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Graduate School of Education Prof. Howard Stevenson

Credit: Allison Dougherty , Allison Dougherty

Howard Stevenson, a professor at the Graduate School of Education, published a book in January based on his research in Philadelphia schools and institutions entitled “Promoting Racial Literacy in Schools: Differences That Make a Difference.” The Daily Pennsylvanian sat down with Stevenson to discuss his findings on how students, teachers and educators can resolve racial conflicts.

The Daily Pennsylvanian: Can you summarize in a few sentences what your book is about?

Howard Stevenson: Basically it’s a summary of some of the research and the school-based intervention work I’ve been doing for about 20 years to teach skills on how to talk about racial politics, how to talk about racial stress and help people resolve moments when they feel overwhelmed by racial conflict.

DP: Did you conduct research in different kinds of institutions in addition to schools?

HS: The clinical work I’ve done has been in different settings besides schools. But the research that we’re looking at is, for example, families who talk to their children about race. In general, those students tend to do better — academically and emotionally — when they’re faced with rejection because of their racial backgrounds … Some people, when they’re faced with a racial conflict, they think it’s like facing a tsunami. They’re so scared and frightened that they run from it, or they’re just paralyzed … But not everyone sees something racial as a tsunami. Climbing a mountain might be scary, but it’s doable … it’s a challenge. It’s still scary, but I think, “If I get the right tools, I’ll be able to do it.”

DP: The term “micro-aggressions” came up in your book as an example of racial conflicts. Would you mind explaining what that means?

HS: They’re racial micro-aggressions — slight insults to a person’s existence, framing them in a way which someone might find it hard to resist or rebel against because it’s subtle, it’s slight, it’s dismissive. But it still has an effect on a person’s well being — someone saying, “Even though you’re dark, you’re pretty.” That’s a subtle thing, but it’s racial. It’s not blatant like the n-word. Those are accumulative over time, and [research] suggests that those subtleties in schools make you feel like you’re less a part of the school.

DP: How would you define racial literacy?

HS: The definition is the ability to read, recast and resolve racial stress in relationships. The first part — about reading — is, do people really interpret accurately what’s going on in a particular racial conflict … and am I able to read my own emotions in it?

Recasting the stress means … I have to breathe a little bit, maybe I have to stop speaking, maybe I need to ask for a break … and then they can see [the conflict] differently enough to respond to it in a way that they feel resolves the issue for them. You might not have an answer for the conflict, but at least you’ll have a response that’s not either an underreaction — pretending it didn’t happen — or an overreaction, where you say and do something that doesn’t get at the real heart [of the issue].

DP: What advice do you give to educators on how they can improve racial tensions within classrooms?

HS: First try to know yourself … Knowing when you get stressed in these situations, you’re going to be better prepared to see someone else’s stress, and you might think twice about how you decide to resolve it. Use a different strategy besides avoidance … Forgive yourself for making mistakes. Most people don’t. They try not to make mistakes — which is impossible — or to say the right thing, and there’s no “right thing.” Being prepared when you don’t do it right is better than trying to say the right thing.

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