The Burden of Racism on Black Students

As a K-8 student, I wasn’t fully aware of the racism I encountered. That’s likely because those instances—and I believed they happened—were during interactions with the adults in the school building, most (if not all) were white. However, because I held the adults in the building with such high regard, and because of my inability to diagnose instances of racism during my interactions with them, many things flew over my head.

High school however was different.

The difference the vast majority of the student body was white. I was used to contending with white teachers and administrators. Now, I had to contend with white classmates. Also, I had a better understanding of racism. I certainly couldn’t articulate everything I saw or felt like I can today. But I certainly saw things and I felt things.

I remember some of the microaggressions hurled my way—which aren’t micro at all. I remember how we [Black and Latino/a/x students] sat apart from the white students at basketball games. I remember receiving looks of bewilderment and intrigue when I arrived at school with my hair cornrowed.

I remember the feeling when I was dismissed when challenging the playlist during school dances. I remember the feeling when a homeroom teacher expressed that Malcolm X was evil. I remember the feeling of violation when the Dean of Students interrupted a dap between a friend and I thinking it was an exchange of drugs and money.

Those things happened; they aren’t made up. While I didn’t have the tools to explain what was happening, why, and how I felt about it all, I knew it happened and continued happening. As a parent, I wonder how my children will navigate racism happening to them because, sadly, they’ll have their own stories to tell.

Experiencing anti-Black racism doesn’t make Black people stronger. It makes us unhealthy. Unfortunately, it starts before our arrival on Earth. According to adult and child psychiatrist Dr. Amanda Joy Calhoun:

The stress of racism experienced by Black mothers has been linked to low birthweight babies, which puts those children at greater risk for developing depression and other child mental health issues. Prenatal anti-Black racism can also have other persistent effects. Maternal reports of racism affect the socio-emotional development of Black children in their first year of life, with links to negative emotionality.”

Once born, children see the role racism plays within regular interactions. By two years of age, kids reason about the behaviors of people as a result of their race, and by four, expressions of racial prejudice begin to peak. A 2022 study showed that anti-Black racist beliefs emerge as early as age four. By kindergarten, children show many of the same racial attitudes that adults hold—associating some groups with a higher status than others. White children are found to view their Black peers negatively and prefer white over Black children as playmates.

When in school—as early as preschool—Black children are disproportionately disciplined. White people see Black children as older and angrier compared to white children. Black girls as young as five are seen as less innocent than white girls. White people view Black boys as less innocent compared to whites. Cops see all Black children as less innocent compared to white children. As a result, not only are Black children suspended and arrested at disproportionate rates, but police are housed in schools where Black and Latino/a/x students are a majority versus schools where whites are the majority.

The results for Black children are devastating. Dr. Calhoun speaks further on this:

Indeed, Black children and adolescents are suffering at unprecedented rates, and have been for over 20 years. Black youth are dying by suicide at rates increasing faster than any other racial or ethnic group: Black children as young as five years old are 1.8 times as likely to commit suicide compared to their white peers. The suicide rates of other ethnic groups, except for Latinx and American Indian/Alaskan Native youth, have remained virtually the same or declined, even from 2019 to 2020 in the height of the pandemic.”

As a father of Black children, a middle schooler, and two elementary schoolers, I am concerned. I think about my experiences and I wonder about their own. I wonder about the racist interactions they’ll have or have had. They’ve shared some of those interactions with my wife and I. We’ve helped them process through it, in addition to speaking with those teachers. Yet, I still wonder about how they’ve internalized those interactions:

As Black children age into adolescence, like all children, their social and cognitive abilities increase, including abstract reasoning.  This development enables them to be increasingly attuned to experiences of anti-Black racism—which, on average, they report experiencing five times a day.”

While one can argue that I am translating (and/or transferring) my experiences to my kids or that Black children are only made aware of race and racism because people bring it to their attention, that’s a privileged stance. All the data shows that children are introduced to race at an early age. It’s a result of or anti-Black society.

All children will deal with stress, puberty, and broken hearts as they age. Black children, specifically, will deal with racism as well. It’s a reality that is debilitating for Black youth and Black parents alike. However, school and district leaders are not off the hook from preventing these experiences from happening in their buildings.

Everyone is accountable for making schools safe spaces for Black children: district leaders, school administration, teachers, professional staff, administrative and custodial staff. Here is an opportunity for professional development to be targeted and direct.

Districts must invite healthcare professionals knowledgeable and equipped to train and treat mental health for Black youth where racism is concerned to train educators on how to recognize racism in its policies, postures, and practices. Districts must also hire educators who are committed to racial justice and the well-being of Black students in their daily praxis.

And when educators and other students engage in racism, they must be held accountable… corrected for their growth and even dismissed if necessary.

For too long, Black students have had the burden of adjusting to a racist society. The burden must be put on educators to demand that they and white students adjust from a racist society to be anti-racist. The burden has become the inheritance of Black children down through the generations. However, now is the time for reparations.


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