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ismail-salad-osman-hajji-dirir-v7FT5ngIEfA-unsplash.jpgIn a world where Black youth are shot for something as harmless and accidental as arriving at the wrong address to pick up their younger siblings, it becomes increasingly evident that we often fail to acknowledge the profound impact of racial stress and trauma. Ralph Yarl’s story is just one among far too many where activities like walking, playing, knocking on the wrong door or simply existing while being Black can have fatal consequences (Zaru & Negussie, 2023). While we have become more accustomed to discussing stories like Ralph's, or to seeing them dominate the U.S. news cycle for days on end, we have yet to fully come to terms with the fact that the reach of racial stress and trauma extends far beyond the confines of direct involvement in a traumatic event. Merely witnessing systemic racism and oppression weighs heavily on our youth, akin to an unspoken toll or what one young person, who participated in our teams’ intervention (i.e., TRANSFORM; Lau Johnson, Saleem, Pickens & Langley, 2021) designed to heal racial stress and trauma, refers to as an invisible burden: “I knew it was there, but I didn't know that it had a specific name to it. Like putting a name to a face, I guess that kind of helped too.” What this teen describes—the ability to articulate the experience they have always felt and known to be true—is what it looks like to provide youth with the necessary tools to address racial stress and trauma. It is about the transformative process of making the invisible visible. 

What is racial stress and trauma (RST)?

Racial trauma is the emotional, psychological and physical distress that a person experiences based on experiencing and witnessing race-related stressors such as racism, racial discrimination, bias and systemic inequality. Racial trauma can manifest through verbal, behavioral or environmental stressors that people experience because of their race. These can be individual (e.g., being called a racial slur), vicarious (i.e., being exposed to racist materials) or systemic (i.e., not being able to wear your natural hair because of a policy or because it is seen as unprofessional). These acts create psychological or physical threat for one's safety, which often leaves one feeling vulnerable within their environment because of the color of their skin.
Race-related stressors can have negative consequences across domains of functioning. This can include feelings such as helplessness, anger, anxiety and depression along with symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Symptoms related to PTSD include re-experiencing, intrusion, avoidance, negative mood and cognitions, and psychological arousal. It can also lead to physical symptoms, such as headaches, digestive problems and chronic pain. Unlike PTSD, which is often linked to a single incident, racial trauma can be the result of a single racially traumatic incident or the accumulation of multiple race-related stressors that occur over time (Williams et al., 2018). 

Racial stress and trauma in schools

Youth of color experience race-related stressors across contexts that they interact within. Schools are a salient context that youth spend a lot of time in and have implications for youths’ social‐emotional development. Students also experience and process identity-based stressors, including racism at school. For example, youth of color consistently face inequity in schools (e.g., disciplinary practices, academic achievement) and encounter racial stressors, all while learning about concepts like race, racism and culture (Douglass et al., 2016; Graham, 2011, Saleem & Byrd, 2021). However, educators, clinicians and practitioners are rarely equipped to address the racial stress and trauma their students endure daily. The STARS blueprint is a framework that uses a racial equity, action-oriented and strengths-based approach to understand and address racial stress and trauma across three levels of the school ecology (i.e., students, staff, and systems, policies and practices) by building upon and expanding the U.S. Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration recommendations regarding trauma‐informed approaches (2014). 

Defining the STARS approach

STARS was designed to encourage school-wide change and to call upon practitioners to better address the needs of youth of color through incorporating trauma-informed approaches that are inclusive of racial stressors.
The first S in STARS is for safety, collaboration and mutuality. Trauma-informed schools that address RST must prioritize the psychological and physical safety of their students. Trauma is a threat to safety, to youths’ perceptions of themselves and to their ability to connect with others (Dods, 2013; Saleem et al., 2022). Fostering safety in schools can take the form of power-sharing and collaborative decision-making across the school ecology (staff, students, families and practitioners) and has the potential to heal relationships and promote opportunities for equity. Clinicians can support this effort to understand and tackle RST by holding space for families to process stressful encounters and by facilitating discussions on how to respond to school, district and local policies that perpetuate harm (Saleem et al., 2022).
The second letter in the STARS acronym represents trustworthiness, transparency and peer support. Building trust, openness and support across the school ecology is foundational to a healthy school racial climate that is inclusive of RST. Collective consciousness, community healing and support from others with a shared lived experience are central to this component of the STARS blueprint (SAMHSA, 2014; Saleem et al., 2022). For example, school staff play an extremely important part in mitigating the effects of RST and promoting collective healing. Creating spaces where school staff feel safe and can develop trust with each other allows them to engage in healthy relationships with students. Further, all adults in trauma-informed schools should be prepared to address and navigate racially sensitive topics. This includes awareness of potential reactions to these conversations and the ability to respond at an individual and collective level.
An acknowledgment of racial-ethnic, historical and intersectional lived experiences is critical to creating an equitable, affirming and healing-centered school-wide environment. This is an ongoing process that involves culturally responsive curriculum and practices that align with students' intersectional identities and experiences. There is a need for ongoing training in cultural responsiveness for those working with students, regardless of their racial-ethnic background, as well as support for educators and counselors to reduce or eliminate race-based incidents in schools. Race-conscious practitioners can reduce or eliminate race-based incidents in schools by acknowledging race, addressing race-based experiences and creating racially safe, culturally affirming spaces (Saleem et al., 2022).
The R in STARS stands for racial-ethnic socialization (RES) and resolution skills. RES is defined as behaviors and communication about race, heritage and racism (Umaña-Taylor & Hill, 2020). In other words, RES is the learning process through which race becomes “common sense” (Hughes, 2017). RES can be transmitted through verbal as well as nonverbal messages that extend to the content being taught in classrooms. RES has the potential to reduce the negative effects of RST and equip youth with the competency and skills to respond to and process RST (Anderson & Stevenson, 2019). Further, RES serves as a gateway to conversations about race, RST and racial healing while increasing awareness and responsiveness to these topics across the school ecology.
The final S in STARS calls upon practitioners in trauma-informed settings to provide support for empowerment, voice, choice and critical reflection. This essential component of the blueprint requires critical reflection of personal attitudes, ideas, beliefs and practices as well as an acknowledgment of one’s own racialized experiences to move schools and clinical practices along the path of radical healing (Saleem et al., 2022). Engaging in individual and collective critical reflection across the school ecology is a deliberate and systematic process of questioning and examining one's own thoughts, beliefs and actions that is necessary if we are to move toward repairing and maintaining healthy school racial climates. 

The need for STARS in clinical settings

Though STARS has been discussed extensively as impactful across the school ecology, we find this blueprint equally important for clinical settings and any youth-serving organization aiming to implement a trauma-informed approach. We believe clinicians and non-clinicians have as much of a responsibility to be cognizant of ongoing individual and collective trauma reaching youth through media outlets and through the communities that schools are embedded within (Saleem et al., 2022). Implementing the STARS approach is critical to any mental health practice that aims to address trauma and create identity-affirming, racially safe spaces. Further, there is a growing need for training programs for those across the school ecology (e.g., teacher education, administration and counseling psychology) that provide culturally responsive support for adults of all racial-ethnic backgrounds who plan to work with youth.
Race-conscious clinicians, counselors and educators can reduce or eliminate race-based incidents in schools by first acknowledging race, addressing race-based experiences and creating culturally responsive spaces (Allen et al., 2013; Stevenson, 2014; Saleem et al., 2022). Essential steps to building the equitable safe spaces include: 1) facilitating inclusive and meaningful discussions about race, 2) critically reflecting on the local and school racial climate and 3) intentionally planning how to assess, respond and eradicate RST as part of a collective effort (Saleem et al., 2022).
Clinical settings, as well as schools and educational programs, must create space for courageous conversations and encourage taking part in this process. If applied with care, the STARS approach can add to youths’ ability to navigate discriminatory encounters, cope with racial stress and trauma, and challenge racial injustice. 

What’s most important for clinicians to know and do

It is important to know that racial stress and trauma impacts everyone differently. It is not limited to any one race or ethnicity and can affect anyone who experiences racism and discrimination. It disproportionately affects people of color due to the systemic racism and inequality they face. However, it is important to be informed about what it is and how it manifests. It can be hard to identify because of comorbid concerns or other traumas. Most of the time it is not the primary presenting problem people bring into your office. Look for opportunities and resources to help your client identify and process RST. For example, you may help your patients come up with a coping and response plan for how to manage emotions in the moment and after: talk to friends, self-care, journaling, activism (peaceful protest, petitions), join processing groups, exercise, deep breathing, praying, mediation, build cultural pride, and practice what they want to do and say the next time something similar happens.
Providers must also do their own work by reflecting on their positionality and privilege. Learn about other ethnic-racial and cultural groups' experiences and do not make assumptions. Look for opportunities to advocate and be an ally. For example, reflecting on how to use your privilege to address injustice and engage in conversations about the topic and positionality. Consider how to share your power and privilege. For example, if you are in positions of power and privilege you can also read and share anti-racist education with others, support anti-racist efforts and engage in anti-racist actions (protest, petitions, voting) to name a few. 


The profound impact of racial stress and trauma on Black youth, along with other youth of color, is an issue that demands our urgent attention. Stories like Ralph Yarl's serve as painful reminders that innocent actions can have devastating consequences, as well as ripple effects that impact others. Merely bearing witness to systemic racism and oppression burdens our youth, manifesting as an invisible weight that they carry. However, there is hope in empowering young people with the tools to address and process these experiences. Putting a name to Black youths’ lived realities by addressing racial stress and trauma in real time can be transformative. This underscores the importance of providing the necessary resources and support to youth, particularly within the context of schools: “We believe that schools are an opportune context in which to intervene with RST if schools and staff reflect on and are committed to creating antiracist, anti-oppressive, culturally responsive, affirming, and healing spaces. We hope that schools, [clinicians] and scholars will apply and test this blueprint as a step toward embedding racial equity into K-12 schools and believing in the healing potential of schools” (Saleem et al., 2022, p. 12). 

About the authors

Farzana T. Saleem, PhD is an Assistant Professor in the Graduate School of Education at Stanford University. She uses her research to inform the development and adaptation of programs and school-based interventions focused on managing racial stressors, eradicating mental health and academic racial disparities, and promoting resilience among historically marginalized and racially diverse children and adolescents.
Emma Keller is a PhD student in the Developmental and Psychological Sciences and Race, Inequality, and Language in Education programs at Stanford University’s Graduate School of Education. Her current research focuses on the experiences of Black and biracial adolescents, particularly in the areas of racial identity development and racial socialization, and on the development of effective interventions that mitigate racial stress and promote psychological well-being. 


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