Academic journal article Harvard Journal of African American Public Policy

Reimagining Critical Race Theory in Education: Mental Health, Healing, and the Pathway to Liberatory Praxis

Academic journal article Harvard Journal of African American Public Policy

Reimagining Critical Race Theory in Education: Mental Health, Healing, and the Pathway to Liberatory Praxis

Article excerpt

HJAAP would like to express sincere gratitude to Wiley Publications for granting permission to republish the following article, which originally appeared in Education Theory, Vol. 65, No. 5 in 2015.


"Weathering," a term put forth by Arline Geronimus and colleagues, is a phenomenon characterized by the long-term physical, mental, emotional, and psychological effects of racism and of living in a society characterized by White dominance and privilege.1 Weathering severely challenges and threatens a person's health and ability to respond in a healthy manner to their environment. This can cause wear and tear, both corporeal and mental, and lead to a host of psychological and physical ailments, including heart disease, diabetes, and accelerated aging. These physiological manifestations of social inequality are not given sufficient attention, particularly in how they affect the academic outcomes and experiences of students and faculty of color. Long-standing theoretical education frameworks and methodologies have failed to provide space for the role mental health can play in mediating educational consequences. To illustrate the need for such space, we present the voices of Black undergraduates we have served in the capacities of teacher, researcher, and mentor. Although we are explicitly discussing Black college students in this conversation, we are by no means undervaluing the vital work being done on behalf of all students, teachers, administrators, and faculty within the African diaspora, and with other historically marginalized racial, gender, and socioeconomic groups. With this in mind, we are interested in the extent to which Black students are experiencing mental health concerns that go undetected. Even as we have showcased our research on the academic survival of Black students, we have grown accustomed to talking about grit, perseverance, and mental toughness, without properly acknowledging the multiple forms of suffering they have confronted (and still confront) as part of that story.

We contend that current research on "grit" and "resilience," at least as these concepts are sometimes defined and operationalized, does not account for the toll societal racism takes on students who may be viewed as successful. The majority of this research refers to static definitions of resilience, such as the innate ability to bounce back from obstacles, without properly acknowledging how structural racism breeds the racial practices, policies, and ideologies that force Black students to adopt a racial mental toughness in order to pursue traditional forms of educational advancement. This static definition often leaves it up to individuals to rise above their challenges and roadblocks without recognizing the stress and strain associated with surviving (and even thriving) academically, despite encounters with racism.

For the purpose of this account, we endorse more ecologically robust conceptions of resilience frameworks. For example, Margaret Beale Spencer's Phenomenological Variant of Ecological Systems Theory of human development (PVEST) examines the interaction between environmental context and identity development, and starts with the assumption that an individual's perception of his or her environment and context is crucial to understanding his or her experiences and responses.2 A PVEST-informed, vulnerability-resiliency perspective accounts for the vulnerability of people of color who are burdened by unique and often under-examined levels of risk, while also acknowledging potential sources of support.

Recognizing the need for hard work and persistence has long been cited as a factor in academic perseverance.3 In a series of longitudinal studies, researchers have asked whether grit, defined as perseverance and a passion for long-term goals, predicts a range of objective outcomes of success after accounting for individual differences in ability. Notably, grit has been shown to predict the grade point averages of undergraduates better than standardized test scores such as the SAT. …

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