Positive Beliefs About Being Black Can Protect Against the Harm of a Negative Racial Climate at School
What is School Climate and Why is it Important?
If you take a moment to think about your own K-12 school experiences, a lot of what you remember is likely connected with the climate of the school. School climate involves many aspects of a student’s educational experience including safety, relationships (between school personnel, students, and parents), learning and instruction, and the physical environment. Not surprisingly, research shows that a positive school climate is critical for school success. A positive school climate can improve attendance, classroom grades, retention, and even graduation rates.
As you might expect, groups of students may experience school climate in different ways. For Black youth, race and racial equity (or lack thereof) are critical aspects of school climate. A positive school climate for Black youth involves a space where teachers and peers respect and value diversity and individual cultural differences and make intentional efforts to reduce racial inequality. These aspects of what we call school racial climate contribute to positive academic outcomes for Black youth.
The Value of Positive Beliefs About Being Black
Identity formation is a major part of adolescence. Black adolescents who possess a positive sense of their racial identity and orientation toward their racial group (known in research as private regard) may be able to protect themselves against the harm of racial discrimination and perceptions of unfair treatment and exclusion in school.
In our study, we surveyed 151 Black adolescents at their school to investigate the relationship between two dimensions of school racial climate—(a) interpersonal interactions measured as teacher and peer discrimination and (b) fair treatment/racial equity—and school engagement (behavioral, emotional, and cognitive dimensions). Importantly, we also examined whether positive beliefs about being Black might refute negative attitudes, beliefs, and behaviors from teachers and peers, so that Black students remained engaged in school despite a negative school racial climate.
Our high school participants ranged in age from 14 to 19 years old and attended two demographically similar public high schools located in the southeastern region of the United States. Some findings were as expected: students who perceived their school environment to be equitable for Black students also reported higher behavioral, emotional, and cognitive engagement. We also found that more teacher discrimination was associated with less emotional engagement, whereas more peer discrimination was associated with lower behavioral engagement and cognitive engagement. Crucially we found that among Black students who reported less positive beliefs about being Black, teacher discrimination was associated with lower emotional engagement, and peer discrimination was associated with lower cognitive engagement. On the other hand, we found that among Black students who reported more positive beliefs about being Black, there was no association between teacher discrimination and emotional engagement or peer discrimination and cognitive engagement. These findings show that more positive beliefs about being Black can protect Black youth against the harm of a negative school racial climate.
Lessons for Educators
Our findings underscore the importance of educators using strategies that promote a positive school racial climate and encourage positive beliefs about being Black. Using Afrocentric or Black empowerment educational practices and interventions that emphasize cultural pride might include:
- Displaying pictures of Black historical figures and cultural artifacts, such as a djembe drum
- Celebrating Kwanzaa
- Reading texts by Black authors, and
- Using curricula guided by core values and beliefs, such as pan-Africanism
Unfortunately, research shows that Black students are likely to deal with negative racial experiences at school, such as teacher and peer discrimination and unfair treatment toward those who look like them, which can lead to a school climate that is difficult to navigate. While these types of experiences may be detrimental to Black youth’s school outcomes, our study demonstrates the value of positive beliefs about being Black for protecting them from the harmful impact of such negative experiences.
For Further Reading
Griffin, C. B., Cooper, S. M., Metzger, I. W., Golden, A. R., & White, C. N. (2017). School racial climate and the academic achievement of African American high school students: The mediating role of school engagement. Psychology in the Schools, 54(7), 673-688. https://doi.org/10.1002/pits.22026
Griffin, C. B., Metzger, I. W., Halliday-Boykins, C. A., & Salazar, C. A. (2020). Racial fairness, school engagement, and discipline outcomes in African American high school students: The important role of gender. School Psychology Review, 49(3), 222-238. https://doi.org/10.1080/2372966X.2020.1726810
Griffin, C. B., Stitt, R. L., & Henderson, D. X. (2020). Investigating school racial climate and private racial regard as risk and protector factors for Black high school students’ school engagement. Journal of Black Psychology, 46(6-7), 514-549. https://doi.org/10.1177/0095798420946895
Charity Brown Griffin is an Associate Professor of Psychological Sciences at Winston-Salem State University. Her work focuses on race and Black youth’s schooling experiences.