Dismantling Racism in Higher Education: 3 Practical Steps to Better Support the Well-Being of Black Students

The violent murders of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery, and Tony McDade at the hands of police and White racial terrorists has increased traditional and social media coverage of police brutality. Moreover, with Black Lives Matter protests gaining traction nationally and internationally, many leaders in higher educational institutions across the United States have issued letters to their undergraduate, graduate, and alumni populations vocalizing their outrage at the current state of racial violence and police brutality in this country. Many of these letters acknowledge the universities’ support of their Black students and commitment to addressing racism on their campuses and in their classrooms.

Since these letters and posts were released by university officials, universities and colleges are receiving warranted pressure from their students, alumni, and some faculty and staff members to move beyond simple lip service against racism to taking action to dismantle racism and the White supremacists’ legacies that are inherent in their teaching, administrative, and hiring practices. Yet as colleges and universities consider these structural changes in curriculum, teaching, and scholarship as interventions for dismantling racism, they must also consider institutional changes to better support the psychological and emotional health and development of their students – especially with respect to experienced and perceived racism on campus and in society.

Below are three practical steps – in no particular order – which universities can undertake at an institutional level to better support the well-being of their Black students while campus administrators are dismantling White supremacy, racism, and racial violence on their campuses. Although Black students are the focus of this article, these actions will support all Black, Indigenous, and other People of Color (BIPOC) students.

Step 1: Hire multiple Black mental health clinicians and other clinicians of Color in University Mental Health Counseling Centers AND train all clinicians in racial identity development theory and practice.

Although many university mental health counseling centers are making efforts to diversify their staff, it is critical that such agencies continue to hire more Black clinicians. One or two Black clinicians is not enough, especially given the racial backgrounds of the student bodies these counseling centers are charged to serve. National data show that Black students and other students of color are much less likely to access mental health counseling services on college campuses. This is in part due to mistrust of White clinicians who may lack cultural competence as well as the students’ prior negative experiences with White clinicians. Given this reality and the negative impact that racial trauma and race-based traumatic stress have on Black students’ mental health, counseling centers should be even more intentional about making sure that their centers are truly welcoming to Black students and students of Color by hiring more BIPOC clinicians.

Additionally, White clinicians can unintentionally perpetuate the same forms of racial trauma in therapy rooms that Black students experience in other settings to the continued detriment of students’ mental health. Black students should not be case studies on which White clinicians test their cultural competency. Having more Black clinicians who may share similar lived racial experiences with their clients of color, as well as training all clinicians in racial identity development theory and practice may circumvent some of these issues and encourage more Black students to use college mental health services.

Step 2: Hire mental health clinicians and administrators who have specialized training in dealing with White racial identity development and Whiteness AND provide regular trainings for current employees in the aforementioned areas.

College and university campuses need mental health clinicians and administrators who are trained in and have studied how to deal with White racial identity development, Whiteness, and the disease of White supremacy. Trainings, workshops, and conversations about racism and how it is manifesting on campus should be continual – rather than occurring once or twice – throughout the academic year. Additionally, there should be employees who specialize and/or are trained in addressing and helping White individuals dismantle their own racist tendencies and White supremacists ideologies that have been passed down to them by preceding generations.

The presence of employees trained to address Whiteness would provide support to BIPOC students, faculty, and staff. Moreover, clinicians and administrators withspecialized trainingcouldmodeltakingintentional action to dismantle White supremacist racist ideologies of White students, faculty, and staff. By taking action, colleges and universities can make more progress towards actually dismantling racism present on their campuses and in their policies.

Having clinicians and administrators who are trained in White racial identity development and Whiteness can provide substantial support for White students as they begin to experience the discomfort of coming into relationship with and dismantling their own internalized remnants of White supremacy. Additionally, having trained administrators and clinicians can remove the emotional and psychological burden from Black students of having to educate their White colleagues about racism.

Step 3: Establish Racial Violence Prevention Offices and Reporting Systems.

Similar to how Title IX Offices are legally mandated to be present on college and university campuses to protect individuals against sex-based harassment, assault, intimidation, and discrimination, Racial Violence Prevention Offices should also be present on every college and university campus to protect against race-based harassment, assault, intimidation, and discrimination. There should be administrators identified as Racial Violence Prevention Officers present on each campus in the same way that Title IX Officers are identified on campuses. Colleges and universities should establish institutionalized frameworks for preventing, reporting, and responding to racial violence. Additionally, punitive measures (e.g., suspension, expulsion, forced leaves of absence, termination) should be taken against any member of the campus community – including students, faculty, and staff – who has racially assaulted and/or harassed any other member of the campus community.

The absence of Racial Violence Prevention offices on campuses sends a message to BIPOC students that their mental and physical health are not valued, and that racial assaults directed against them are not taken seriously by the administration. Establishing these offices on college and university campuses will not only be beneficial in reducing the amount of racial violence occurring on campuses, but it will also serve as a present reminder to students, faculty, and staff that the lives and well-being of Black students matter at an institutional level.

Conclusion This list of practical steps that colleges and universities can take to dismantle racism on their campuses and better support their Black students is by no means exhaustive.  When colleges and universities do not attend to the psychological and emotional well-being of all students, faculty, and staff regarding racial identity and trauma, they are ignoring their role as places for ongoing development, healing, and learning. Colleges and universities must include these steps if they intend to provide safe racial climates for students, faculty, and staff.

Taylor Stewart, M.Div. is a doctoral student in Counseling Psychology at Boston College Lynch School of Education and Human Development. She is a researcher for the Institute for the Study and Promotion of Race and Culture.