for example. We also provide workshops for students to help them to cope with racial trauma, encourage and teach them about racial wellness, and affirm the identities of Black students. Schools are also encouraged to provide services such as counselling with a racial and cultural focus, in order for students experiencing racial trauma to work through it in a safe and supportive environment.
The conversation on the existence of racial wellness in schools is one that is crucial for the safety and wellbeing of Black students. It is important that this conversation does not end at being a conversation, but that it develops into actions and behaviours. Young people spend a significant portion of their lives in schools. Schools, for a lot of them, act as one of their first instances of interacting with a wide range of individuals and also acts as one of their first introductions to a community outside of their family network. Therefore, it is important to ensure that while young people are in the care of schools, they are being looked after, affirmed, taken seriously, and prevented from experiencing harm.