Supporting Survivors of White Supremacist Violence

A veteran educator from El Paso offers recommendations for how all educators can help create communities of care, support and action.

The violence enacted on the Latinx immigrant community in El Paso, Texas, is an egregious reminder that black people, Indigenous people and all people of color continue to live under the imminent threat of white supremacist violence. While this violence permeates every aspect of our lives, it is possible—and it is our responsibility as educators—to help our students navigate the consequences of this violence. We can do so by creating communities of care, support and action. 

Here are a few things that educators can do, starting now, to ensure they’re supporting all of their students and taking action against the traumatic institutions that continue to harm young people every day, especially when students’ experiences are compounded by the intersections of white supremacist and xenophobic violence. 


Be honest. 

It is possible and likely that students are confused about what occurred last weekend and why it happened. Carefully name that the shooting in El Paso was an act of white supremacist violence. In “When Schools Cause Trauma,” teacher Carrie Gaffney challenges fellow educators to consider how some students may experience “a kind of erasure” if our language suggests that the student’s experience is “imagined or exaggerated.” You can show students you recognize the significance of their response by making space for discussion, carefully considering their questions and offering them an honest assessment of what happened in El Paso and why. 


Educate yourself.

Understand how white supremacy operates in our daily lives by exploring the relationship between covert white supremacy and overt expressions of white supremacist violence. A pyramid of socially acceptable and socially unacceptable white supremacy can help us consider how white supremacist violence is upheld and supported in everyday choices, policies and practices. (This pyramid was created by Safehouse Progressive Alliance for Nonviolence and then adapted by Ellen Tuzzolo and the Unitarian Society of Ridgewood, New Jersey.) In his article “What Is the Alt-Right?” TT Senior Writer Cory Collins explains how students are particularly susceptible to white supremacist radicalization that “has led to unsafe and uncivil climates in schools and communities.” Think about what is happening in your classroom and school community that upholds or dismantles white supremacy.


Check in with colleagues.

Consider that our educator peers may also be affected or grieving. If possible, offer support for peers in similar ways you’d check in on a student. Jesus Valles, a high school educator from El Paso who currently teaches in Austin, posted this moving message on Facebook:

Teaching in an American school has inevitably changed the neural pathways that chart my thoughts about shootings. I was in my 20s when I took my high school teaching job. The children at that Wal-Mart, in my city, the teenagers, all of them at stages [where] the brain is its most malleable, they were changed, too. Trauma, as we know, is coded and passed down in trace amounts. This means bullets and their ghosts live in our brains long after we are gone.

Remember that the trauma and grief that follow public violence isn’t limited to those who survive it, and that the goal of terror is to affect communities as well as individuals. As you keep this in mind, reflect on how you can lend support to folks in your own community who may need it.


Stand up against oppression.

Explore and amplify resources available for undocumented immigrant communities and all communities affected by white supremacist violence. During the El Paso shooting, legal advocates offered to accompany community members who needed medical attention but were afraid to seek help because of their immigration status. Additionally, therapists in El Paso and throughout Texas offered cost-effective services for impacted communities. Compile resources and share them with students and their families. As outlined in “This Is Not a Drill,” there are many ways to show up for vulnerable communities.


Offer students a pathway forward. 

Educators in Louisiana, Virginia and other places across the United States are guiding young people to envision a world without white supremacy. That future is possible. In the wake of the violence in El Paso, Ayesha A. Siddiqi, writer and editor of The New Inquiry, wrote, “The problems are growing more obvious and are being named more loudly, which means more of us can work together to aid each other through them.” 

When we honestly confront our hardest histories and trust our students with the truth of racial violence, we can collectively transform our current conditions.  

Bernal-Martinez is an educator, community organizer and documentarian from El Paso, Texas, based in Montgomery, Alabama.