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Racism, Education, and Black Children's Mental Health

There is a need for nourishing spaces to protect Black children's mental health.

Key points

  • Racism has been proven to negatively affect children's mental health.
  • Anti-racist efforts are needed in schools to protect Black children's mental health.
  • Positive racial youth identity development can be supported by diverse and inclusive literature in schools.

Part one of a two-part series on the effect of racism on Black children’s mental health.

Black History Month just ended, and while some individuals and organizations promoted powerful messages from Black leaders, others took action by working to silence Black voices.

News of banned books in schools and libraries across the nation have once again reminded us of the dangers we face as a society that has not yet learned to accept its painful past. As leaders continue to call for unity, those of us working to help people and communities heal understand that healing is necessary to achieve unity, and that healing is possible.

But healing cannot happen until we become aware of, acknowledge, and are able to clearly name our mistakes and wrongdoings. As a country, we are still not fully consistent on the first step. Leaders concerned about the effects of Critical Race Theory on students’ learning have shifted efforts away from the healing process by questioning, challenging, and silencing scholars who have not only studied these social issues for decades but have lived experience of what it is like to be a Black American.

From an inter-sectional standpoint, we must remember that children are often forgotten in social justice movements. As underage members of our communities, they are fundamentally in a place of powerlessness. Their voices can easily be ignored, go unheard or be purposely silenced.

As an academic child psychiatrist, and in collaboration with Black colleagues, I have written about the need for anti-racism in the child mental health system, particularly among child psychiatrists. As the nation deals with the mental health repercussions of the COVID-19 pandemic on top of centuries of systemic violence and ignored health inequities in Black communities, it is imperative that we focus efforts on supporting Black children's mental health. I recently spoke with three leaders in the Black community about what we can do to protect and advance Black children’s mental health.

Racism and mental health

Decades of research have documented the negative impact of racism on Black children's mental health. To begin, internalized racism — the beliefs and value systems affected by racism that guide our everyday behavior — is so pervasive that at a very young age, Black children begin to question their beauty, strength, and sense of belonging. This is not because Black children are inherently different but because of how other people and systems treat them.

Ask yourself, or any Black or brown person around you, if they have ever been told something negative about their skin complexion. The answer will most likely be yes. Whether those experiences are perceived as negative or not is a question that deserves attention. Research tells us that what matters is what is perceived, yet what is perceived is easily and often challenged by many Americans. Those of us doing anti-racism work know that our ideas, opinions, work, and approaches are often challenged and silenced. These experiences foster self-doubt that must be worked through to regain a strong voice — a process that can take years. These actions of challenging and silencing are often called microaggressions, small actions that often go unnoticed but diminish or question a person’s physical, psychological or general way of being. Microaggressions have been linked to symptoms of depression, anxiety, and even trauma.

Tiernee Pitts, a high school senior in Texas and president of her school's Black Student Union, shared some instances in which her personal experience felt invalidated and required the support of other Black students to recognize whether her feelings were valid or not. She shared that students at her school will say that “they can’t connect to what they’re reading” when the class is assigned a title written by a Black author. Yet, for Tiernee, “It’s finally something I can connect with.”

Children interact with multiple systems that impact their mental health. For example, they are cared for and guided by the educational system. But we have data showing that Black children are more likely to be negatively viewed by educators and school administrators than White children. This phenomenon, coupled with structural racism, results in the increased use of punitive measures when addressing behavioral concerns in schools. We live in a country in which a 6-year-old can be arrested for their behavior. This is called the school to prison pipeline, a well-documented phenomenon in which Black and some brown kids are disproportionately suspended, expelled, arrested, and incarcerated. These events have tremendous negative effects on children and families, involving physical, psychological, financial, and inter-generational harm that takes an enormous effort to undo. Our mental health system is not equipped to support the nation's current needs, let alone supporting much-needed healing processes for Black children and their families.

This is part of the work being tackled by the Round Rock Black Parents Association in Texas, which was formed in 2015 after a child in that community was violently harmed by a school police officer. A request for an investigation into the officer’s action resulted in a response from the school board that the officer was acting in good faith.

Natosa Daniels, a leader of the association, notes that “schools are violent places for our children…we want them to respect our humanity.” Black parents are asking for the peace of mind that comes from having well-resourced and compassionate schools and educators, and public spaces where their children will not only be safe, but valued and appreciated as human beings. Research has shown that having police or “school resource officers” does not help, and instead can be harmful — data that is consistent with what we know about the punitive juvenile legal system.

The role of positive racial identity development

Scholars have worked to understand how to strengthen the mental health of Black children, and a consistent message has been that as a country, we have not created physically and psychologically safe public spaces for Black children and families. Often, racism has resulted in policies like school and neighborhood segregation which have excluded, marginalized, and harmed Black families. Even though decades have passed since the Civil Rights movement and school desegregation, we know that our actions have not been sufficient to undo the harms created by racist policies that still harm many communities.

Within our homes and schools, where kids spend most of their time, we must know how to talk about race and racism and how to foster a positive racial identity. This takes unified, meaningful efforts from parents, educators, and community leaders. To learn more about this topic, read Dr. Beverly Tatum's Why Are All the Black Kids Sitting Together in the Cafeteria?, which offers parents and educators concrete ways they can address racism and foster positive youth identity.

Daniels told me that her group is working to improve the implementation of a curriculum that supports racial healing by incorporating concepts described in Tatum's book. These concepts include Black history written by Black historians and activists and the creation of safe spaces for Black students to learn and support each other, among other things. Daniels has worked on the creation of an African American studies curriculum in her district, one of many that are widely but that are just not being used in many schools. She notes a “disconnect between what is being talked about and [the school board's] actions,” referring to her local board’s stated support of national agendas to decrease disproportionate negative impacts of school on Black children without taking corresponding action to address these issues.

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