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Systemic issues in education

Education systems in Canada were developed from a White-dominant racial lens. The colonial legacy lives on today. As such, school boards are part of a system of racist policies and practices that permeate all aspects of school life.

The impacts of anti-Black racism on the mental health of Black students include (but aren’t limited to) under-diagnosis, misdiagnosis, denial of service, lack of culturally relevant services, and race-related stress exacerbating or creating mental health problems or illnesses (Williams, et al., 2007). Despite their incredible resilience, Black students experience a huge toll and are “pushed out” of education at much higher rates than their White peers (Appia & Kurek, 2019).

The focus should not be on helping marginalized and oppressed Black students develop more resilience. Instead, we must address the oppressive systems and policies that have directly caused Black students to be marginalized.

The disparity in academic opportunity for Black students compared to White students is significant. In the 2017 report "Towards Race Equity and Education,” Dr. Carl James and Tana Turner report major disparities. Of the 2006- 2011 student cohort, 39% of Black students were enrolled in applied courses vs. only 16% of White students. In contrast, 53% of Black students were enrolled in academic courses, vs. 81% of white students. The report points out that by the end of their secondary school career, 42% of Black students have been suspended at least once, vs. only 18% of White students. The level of disparity invites us to examine the systemic forces that perpetuate these divides.

Communities have also raised concerns about lack of inclusive curriculum; under-representation of Black and other racialized educators and leaders; failure to address racial discrimination and harassment; disproportionalities and disparities in special education; lowered academic expectations; and suppression of Black student aspirations.

To best support the mental health and well-being of Black students, we need to work with our community partners. Most of our current systems and services do not recognize the diversity that exists within the Black community. Nor do they fulfill the diversity of services needed to have a culturally relevant and responsive system supporting Black student mental health. This work includes collecting race based data to better inform a more representative and responsive system of mental health services.

Racial trauma 

  “...Rarely is unmasking and treating the hidden wounds of racial trauma a focal point of intervention. Instead, conventional approaches attend to family problems, individual psychological issues, behavioral problems, affect disorders, and substance misuse. These are salient factors but skirt issues of race which are powerful dynamics in the lives of youth of color...Internalized devaluation is a direct by-product of racism, inextricably linked to the deification of whiteness and the demonization of non-white hues. It is perpetrated throughout society, including in the very systems with the stated mission of serving youth.”

— Hardy & Qureshi, 2012

In the article entitled “Healing the Hidden Wounds of Racial Trauma”, Kenneth V. Hardy describes racial oppression as a traumatic form of interpersonal violence “which can lacerate the spirit, scar the soul, and puncture the psyche”. Despite this profound impact on the mental health of Black persons, race, racism and racial trauma are rarely the focus of mental health understanding or intervention.

Hardy invites us to consider how the sense of self is diminished and, in some cases, severely impacted through the culmination of recurring experiences with internalized devaluation. Through repeated experiences with “internalized devaluation”, it becomes very challenging for Black youth to develop a positive sense of self.

A Black youth’s emotional-psychological milieu can be inundated with repeated race-related messages (implicit and explicit) such as: you are not as attractive as...not as smart as... too dumb to...not intelligent enough to...not college material... ‘pretty articulate for a Black kid’. When that happens, one’s sense of self will inevitably reflect those messages.

As board mental health leadership teams navigate a mentally healthy return to school, consider the different ways your board can address the specific needs of Black students' mental health and the impact of racial trauma.


  • What are the learning needs of educators, school and system leaders in understanding anti-Black racism and its impacts on Black student mental health?
  • How are Black and racialized students and families engaged in conversations about their experiences with anti-Black racism in school (online or in person) and in the community?
  • What specific steps will you take to address the concerns identified by students, educators, and families?
  • How are schools supporting students who are experiencing community violence (state-sanctioned or otherwise)?
  • What conditions will the school system put in place to address microaggressions when they happen?
  • How prepared is the school system to provide culturally relevant school mental health services, including access to Black self-identified regulated mental health professionals?
  • Which Black self-identified and allied community organizations might you partner with and engage to support Black and racialized student mental health?

Talking about anti-Black racism

Why talk about anti-Black racism?

During the pandemic, young people have been separated from their social circles and had increased exposure to social media and news. Having a discussion with students about anti-Black racism will support an inclusive classroom and return to school. It lets students know that educators and school systems are aware of the social context, and not afraid to discuss and confront anti-Black racism.

Providing Black students with supportive spaces and opportunities to express their feelings and talk openly about their lived experiences with systemic barriers at school and in the community. That demonstrates a commitment to addressing anti-Black racism and can begin a healing process with Black students.

Acknowledging that Anti-Black Racism exists, and that it has an impact on the health and well-being of Black Canadians, can help to counteract the impacts of anti-Black racism.

Why not talk about racism in general?

Ontario Black students have been over-represented in the most negative ways possible (e.g. highest suspension, expulsion rates/lowest graduation rates). Discussing anti-Black racism with students helps to address the historical imbalances that Black students have faced. It also builds a bridge to working with students, their families and the broader community to eradicate systemic forms of anti-Black racism in our school communities.

Talking about anti-Black racism will benefit all racialized and marginalized students and help to develop allies in all students.

What does it mean to be an ally, and how to become one?

 “What is important about being an ally is that being an ally requires action. It requires naming, exploring and seeking to change injustices that we witness against marginalized communities. Being an ally is not supposed to be a comfortable process, it is a critical process in which we must examine our own social locations (our identities and how we are positioned relative to experiences of oppression and privilege), how we benefit from racism and how we can address racism that we see at multiple levels in our society, whether at the institutional level or the individual level (for example, racist ideas of comments from family or friends).

— Student, University of Guelph

Being an ally means acknowledging your power and privilege and leveraging them to remove anti-Black racism from within ourselves and our systems. Allyship also has longer-lasting effects than advocacy. It means working with people (as opposed to working for them), along with individual personal exploration, which ideally results in lasting systemic change.

Continuing along this continuum of change is the concept of being an “accomplice” or “co-conspirator” in anti-racist work, meaning those who are not Black doing anti-racist work alongside one another (KOJO Institute, 2022).

Supporting mentally healthy conversations about anti-Black racism

Many Ontario students will be engaged in conversations and activities around race and racism, especially Black students, and rightfully so. In our return to school plans, we will focus on creating mentally healthy, safe and genuine spaces to have these discussions.

In challenging the status quo and planning for meaningful systematic change, we need to prepare ourselves to help facilitate these processes. As adults supporting students at school (no matter how schooling will look in the fall and beyond), we all play a role in confronting systemic racism and working to build more just societies.

A commitment to positive change also requires us to look inward at our own biases. We must recognize the complexity and deep-seated nature of this problem, which itself requires multiple voices and perspectives. This is a time for school boards to collaborate with the broader community and recognize the importance of deconstructing our systems and revisioning them to include and support everyone. We need to do so by acting in concrete ways. This requires us all to do some work, especially for those of us who are not Black.

As learning communities, we can:

  • support and create mentally healthy spaces to encourage discussion
  • listen, believe, and act on what we hear students and their families saying
  • disrupt the powerful unexamined ideas that support systemic racism,
  • engage in learning that is not comfortable and can take an emotional toll

Feelings of discomfort are normal. They help us to better understand ourselves, the roles we play in perpetuating anti-Black racism, and how we can eliminate it.

Mental health leaders and School Mental Health Ontario leadership have come together to produce a resource aimed at Supporting Mentally Healthy Conversation about Anti-Black Racism with Students. Board Mental health leadership teams, in partnership with equity and inclusion teams, can use this resource to:

  • help set up mentally healthy re-entry plans for students
  • facilitate courageous conversations around anti-Black racism and the impact on mental health and well-being
  • support caring staff members in discussing and reflecting on anti-Black racism, working towards a mentally healthy return to school and planning for substantive systemic change against racism to improve mental health outcomes for Black and racialized students.

When preparing to engage in conversations about race and anti-Black racism, at a system or school level, we need to reflect on our own biases, privileges and social location. Our own intersecting identities have a direct impact on how we interact with and treat everyone. This groundwork is essential to support educators with conversations about race and anti-Black racism with their students.

To dig deeper into the context of anti-Black racism in Ontario, see the complete resource click here to view the resource "Understanding Anti-Black Racism to Support the Mental Health and Well Being of Black and Racialized Students", created by SMHO.

listen believe actVisit the School Mental Health Ontario website at https://smho-smso.ca/to access more resources.


Appia, V., & Kurek, D. (2019). Closing the gap: Why are black students in Toronto less likely to thrive? Toronto.com. Retrieved August 30, 2022, from https://www.toronto.com/news/closing-the-gap-why-are-black-students-in-toronto-less-likely-to-thrive/article_9980a973-bc75-5ad0-83ef-411f42c0ad3b.html 

KOJO Institute (2022). The language of equity. Kojo Institute - Equity & Organizational Change. Retrieved August 30, 2022, from https://kojoinstitute.com/the-language-of-equity/

Paradies, Y. C. (2006). Defining, conceptualizing and characterizing racism in health research. Critical Public Health, 16(2), 143–157. https://doi.org/10.1080/09581590600828881

Williams, D. R., González, H. M., Neighbors, H., Nesse, R., Abelson, J. M., Sweetman, J., & Jackson, J. S. (2007). Prevalence and distribution of major depressive disorder in African Americans, Caribbean blacks, and non-Hispanic whites: Results from the National Survey of American Life. Archives of General Psychiatry, 64(3), 305–315. https://doi.org/10.1001/archpsyc.64.3.305