Dawn X. Henderson Ph.D.

The Trajectory of Race


Race-Related Trauma in the Public Education System

Emerging research explores a framework for race-related trauma

Posted Mar 27, 2017

Go back to the fields of Alabama, go back to the factories in Mississippi. You don’t deserve freedom…KKK,” a group of young people chanted in a video released from a middle school in Wake County, North Carolina. While the school district did not condone this behavior—adults who work in the public education system will consciously, for some, unconsciously enforce policies and participate in behavior that is quite traumatic for black and brown children and adolescents. If you are wondering if YOU represent this group or you want to tell yourself “I don’t see race,” then this post offers a counter argument and illustrates how race-related trauma occurs in the public education system.

Race-Related Trauma

Race-related trauma is defined as exposure to traumatic events due to an individual’s race (Bryant-Davis & Ocampo, 2005). Specifically, race-related trauma is a byproduct of racism when racism disrupts the psychological, emotional and physical well-being of children and adolescents. Racism proceeds to disrupt a young person’s sense of belonging, their relationship with others, and their access to resources. Consider this example:

Tonya, Juanita, and Jen committed the same school offense; Tonya , a Black student, is three times more likely to receive a suspension than Jen is—a white student. Moreover, while not the same level of disparity, Juanita, who is Latina, is almost two times more likely to receive a suspension when compared to Jen.

According to the National Center for Education Statistics, of the students suspended between 6th and 12th grade, 38.8% were Black students compared to 15.6% of white students. Students of color experience decreased sense of belonging to their social networks (peers and adults) in school due to higher rates of school suspension (Brown, 2007). Continuous suspension also leads to academic gaps, attrition, and, to some extent, denies the most disenfranchised students access to academic assistance, free or reduced meals, and other support.

A Race-Related Trauma Framework in the Public Education System

Pilot research conducted in the Collective Health and Education Equity Research (CHEER) Lab codified retrospective accounts from Black and Latino students in the public education system. Findings are revealing a trajectory confounded by race and trauma. Using the public school system as a backdrop, the race-related trauma framework aims to identify how schools exercise power and control against black and brown children and adolescents through alienation, discriminatory policies and practices, and psychological violence. A framework for race-related trauma seeks to enlighten individuals who acknowledge their role in perpetuating race-related trauma and seek credible solutions.

Dawn Henderson
Source: Dawn Henderson


Alienation can lead to adverse physical and psychological processes. School suspension requires an absence from school and related activities, which leads to a sense of alienation. Black and brown children and adolescents may not always experience physical alienation; in fact, they may also experience psychological alienation.  A 2010 article by Hascher and Hagenauer suggests young people who experience continued failure in school will often create cognitive and emotional distance between themselves and the school system, resulting in feelings of disconnectedness, dissociation, and disengagement from school.

Racial Discrimination

Racial discrimination occurs at the individual and institutional level. Institutional policies and practices more often lead to racial disparities. Consider the criteria used to gain entrance into gifted education programs. Most school districts begin the process through teacher nominations and then have the student undergo some additional screening and selection processes, which can include aptitude tests and other assessments. Several bodies of research suggest teachers have lower expectations for black and Latino students and have more favorable attitudes towards White and Asian students (Ferguson, 2003; Okeke, Howard, Kurtz-Costes, & Rowley, 2009; Pringle, Lyons, & Booker, 2010).

Psychological Violence

While physical violence such as bullying and sexual harassment occur in school and have adverse effects on well-being, black and brown students will also experience immense psychological violence. These young people will experience racial invalidation through policies that enforce “English only” education, removal of black studies courses in high school, and allow teachers to use subtle language that includes “Ms. Rivera!
 Can you tell the class what it is like being an immigrant?”  Symbolic violence, in the form of rejection of the cultures of Black, Indigenous American and Latino students through school practices and curricula, can be harmful to psychological well-being. Such violence forces assimilation and will require many of these young people to cope and adapt quickly. One of the coded transcripts revealed how this plays out through an experience in high school:  

So we had to read this book that had a lot of racial slurs in it and I was the only black person in class. I didn’t understand why the teacher was making the class read this particular book and why she didn’t do anything to address it. I had to read this particular book and felt uncomfortable but, like, I could not do anything about it.

Young people not only experience this form of violence but also serve as a witness to numerous acts of physical violence. Here are a few incidents:

  • A school resource officer in North Carolina wrestles a Black adolescent female to the ground in a school gym.
  • A school resource officer in South Carolina grabs a Black adolescent female by the neck and jerks her from her seat in an attempt to remove her from class.

A framework for race-related trauma can potentially help individuals think about the ways in which they can focus intervention and advocacy. Advocacy will need to take place at the individual and institutional level—challenging our own biases and notions about students and ameliorating the systematic practices that deter young people from reaching their full potential. 


Brown, T. M. (2007) Lost and turned out: Academic, social, and emotional experiences of students excluded from school.Urban Education, 42 (5), 432 –455.  

Bryant-Davis, T., & Ocampo, C. (2005). Racist incident-based trauma. The Counseling Psychologist, 33 (4), 479-500.

Ferguson, R. F. (2003). Teachers' perceptions and expectations and the Black-White test score gap. Urban Education, 38, 460–507.

Hascher, T., & Hagenauer, G. (2010). Alienation from school. International Journal of Educational Research, 49, 220–232. doi: 10.1016/j.ijer.2011.03.002             

Okeke, N. A., Howard, L. C., Kurtz-Costes, B., & Rowley, S. J. (2009). Academic race stereotypes, academic self-concept, and racial centrality in African American youth. Journal of Black Psychology, 35, 366 –387.

Pringle, B. E., Lyons, J. E., & Booker, K. C. (2010). Perceptions of teacher expectations by African American high school students. The Journal of Negro Education, 79, 33–40.

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