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Education

Spirit Murdering vs. Life-Giving Education Among Black Youth

Advocacy tips for the everyday parent.

Key points

  • The term “spirit murder” describes the internal and psychological outcome of systemic and interpersonal racism in the U.S.
  • Spirit murder includes the purposeful erasure of “our story” in the school curriculum, so contributions of persons of African descent are untold.
  • To counter spirit murder, parents must celebrate their children's strengths, cultivate interests, nourish talents, and normalize imperfections.

Growing up in a religious and spiritual-based community, the phrase “speak life” was commonly used. Adults around me vocalized those two “simple” words to encourage, motivate, and inspire others. In part, the phrase accentuates that what we communicate through our words and actions can invigorate another person’s spirit, cultivate one’s drive to persevere, and heal the internal aspects of who we are as human beings (e.g., our thoughts and feelings). In contrast, our actions and words can leave individuals feeling hopeless, uninspired, weary, and stagnant, representing a spiritual and psychological form of death.

Indeed, Patricia Williams (1987) coined the term “spirit murder” to describe the internal and psychological outcome of systemic and interpersonal racism in the U.S. In addition to acts of physical violence imposed upon Black adults and youth at the hands of white supremacy, everyday encounters with discrimination and marginalization can leave Black individuals to feel an impeccable sense of hopelessness, trauma, and despair. So, what does this mean for the education system?

Scholars such as Hines and Wilmost (2018) and Love (2016) highlight how the U.S. education system commits acts of spirit murdering against young Black young bodies every day. Instead of creating affirming, nurturing, motivating, engaging, and equitable learning environments for Black students, some ways in which spirit murdering occurs in the school environment include:

  • (a) Acts of physical violence aimed towards Black children at the hands of school police officers;
  • (b) Laws and policies that lead to disproportionate school discipline, in which Black and Brown children are more likely to be suspended and expelled from school;
  • (c) The purposeful erasure of “our story” in the school curriculum, such that the valuable contributions of persons of African descent are skewed or untold;
  • (d) The silencing of Black children, in the form of restricting their voice and refusing to create opportunities that allow them to move in the fullness of Black joy and intellect (How many Black kids are identified as gifted or funneled to advanced classes where opportunities abound?); and
  • (e) Demonization of the cultural wealth (aspects of culture that heals, moves, and uplifts) that Black families bring to the table.

All of these factors can leave Black children to experience pain, humiliation, low motivation, and more, as they wonder, “Am I really cared for here?” The focus on spirit murdering is by no means intended to overlook the daily resilience and triumph that permeate within Black communities. However, it is a reality that cannot be overlooked and brushed aside. For this reason, parent-activists, community-activists, education-activists, scholar-activists, and select politicians continue to sound the alarm about the urgent need for systemic change. Coupled with the work of the various players in the game, I offer a few suggestions for the everyday parent/caregiver. Your voice matters!

Voting Power at the State and Local Level

Considering all the fanfare that typically surrounds the Presidential election, it is easy to forget the importance of state and local elections. However, it is often state and local politicians who sign laws that counter life-giving educational practices that are responsive to the lived experiences of students of color. I encourage parents and caregivers to (a) become acquainted with the platforms of local and state officials, (b) pay close attention to how they identify and make sense of educational issues, and (c) vote! For example, when talking about “gaps” in education, does their proposed solutions reflect a level of accountability that is policy and systems focused? Or are parents meant to bear the blame alone?

Make Your Stance Known Through Collective Resistance

There is great power in the collective “we.” Attending school meetings and vocalizing concerns/proposed action steps as a group can be useful for holding local school leaders accountable. As a parent, joining likeminded people and perhaps identifying leaders within the group (i.e., those that are more comfortable with vocalizing the collective needs) can be one way to amplify your voice and share your concerns about changes you want to see on behalf of students of color (including your own).

Individualized Communication With School Educators

You may find that your child’s day-to-day school experiences are critical to address sooner rather than later. As such, it is helpful to stay informed of issues related to discipline, classroom instruction (e.g., Is your child’s culture represented in the teaching material?), and the overall school climate. If problems emerge, remember, you are likely your child’s greatest advocate!

Schedule a time to meet with their teacher and/or school administrator to explain your concerns and solicit their plans for demonstrating tangible action steps that will lead to a culturally affirming, embracing, and nurturing environment. I know this is easier said than done, especially for the working caregiver simply trying to survive.

Some low-level practices may include communicating with your child’s teachers through email, text-based phone apps, or hand-written forms of communication. You may also ask for alternative ways of meeting, such as telephone and video conferencing.

Affirming Experiences Outside of School

To counter oppressive messages that may surface in your child’s school, I encourage parents and caregivers to be intentional about “speaking life” to your child every day. What does this mean? Affirm who they are! Celebrate their strengths, cultivate their interests, nourish their talents, and normalize imperfections. If possible, link your child to a community mentor who can serve as another source of motivation, resource sharing, empowerment, etc.

My husband frequently speaks of the mentor he had when he was an adolescent, and the lessons Mr. “W.” taught my husband still resonate with him. If a face-to-face mentor is not accessible, consider taking advantage of virtual social groups. You may also wish to highlight the trials and triumphs of your ancestors and other Black historical figures, followed by focused discussions about how their lived experiences connect with that of your child and family.

Finally, there are several books geared towards affirming the greatness that lies within our beautiful Black children. Take some time to read culturally affirming books (audio forms may also be available) with your child and encourage them to identify all that is great about who they are, including what they can and will offer the world.

References

Hines, D. E., & Wilmot, J. M. (2018). From spirit-murdering to spirit-healing: Addressing anti-black aggressions and the inhumane discipline of Black children. Multicultural Perspectives, 20(2), 62-69. https://doi.org/10.1080/15210960.2018.1447064

Love, B. L. (2016). Anti-Black state violence, classroom edition: The spirit murdering of Black children. Journal of Curriculum and Pedagogy, 13(1), 22-25. https://doi.org/10.1080/15505170.2016.1138258

Williams, P. (1997). Spirit-murdering the messenger. The Discourse of Fingerpointing as the Law's Response to Racism, 42 U. Miami L. Rev. 127 (1987).

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