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Bringing School Racial Socialization to Light: The Importance of Intentionality and Resistance

By Sohini Das

While building racial equity in schools, it is crucial to understand the foundational process of how race and racial hierarchy is conveyed to individuals in and beyond schools. Race and racism are social constructs that gain meaning and power through messages that come from a variety of sources. The transmission of messages about race and racial hierarchies is referred to by researchers as racial socialization. Racial socialization occurs with youth on a regular basis from all kinds of sources, including parents, peers, teachers, school curriculum, and more. These messages inform how youth make sense of race and their own racial identities. 


Racial socialization is especially important in how youth comprehend what is meant by race and the reality of racism in society. For Black, Latinx, Indigenous, and AAPI youth, this includes the strategies that prepare youth for racial bias, strategies to cope with discrimination, racial pride and lessons about ethnic-racial history and traditions. Research shows that some racial socialization messages, such as messages that prepare youth for bias, actually serve as protection for Black youth from the discrimination they will face and also buffer the psychological distress of experiencing such discrimination (Neblett et al., 2008). Researchers have linked racial socialization to positive psychological well being and even academic achievement and motivation for Black, Indigenous, and people of color (BIPOC) youth (Byrd, 2015; Umaña‐Taylor & Hill, 2020). Just as BIPOC youth receive messages about race, white youth are equally shaped by the racial socialization messages they receive. For example, the presence of positive racial socialization messages that encourage white youth to critically examine their own whiteness and the racial hierarchy they are embedded in guides white children and adolescents to develop an understanding of race and their own racial identities in relationship to systemic racism and white supremacy. 


As institutions that make up one of the most formidable social experiences for all youth (Wentzel & Looney, 2006), schools offer an array of racial socialization messages. Traditionally, school racial socialization is premised on white supremacist values of education that deem white students as the norm and deserving of academic success and support, whereas Black and Brown students, in partiular, are stereotyped as incapable of academic success and engagement. Schooling in the United States reflects such stereotypical perceptions of BIPOC students in their racial socialization messages within pedagogy, disproportionate disciplining, and curriculum that is void of the humanization of BIPOC youth. School racial socialization that does not center resistance towards white supremacy thus demoralizes and dehumanizes BIPOC students and caters to white supremacist values and notions of education. 


Yet, schools do hold great potential in intentionally promoting racial socialization messages that resist norms that are harmful for Black and Brown students’ agency and also empower white students to assess their white identity in relationship to white supremacy. A few examples of school racial socialization messages that resist white supremacist curriculum and pedagogy include: 


  • School leaders facilitating critical conversations about how historical and current events are tied to white supremacy
  • Teachers acknowledging and discussing the implications of white supremacy and systemic racism in a class lesson
  • Creating class assignments that ask students to reflect on their own relationship to aspects of systemic racism
  • Engaging class reading material that centers BIPOC writers, characters, histories, and experiences 
  • School leaders personally affirming the identities and experiences of BIPOC students in conversation 
  • School leaders reassessing the concept of “disruptive behavior” in classroom management and addressing issues with students by centering humanity and agency of all youth, particularly Black and Latine students, who are traditionally disproportionately disciplined at higher rates 
  • Emphasizing cultural pride through teaching history and cultural traditions; support Black and Brown youth to increasingly affirm and find joy in their ethnic-racial identity and group membership
  • Schools leaders discussing with students how their own racial identity is salient to their own lives 
  • Center narratives about BIPOC resistance and empowerment in curriculum 


Schools must intentionally prioritize racial socialization messages which resist white supremacy and support BIPOC students in their psychological wellbeing, empowerment, affirmative ethnic-racial identity, and critical consciousness. Such messages also support white students in their ability to assess their white racial privilege within racial hierarchies and become an agent of change through critical consciousness and positive racial identity development. Overall, intentional resistance-building racial socialization facilitates students’ better understanding of themselves and others. Schools need to be deliberate in the racial socialization messages provided for students to engage with and must prioritize the psychological, social and academic–or, rather, holistic–wellbeing of their students and consider their significant role in the racial socialization of youth by actively promoting messages which resist traditional white supremacist norms in schooling and humanize the ethnic-racial identities of BIPOC students and engage in intentional, critical race and racism conscious dialogue. 

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Sohini Das

Sohini Das, Student Researcher,

Sohini is a proud Bengali-american woman and incoming PhD student in NYU Steinhardt’s Psychology and Social Intervention program who is passionate about supporting the development and sustainability of critical race caring, resistance-fostering educational spaces for Black, Indigenous, Latinx, and API youth.