The school system can ravage Black children; that’s why investing in our safety, ability to process, and care is so crucial.


By Gloria O.

The recent death of McKenzie Adams, a nine-year-old from Alabama who endured months of racist bullying before dying via suicide, really hurt me. It immediately evoked memories of bullying in my own childhood, reminding me of the sad fact that the world can make such little progress in so much time.

Anti-blackness, particularly within the school system, is such a normalized trauma in our childhoods. In school, we learn quickly that anti-blackness has no age. The lessons your non-Black peers learn, besides writing long-form and tying their shoes, is how to hate you. For the adult mentors in your life, “maturity” doesn’t stop racism; it just refines it. Teachers and other adults who are responsible for watching over you eight hours a day also exert their power and authority to harass and belittle you.

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I vividly remember my own history of racist bullying, at the hands of both adults and children. When I was 7 and walking home from school, two white boys threw water at me and called a “nigger.” When I entered my second elementary school, a white boy, Billy, yanked my headband back and launched it into my eyes. He was the same boy to kick me and burst my lip open on the playground. I was called a “colored pencil” by a classmate , a “nickname” I am still trying to make sense of. There are many more memories, more macro and micro aggressions I have forgotten and suppressed.

But there’s something unique about the way adults disparage you. When you’re a child with parents who work all day, the gap in power between a student and a teacher is huge. A chasm really. The chasm is deep enough to swallow all children, but it’s even deeper for Black children—Black children who aren’t believed, who are disposable. The chasm grows when there are no systems to hold teachers accountable for bullish, aggressive behavior.

Ms. Biggs called me a stage hog. She wanted to get me suspended for breaking a pencil in frustration after she embarrassed me in front of my class, said I was using it as a weapon. Instead of meeting me where I was at, she automatically read me as the angry, Black girl who was ready to stab her with my school supplies. One teacher asserted in 5th grade that I didn’t know where the United States was on a map and forced me to point it out in front of everyone (I could and did). As one of two Black children in his class, I knew this was a litmus test of my right to be in the school’s gifted program. I had another teacher who accused me of being anti-police when I called into question a “Blue Lives Matter” sticker plastered on the outside of his Macbook.

But Mr. Gartland is my favorite example. He accused me of not having a thesis or meeting word count in a paper and, when I defended myself, called me “obtuse” and “stubborn.” He claimed he had the power to stop me from graduating, said he could torpedo my future for fun. Then he spread rumors about me to the administration, claiming I was anti-semitic. This had come months after he had told me that I needed a degree to speak about my experience as a Black woman “accurately,” one of many attempts to police my thoughts and truth in the classroom.

What is even more frustrating is how I allowed others to invalidate me and how I invalidated myself. I convinced myself that I needed to stop letting others determine my happiness, told myself that I must have done something to deserve the taunting. I always made excuses for others, because, at a certain point, I had internalized so much of what was told to me.

Don’t get me wrong, I had a number of great influences, friends and mentors, but the bad ones burn. They have a way of searing their interpretation of your worth into your memory. They confirm what the world has already told you about Black women—that we are worthless, unlovable, inferior. Bullying is already traumatic enough, but being bullied for being Black has its own tinge of awfulness. It’s being targeted—by children and adults alike—for something that you can’t change, something that will define you forever.

Yes, many children get bullied, but as they grow and move through life, the world tells them a different narrative than their tormentors. They begin to build more confidence, are assured by others that they have worth and are loved. Even when this happens for Black people, even when our loved ones intervene to try and build us up, the world tears us down again. I didn’t feel empowered when I heard Sandra Bland had died in police custody. I didn’t feel loved when news spread that Nia Wilson, a young woman my age, had been murdered in cold blood by a white man. These examples and others only served to verify what I had been told by others growing up, that Black women were disposable and our humanity questionable

In college, I was able to join communities that validated my experiences and talents as a Black woman. I joined circles that lifted me up and empowered me, artistic circles that allowed me to express how I was feeling and education departments at my university that allowed me to educate myself about other Black women who had gone through similar trials.

But a huge part of my healing from this was when I really invested in my mental health. While placing myself in loving communities was a good start, I had to take the extra step of actively caring for my well-being. I found a therapist, a good one, who was the first person to tell me that anti-blackness was trauma, an idea that completely shocked me. She helps me process my past, empathizes with childhood me, and does the simple act of saying “that wasn’t right” in reference to past incidents of bullying. These things sound so basic, but they are acts that no one had ever done for me before.

The school system can ravage Black children; that’s why investing in our safety, ability to process, and care is so crucial.

In school, how many counselors of color are available for Black children to come to? How often are we given spaces to talk about our negative experiences when it comes to our peers in those in authority? Are those same spaces available when we witness the murder of people like us on TV and social media? How often are Black children believed when we bravely come forward and speak of bias that has happened to us? How many passes are given to those who display patterns of intolerance? How often are they excused for their behavior, given the “benefit of the doubt? These are all questions that only highlight how little schools do to empower Black children, especially considering the extra barriers we encounter.

RELATED: 9-year-old Jamel Myles commits suicide after homophobic bullying at school

I recall these memories now because I doubt they are just mine. From casually making small talk with other Black folks, I know how universal anti-blackness in childhood can be. We reference it as a unifying experience so many of us have gone through, almost without realizing its weight on our lives.

And without fully realizing it, my own experiences have guided me to create spaces for Black people recovering from similar traumas. At school, I am apart of an organization that creates a women of color mental health summit, a purposeful place to process memories. I actively encourage my friends take advantage of mental health services available on campus or, at the very least, use free peer groups run by other POC students to talk if therapy is inaccessible. I know that healing can happen and hopeful that others affected by this can find the same thing.

Gloria Oladipo is a Black woman from Chicago, IL. She is currently a sophomore at Cornell University. You can email her at, and find her on Instagram @glorels