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Racial Trauma & Schooling: The Silenced Dialogue

Updated: Nov 27, 2023

There is an unspoken or silenced dialogue amongst people of color and working class families. The silenced dialogue usually shows up as anger, frustration or outright silence. Many parents and students don’t have the “fancy” vocabulary to describe their observations and feelings, so I am going to speak the unspoken: Schooling traumatizes students. Hyperbole aside, not all schools or all teachers traumatize students. In fact, now more attention than ever is being given to curriculum and programs in schools that serve the purpose of “meeting the needs of traumatized children”. These schools are branded as “trauma-informed” schools. I will come back to the limitations of so-called "trauma-informed" schools.

However, some people are calling foul, because too often school actors themselves cause young people trauma. I am going to refer to schools contexts that cause trauma as "traumatizing schooling" (yes, I invented this non-clinical phrase) for the purposes of this post. Traumatizing schooling looks like teachers and administrators who verbally or emotionally abuse students; labeling students as mentally impaired, learning disabled, or emotionally and behaviorally disturbed; and schools that look and feel more like prisons or mental health wards than learning communities. Traumatizing schools are school environments where students are routinely punished and sent home from school for minor infractions like “insubordination” (read: talking back) or “being out of uniform” (e.g. no belt or sleeveless tops). To adult school personnel these may be minor infractions with consequences, but for many students such punishments are actually acts of humiliation and intimidation. Of course, traumatizing schooling also looks like police officers aggressively (i.e. using force) intervening in student-to-student conflict or teacher-to-student conflict as opposed to trained mental health professionals like school social workers or counselors providing mediation (or offering de-escalation techniques). The reason some are calling foul is because the assumption is that trauma happens to students of color and students from lower-income families outside of school only. The assumption is that all these poor kids, Black, and Brown kids come from families and neighborhoods that are neglectful or abusive; therefore, it is the role of school actors to intervene. People do not discuss how schools can trigger students and/or (re)traumatize students, because it is assumed that only certain types of families or neighborhoods inflict trauma and that schools are sites of innocence. However, to decode the silenced dialogue, I posit: (1) Schools can cause intentional or unintentional trauma through the policing and surveillance of students (side note: ask a person in juvenile detention how they were treated at school); (2) Schools ignore the larger social structure problems of racism and classism, including the disinvestment and eradication of mental health services, extra/co-curricular activities, affordable housing and healthcare, and employment opportunities in working class communities. Black scholars and cultural workers have always warned us of the trauma that racism and White supremacy would possibly inflict on the psychology and overall development of Black children and the community. For instance, Ida B. Wells, Carter G. Woodson, Septima P. Clark, Marcus Garvey, Malcolm X, Asa Hilliard and Na'im Akbar have put forth theory and developed curriculum to prevent and intervene in the psychological trauma that children experience from White supremacy, racism, and class discrimination. Our elders know too well the psychological trauma caused by the Transatlantic slave trade, chattel slavery, sharecropping, Jim Crow Laws, lynching, and the psychological trauma Black youth experienced when attempting to desegregate public schools. Today, our nation's children cope with police officers in schools, constantly circulated images of school shootings, mass shootings at the hands of White gun men, and the killing of Black young people and adults by police officers and White citizens. How does this shape their emotional and behavioral responses to school authority? Thus, the silenced dialogue is that we do not openly acknowledge that students of color and children living in poverty experience unique forms of trauma inside and outside of schools, and often such trauma is inflicted by people who may look like their teachers. ​Furthermore, school personnel ignore the fact that educators of color and psychologists of color decades ago, and at present, developed theories, curriculum, and pedagogy for Black students whom have experienced racialized trauma, neighborhood trauma, and/or family-based trauma. Why aren't these practitioners and theorists works recognized in trauma-informed school discussions?

We cannot assume that Black children (or any other children for that matter) are only harmed by things that happen outside of schools. Trauma happens inside of schools too.

We need culturally responsive trauma-informed schools and culturally responsive socio-emotional and mental health services for youth and families inside and outside of school settings. We need practitioners of color to address the socio-emotional and mental health needs of Black, LatinX, and indigenous children and youth. Scholar Lisa Delpit (see an interview here: coined the term "silenced dialogue" to describe the marginalization and silencing of people of color in discussions about the curricular needs of children of color in schools. ​What conversations are silenced or marginalized as it relates to trauma in school settings? Tweet @DrVEvansWinters a replay or leave a comment below. In the struggle for our humanity, Dr. Venus E. Evans-Winters "Not your mother's therapist, or your brother's life coach."

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