Racial Trauma—Racial Healing—Racial Justice
Updated: Mar 4, 2021
“In our work and in our living we must recognize that difference is a reason for celebration and growth, rather than a reason for destruction.”
The Mindful Writing Workshop clarifies how trauma-informed teaching can be achieved by tuning our pedagogy and doesn’t require a double-layer of practice. Trauma-informed methods can be fitted into workshop practices naturally. And this actually creates the best learning opportunity for all.
In the book I also propose an equity stance that asks educators to relate to students according to their needs as learners, and I offer guidance toward Culturally Sustaining practices. But I want to expand here on those ideas—for making culture a foundation of curriculum.
Baratunde Thurston, author of How to Be Black, explains that it helps if we can explore racial healing through questions rather than accusations. Better if we can ask, “How can we work together on the issue of micro-aggression?” Rather than starting with, “You committed a micro-aggression.”
Racial trauma is—ongoing, systemic, pervasive, deadly, and includes insulting and humiliating events. And with the rise of white supremacist domestic terrorism, racial trauma has increased in urgency.
Healing racial trauma involves—opening conversation on pain and pride, teaching black accomplishment, listening and responding with care to students, creating opportunities for action, and working to end white racism. We are seeking anti-racist education. But what are some key ingredients of anti-racist education?
1. Teach Black Accomplishment
Perhaps the first and most obvious solution to racial bigotry is simply to teach Black accomplishment—fully and mightily. Not just during Black History Month. I believe this alone might lead to big changes in societal attitudes. White supremacy depends on a certain understanding of Black people—as somehow inferior.
And this depends on trying to keep Blacks from accomplishment (Tulsa Massacre, destruction of Black cultural districts and landmarks in cities, denying Blacks from job promotions, and much more). But it equally depends on not acknowledging Black accomplishment in the history of our country.
Duke Ellington is remembered, if at all, as an old-time band leader, when in fact he was the King of Jazz and, according to some music scholars, America’s greatest composer. He premiered a new long musical composition in Carnegie Hall every year from 1943-55. He wrote movie soundtracks. George Gershwin, the most famous white composer of that era, said, “I would trade every piece of music I ever composed if I could just have written ‘Sophisticated Lady,’” (a Duke Ellington song).
Mary McLeod Bethune was born one of 17 children to formerly enslaved parents in 1875—in South Carolina no less—the cradle of the slave trade and racial prejudice. She wangled an education and then was told by the Presbyterians they would not take Black missionaries—the biggest disappointment of her life. So, in 1904 she opened a school in a rented house for five black girls who sat on overturned boxes, in Daytona, Florida. By 1923 her school, now of 25 faculty and 250 students, was so well known she was invited to rescue a declining Cookman Institute, and she became the first President of Bethune-Cookman College, a school that exists to this day. And this part of the story still hasn’t gotten to her friendship with Eleanor Roosevelt and serving on FDR’s Black Cabinet.
Percy Julian saw that as a Black Ph.D. chemist he would never be advanced in rank at DePauw, so he went to work for Glidden laboratories in Chicago and invented synthetic cortisone. Natural cortisone required animal bile and was nearly impossible to produce. In 1949 Julian succeeded in matching the chemical composition exactly and made synthetic cortisone commercially viable, thereby inventing one of the miracle drugs of the 20th and 21st centuries.
If stories like these are widely and regularly taught in school, the myth of white racial superiority simply becomes untenable.
2. Rewrite the Story of Black History
A problem for education in relation to the Black Story is that the most prominent treatment of Black people in school is the unit on “Slavery” with, in rare instances, a follow-up treatment of the Jim Crow laws and practices that led to the Civil Rights Movement. Both of these treatments represent Black people as victims and as an oppressed group. This is true, up to a point, but it is a certain way to tell the story that does not fully respect the humanity of Black people.
Denisha Jones, co-author of Black Lives Matter at School, argues that Black history of this country should begin with African culture and life in the African villages. I agree. In this treatment then the period of enslavement in the U. S. becomes a time of struggle—similar to the struggle of the Hebrew people striving to become free from Egypt.
I further propose that we teach the time of enslavement primarily through the lens of the story of the resistance and the story of the Underground Railroad. During the time of enslavement in this country, from the very beginning, there was always resistance—including Black people taking white people to court in the seventeenth century to challenge their right to keep people enslaved.
The story of slavery is the story of shame, guilt, and separation—and the story of oppression. The story of the Underground Railroad is the story of courage, hope, and collaboration—and the story of fighting back. The same period, the same people—but a different view and vantage point—a view that more fully humanizes, and that points in a positive direction.
When we study other immigrant groups we do not imagine that they “began” with their struggle in this country. We identify their home country. We notice that they brought a culture and a history with them. And we treat their early time in this country not just as a time of oppression, but as a positive story of their struggle through which they survive. So it should be with the story of African Americans.
3. Share Pain and Pride
Nicole Green, an African American UCLA psychologist who works on racial healing, points out that a key to helping students of all colors and cultures to process their trauma and pain is to invite their stories into the classroom. Just writing down your story of sorrow or loss makes your blood more ready to fight diseases, medical research shows. But the chance to share your writing, or to tell aloud your story of pain is a key to respecting and honoring student experience. And building a classroom that values kindness, where these stories are responded to with care and support, offers powerful healing.
We can also help students imagine and act on steps they might take—to publicize racial injustice, to promote methods for racial healing, and steps for developing appreciation of difference.
As a teacher of African American Studies, I learned from James Carnegie of the Civil Rights Department in Michigan a basic grounding statement we can say to one another. Sharing this statement paves the way for positive learning from tension and conflict. It goes, “Please tell me if I offend you or hurt your feelings because it is not in my heart to do that.”
Seminal Works Everyone Should Read (with practical implications)
Culturally Responsive Teaching, (2010, 2018), Geneva Gay
Culture, Literacy, and Learning: Taking Bloom in the Midst of the Whirlwind, (2007), Carol Lee
Other Key Works (with practical implications)
“Hip Hop, Grit, and Academic Success,” (2014), Ted Talk, Bettina Love
Cultivating Genius, (2020), Gholdy Muhammad