Race-related Trauma Disrupts Psychological Well-Being

Any form of alienation, discrimination, and violence inflicted on an individual due to their race is wrong. So, what effect can these experiences have on young people in school? And, how are these experiences exacerbated when young people lack support from their teachers? According to Smith and colleagues (2003), children who feel they experience barriers in school and display racial distrust for teachers will demonstrate declines in academic performance. Negative experiences in school, accompanied by an unsupportive school climate, can undeniably impact a student’s academic performance and disturb their psychological well-being.

Psychological well-being, explained by Steptoe, Deaton, and Stone (2015), reflects three subjective dimensions. The first, life evaluation, refers to “people’s thoughts about the quality or goodness of their lives, their overall life satisfaction or sometimes how happy they are with their lives” (p. 2). The second, hedonic well-being, refers to “everyday feelings or moods such as experiencing happiness, sadness, anger and stress” (p. 2).  The third, eudaimonic well-being, focuses on “judgment about the meaning and purpose of one’s life” (pp. 2-3). School climate, consequently, can affect a young person’s psychological well-being primarily because it captures the relationships that exist between students, school personnel, and the degree to which these relationships promote a sense of safety, belonging, and positive development. 

Race plays a major role in the climate of public schools. It influences the kind of school you will attend, the qualification of your teachers, suspension rates, the presence of school resource officers, etc. The presence of structural violence (e.g., unequal distribution of resources) accompanied by daily micro-stressors from hassles, harassment and assault can be quite traumatic for racially diverse students. Fisher, Wallace, and Fenton (2000) found in their study that half of the students of color in their study expressed feelings of distress from race-based trauma in school. Students revealed school personnel made them feel devalued, treated them as if they were less intelligent and more dangerous. These experiences can be isolating and discouraging. For example, a student who observes their teacher showing a preference for students of another race or encouragement to take advanced level courses may experience some degree of alienation and racial discrimination.  Students of color often grapple with how they see themselves, which may be favorable, and the experiences they have in school that can alter this perception. This can result in feeling a sense of frustration, unhappiness, and a lower sense of confidence

A space that should serve as a safe haven for children and adolescents can serve as a daily stressor to their well-being. Experiencing race-related trauma in school produces a negative school climate for racially diverse students. A negative school climate can produce a sense of powerlessness among students who are unable to challenge racism nor gain administrative support to change it. Moreover, when students receive discipline for speaking out against these experiences they may develop a sense of hopelessness. 

The provision of equitable educational experiences requires transforming school climate. Changes in U.S. public schools require 1) improving ways to build partnerships between community organizations and schools to help racially diverse students gain support and advocacy, 2) the intentional hiring and training of racially diverse teachers, and 3) the development of programs and initiatives that promote prevention and address how race-related trauma occurs in school. 

This post was written by Krishanna Prince, a research assistant in the Collective Health and Education Equity Research (CHEER) lab and an undergraduate student at North Carolina A&T State University. 



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