Howard Stevenson: How Can We Mindfully Navigate Everyday Racism?

Mar 29, 2019
Originally published on March 29, 2019 10:13 am

Part 4 of the TED Radio Hour episode Confronting Racism.

About Howard Stevenson's TED Talk

What does racial literacy look like in today's social climate? Howard Stevenson talks about navigating racially stressful encounters, and how it's actually an acquired skill-set.

About Howard Stevenson

Howard C. Stevenson is the director of the Racial Empowerment Collaborative (REC). He is also a professor of Africana Studies and the Constance Clayton Professor of Urban Education at the University of Pennsylvania's Graduate School of Education.

He has written numerous peer-reviewed publications, and he is the author of the teaching book Promoting Racial Literacy In Schools. His research publications and clinical work have been funded by the W.T. Grant Foundation, Annenberg Foundation and the National Institutes of Mental Health and Child Health and Human Development.

Additionally, he is the director of Forward Promise, a national program that provides philanthropic support for organizations designed to improve the health of boys and young men of color and their families. Since 1985, Stevenson has served as a clinical and consulting psychologist working in impoverished rural and urban neighborhoods across the country.

Copyright 2019 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

GUY RAZ, HOST:

It's the TED Radio Hour from NPR. I'm Guy Raz. And on the show today, ideas about confronting racism. And so far on the show, we've been hearing about the effects of systemic racism - but what about the ways that racial bias can affect our daily interactions?

HOWARD STEVENSON: Which is what happens in the interpersonal level, where people are face-to-face with each other daily and have to interact and make decisions daily.

RAZ: This is clinical psychologist Howard Stevenson. And Howard says, oftentimes it's in these encounters when our unconscious and even conscious biases can affect how we react.

STEVENSON: Racial moments arise, and they are caught in a place of anxiety and stress about what best to do and hampers the decision-making of folks in those moments.

RAZ: Howard Stevenson talks more about these moments from the TED stage.

(SOUNDBITE OF TED TALK)

STEVENSON: If you look at the neuroscience research which says that when we are racially threatened, our brains go on lockdown and we dehumanize black and brown people, our brains imagine that children and adults are older than they really are, larger than they really are and closer than they really are. When we're at our worst, we convince ourselves that they don't deserve affection or protection. If you look at the police encounters that have led to some wrongful deaths of mostly Native Americans and African-Americans in this country, they've lasted about two minutes.

Within 60 seconds, our brains go on lockdown. And when we're unprepared, we overreact. At best, we shut down. At worst, we shoot first and ask no questions. Imagine if we could reduce the intensity of threat within those 60 seconds and keep our brains from going on lockdown. Imagine how many children would get to come home from school without getting expelled or shot. Imagine how many mothers and fathers wouldn't have to cry.

Racial socialization can help young people negotiate 60-second encounters, but it's going to take more than a chat. It requires a racial literacy. Now, how do parents have this conversation? And what is a racial literacy? Thank you for asking.

(LAUGHTER)

STEVENSON: A racial literacy involves the ability to read, recast and resolve a racially stressful encounter. Now, racially literate conversations with our children can be healing, but it takes practice.

RAZ: You had a moment that you shared onstage, when you and your youngest son, Julian, found out that George Zimmerman was acquitted after he killed Trayvon Martin. And you and Julian talk about how he - how Julian could have been perceived the same way as Trayvon.

STEVENSON: Sure.

RAZ: What was that conversation like? What did Julian say?

STEVENSON: At that time, he felt very strongly. It's not fair. And he got angry about it...

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

JULIAN: What the...

STEVENSON: Yeah, I think that...

...That he might also be targeted.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

STEVENSON: Yes.

JULIAN: Like we're better than you...

STEVENSON: Yeah.

JULIAN: ...And there's nothing you can do about that. And if you scare me or something like that, I will shoot you because I'm scared of you.

STEVENSON: But I think he also - I also want to him to know - which I think he got - that we're going to try to be around him but that he also has to make decisions. It's a - it's one of those tricky, you know, stressful things that parents of kids of color, in my view, have to deal with. Both Bryan and Julian, my two sons, I gave them the talks at 8 years old. It just happened to come up that way.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

STEVENSON: Right. I did the same thing with Bryan. I gave him the same talk. We call...

Once he got the information, he said wait a minute. You know...

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

JULIAN: I was wondering - so you're saying he has the right to follow a black kid...

STEVENSON: ...You're telling me that this guy can just chase a black kid...

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

JULIAN: ...Get in a fight with him and shoot him?

STEVENSON: ...Basically and nothing happen? That's not right.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

STEVENSON: If somebody's stalking you...

JULIAN: It's not the same for everyone else. It's not the...

STEVENSON: It's not always the same, no. You've got to be careful.

JULIAN: Yeah - because people can disrespect you...

STEVENSON: Exactly. And...

JULIAN: And think that you're - it's like they're saying that you don't look right, so I guess I have the right to disrespect you.

STEVENSON: Yeah. Things like this happen way too often to our children. Well, anyway - you got time - you've got to get ready for your shower. Let's go.

RAZ: I'm - you know, I think most people - and probably most white Americans...

STEVENSON: Yeah.

RAZ: ...They think of a racist as, like, a torch-carrying Charlottesville protester, like someone in a white hood.

STEVENSON: Sure.

RAZ: But I mean, so many of us carry elements of racism, carry elements of bias and bigotry in the decisions that we make consciously or unconsciously that feed into a bigger phenomenon.

STEVENSON: I do think, for so many people, to be thought of as a racist is such an affront to their character. It feels like, you know, that you'll get a mark on you for the rest of your life - right? - so if you're a racist, you don't have good character. Right? We don't do that for other issues. We don't really hire algebra teachers because they have good character. They have to have skills in counting.

Your character...

RAZ: Yeah.

STEVENSON: ...Is interesting, but it's secondary. We know you could be the best, nicest, goodest (ph) person in the world. But we're not going to hire you as an algebra teacher in the school district if you can't count. And so why do we accept that people are good at dealing with race because they have good character - where we've never challenged them on their ability to navigate racial conflict? Like, what's your skill set? Where have you practiced? Where have you studied? You know, what's your knowledge about racial threat in the moment?

RAZ: I don't think anybody would say this is easy. Like, re-examining the way we think about race, re-examining our narrative - all these things are difficult. They require real work. But it strikes me that there still is this feeling - people say, I'm tired of diversity training. I'm tired of these conversations; enough already. And I wonder whether there's another way to frame it, you know, to people who say, enough, I don't want to talk about this anymore - to say, but let me explain why this is good for you, too.

STEVENSON: I think if people are open, yes. I think it's more show me than tell me. And that's where I think about, you know, the arguments of, what if your child is affected by not knowing about these racial issues? You know, can you imagine that? The trauma and the history of racism affects all of us. And, you know, a colleague of mine, Dr. Robin Smith (ph) and I were teaching some pastors at a seminary, Southern Baptist Seminary, and one day we're teaching about lynching, and I showed a picture of a lynching with two children in the picture. And one of the ministers in the class started crying uncontrollably.

When we stopped the class, we asked him what's going on. He said, I was a child at a lynching. He was a white Southern Baptist minister out of Tennessee. And in the process, he said, you know, I was told not to talk about it, and I literally could not stop crying. Once you circled those two children on the screen, I lost it. First, we said, thank you for sharing that with us. But we also asked him, is there anything else that's triggered you? And he said, yes, because now in my church, which has been predominately white, the neighborhood is integrating, and I have African-American parishioners coming to my church. And now I have had nightmares ever since about whether I can be a pastor to them or not.

The trauma of racism, the emotional trauma of the legacy of lynching, has affected all of us. And I'm saying that if you want to really heal about this stuff, you've got to see it connected, you know. And living with the benefits of enslavement do not absolve people of the pain and trauma. And I think all of us have lots of moments like that; wish we had do-overs, right?

But it affects our health, it affected his sleep habit, it affected his relationships, it affected the anxiety that he was going through every day. And so we've been making the pitch, you know, to deal with this stuff is not simply about being a better society, not simply about being a good person. But what if not dealing with racial matters affects your health, would you be interested? Or it affects your children's health, would you then be interested? You know, if you knew your child was going to lose sleep over their difference or not know how to deal with this stuff over the course of 10 years, would you be interested in engaging and talking about it?

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

RAZ: Howard Stevenson is the director of the Racial Empowerment Collaborative at the University of Pennsylvania. You can see his full talk at ted.com. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.