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Responding to Racial Trauma

Three powerful things educators can do to acknowledge pain, confusion, and fear in the wake of violence

October 24, 2016
Responding

The United States is in the midst of racial turmoil — and it affects teachers and learners at every level of education. Ongoing police killings of unarmed black adults and children have garnered significant national attention and community protest. Simultaneously, discourse in our election process is laced with racial tension. Whether or not we are prepared for it, all of this is likely to be on students’ minds. Even for students who are not members of targeted groups, acts of violence can produce high levels of stress, anxiety, and fear or vicarious trauma and interfere with a student’s ability to engage in class.

How Can We Address Traumatic Events?

Many faculty members — and I’m thinking specifically about higher education, but the same may be true for educators in middle and high school — struggle to know what to do the morning after a traumatic racial event. We may not feel like we have the knowledge to lead a conversation, or we may be worried about not adequately addressing the full range of student views and emotions. But some research shows that it helps our students when we address events immediately after they occur. In fact, faculty members have significant power to reduce the stress level of students in tough moments [PDF] with very small-scale actions.

Saying nothing matters to students too; they assign their own words to fill our silence. They wonder, “Do I belong here?” They wonder if we notice what is happening and whether we care. Because faculty members signal the acceptable norms of dialogue and conduct, students rightfully look to us for signs of what matters. So when we don’t mention traumatic events as they are occurring, students can become distrustful and resentful — of both the teacher and the institution. And if we remain silent, we miss the opportunity to reveal and model the same empathy and careful perspective-taking that we want our students demonstrate.

Three Things We Can Do in the Classroom

As racism and racial oppression persist in society, it’s likely that we’ll continue to witness acts of violence against groups of color in our country. Regardless of what we are teaching in our courses, we need to be prepared to address these events. Here are three things we can do:

  • Acknowledge: With little or no planning, and taking only a few minutes in class, we can acknowledge current racial events. This simply means saying to students that (a) we recognize there is a lot going on in the world and (b) we know that there may be a range of emotions and questions on their minds. If desired, individual faculty members might also chose to share how they are feeling personally, and in so doing, model the array of emotions that one might experience. Faculty members could also choose to offer a moment of silence. But even without those steps, simply acknowledging recent events can have a positive impact on classroom climate and student wellbeing.
  • Connect: Another route to engaging with recent events is to connect the work of the class to the work of the world. Draw lines between what students are doing and what’s going on in society. Consider the following questions: How can students use the content from your class to intervene in racialized patterns of behavior in society or to prevent these incidents from recurring? What role does your course or discipline have in moving forward and making a collective impact? Professor Jack Shonkoff makes connections like this in his Harvard course on science-based innovations in early childhood practice and policy. He talks about the impact of poverty, social exclusion, and racism on child development and on the physical and mental health of children and adults. This connection between the content of a course and the weight of the world can be made across the curriculum, since the implications of racial injustice are present in every course we teach.
  • Integrate: We can also integrate a conversation about recent events into our class plan for the day. This can be a discussion that lasts just 10 minutes or an activity that takes more time. It can be open-ended or guided, depending on your comfort level and the size of the class. At the height of recent events in Charlotte, Tulsa, and San Diego, my colleague Candice Bocala started a graduate-level class by acknowledging these events and asking students to work in pairs briefly to think through the following questions:
    • How are you feeling today? How are you thinking about or experiencing your own racial identity in these moments?
    • What actions are you taking, and are there specific actions you want to share with the group?

The whole-group debrief that followed took less than five minutes. But it gave students a chance to talk to each other and to faculty.

Each of these approaches provides us with the opportunity to put students at greater ease and to demonstrate that we care — and that we understand that they should not have to separate their human selves from their learning selves. Each is an opportunity to gain our students’ trust — to signal that, as educators, we are committed to racial justice. To be clear, it isn’t that we have to acknowledge, connect, and integrate every time tragedy strikes. We don’t need to do everything on this list every time. But we can do something — even something small — every time.

About the Author

Aaliyah El-Amin
Aaliyah El-Amin, Ed.D.’15, is a lecturer and researcher at the Harvard Graduate School of Education. Her areas of interest include liberatory education models, social justice schooling, critical pedagogy, and youth participatory action research.
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