Q&A with Howard Stevenson

Howard Stevenson

For some people, experiencing a racial encounter can be so stressful that it’s as if they are facing a tsunami or a venomous snake.

The episodes can be as minute as an inadvertent microaggression, or as malignant as being pelted with rocks and called the N-word.

Both can be traumatic, says Howard Stevenson, the Constance Clayton Professor of Urban Education at the Graduate School of Education(GSE) and executive director of the Racial Empowerment Collaborative, and affect an individual’s sleep and eating habits, academic focus, determination, and emotional and physical well-being.

Through his efforts as an educator, clinical psychologist, and researcher, and his scholarship in racial literacy, Stevenson, who is also a professor of Africana studies and director of Forward Promise, works to help individuals enduring a tidal wave of racial anxiety bring their stress levels down to those of, say, a mountain-climbing experience—moving from an impossible elevated extreme to one that is difficult and challenging, but possible and achievable.

“In racial literacy, we are preparing parents, youth, the police, teachers, et cetera, to be able to engage a racial encounter that takes place in less than two minutes,” he says. “If you look at the police encounters that have gone wrong and led to wrongful deaths—primarily with Native American and African-American victims—they usually happen within two minutes, so our strategy is to teach people to learn to be racially literate and to manage their emotions in less than 60 seconds, because that’s really when decisions are made.”

The Current sat down with Stevenson at the Racial Empowerment Collaborative at GSE to discuss the definitions of microaggressions and racial literacy, the connection between theology and psychology, the southerness of Delaware, and increasing instances of racial harassment and abuse across the nation.

You attended Eastern College, a Christian university on the Main Line, for your undergraduate studies. Are you originally from the Philadelphia area?

No, I’m from Delaware, southern Delaware actually.

Do you consider Delaware a southern state?

Yes. Not northern Delaware, but southern Delaware. There are two Delawares. There’s northern Delaware, which looks down on people in lower Delaware—the so-called ‘slower lower.’ In the state, there’s a view that lower Delaware is different than northern Delaware. It is different rural wise, but the language is different as well, so people speak differently in southern Delaware. There’s more poverty. Racially, it’s very different, too.

You received your master’s degree and Ph.D. from Fuller Theological Seminary Graduate School of Psychology. Why were you interested in studying at religious institutions?

I was intrigued with the connection between theology and psychology, but I was most interested in becoming a clinical psychologist, where I could work in neighborhoods and communities, including churches, but not just churches.

What is the connection between theology and psychology?

If you think about healing, there are modes of healing that are spiritual and cultural as much as they are verbal and therapeutic, in the sort of traditional sense. There are ways in which people’s struggle over pain is not easily addressed in practical ways. You need a spiritual faith to help navigate struggles that aren’t always definable, or feel impossible to change.

Before joining Penn in 1990, you worked as a clinical psychologist at the Philadelphia Child Guidance Clinic, and as a supervising clinical psychologist at the Delaware State Department of Child Mental Health. What sort of work did you do?

I was a family therapist and trainer. I was a clinical director of two residential treatment centers, 24-hour facilities working with abused youth, and I trained the staff on how to do therapy, family therapy, and also making sure the children’s mental health needs were taken care of.

How did you become interested in child psychology?

Mostly through family work in general. If you can heal families, you can heal children. There’s an African proverb that says it takes a village to raise a child, but what does it take to raise a healthy village? Working with families is one way to do that, and that gets you to children.

Do you find that children are more or less willing to open up to psychologists than adults?

When I started out, I actually used to take the children or adolescents I worked with out on the basketball court, and they would talk more on the court than they would in the therapy room. When you work at agencies—whether they’re in neighborhood agencies or community resident centers out in the mountains, for example—they’re all therapeutic, and you have the freedom to use recreational services, so I just held my therapy sessions outside playing basketball and/or soccer. The young people would often talk more during the games. It ended up being part of a model that I used later on. Part of it is that when in movement, you can relax in more ways than you can when sitting still. There’s something about athletics that relaxes you. Physical activity is a health benefit, but it also helps in terms of disclosure of personal information. It’s harder to screen your feelings when you’re moving. And it’s fun. Trying to straight talk to a child in a room without some kind of stimulation can be hard sometimes.

You have written a book on racial literacy titled ‘Promoting Racial Literacy in Schools: Differences That Make a Difference,’ which was published in 2014. How do you define racial literacy?

Racial literacy is the ability to read, recast, and resolve a racially stressful encounter. Reading involves asking yourself, ‘Do I recognize when a racial moment is happening, so when a racial elephant shows up in the room, can I actually see it?’ And then, ‘Do I also see my stress reactions to it?’ Recasting is asking, ‘How do I change my stress reaction?’ It’s using mindfulness to change a stress reaction. Resolving is asking, ‘How do I make a healthy decision during this encounter that isn’t an under-reaction, where I pretend like it isn’t that big of a deal when it is, or an overreaction, where I exaggerate the emotion in the situation.’ When people are racially threatened, their brain goes on lockdown, and they lose peripheral vision and hearing, and they tend to dehumanize black and brown people. What I think is even more concerning is that our brains imagine that children or adults are older than they really are, larger than they really are, and closer than they really are. What’s worse, we convince ourselves that they don’t deserve affection or protection, so there’s a way in which—in that threatening moment—we treat folks as if they’re not human, and that’s where we think some bad decision-making takes place.

So the question is, can we reduce the threat of those moments so that people make better decisions, and they come out of threat conditions down to challenging conditions? Then it’s a different lens, it’s a different moment. You’re better at reading that a child is a child as opposed to a monster. You’re better at judging when somebody is actually not a criminal but may be listening to you. There’s a way in which your brain can come off of lockdown if you can reduce your anxiety in that moment, and we’ve been teaching young people, and parents, and folks to do this for a while now.

The book also explores racial microaggressions and other racial issues, and how some educational institutions fail to act on them. What is a microaggression?

A microaggression is a slight or insult—it could be conscious or unconscious—but it’s a subtle dismissal of a person’s right to exist, or style of being. It could be a statement or an attitude that triggers a stereotype or uses a stereotype to diminish another person because of their racial background or their difference. It may be so subtle that others might not notice it, or it’s noticeable but people dismiss it as not that big of a deal. The research on it by Derald Wing Sue [a professor of counseling psychology at Columbia] is that the accumulation of these microaggressions over time affect emotional well-being, academic wellbeing, and physical health, as well. There are physical health outcomes, not just emotional health outcomes, for accumulated microaggresive acts that we don’t respond to. That’s part of why we teach young people how to respond to them.

What would be an example of a microaggression?

An example could be the model minority myth and statements assuming that someone who is from an Asian background should automatically be able to do math well, or a suggestion that girls are not going to be that great at math, or that as an African American, the only way you could have gotten into this school is because of sports. Someone could have said it as a compliment, thinking it would be complimentary. There are a host of backdoor compliments that can mask as microaggressions. People who receive them might have to decide if they still want to hang around the people who say these things, or if they should confront them, or if it will be too big of a deal to confront them. The dilemmas on how to handle them are stressful in and of themselves.

Why do schools not address microaggressions and other racial issues when they arise?

I would say some schools do know how to do this. I would say most probably do not. An example would be to not directly find out the details of an event that has happened, so there are multiple stories that come out. That’s not always the school’s fault, that could simply be newspaper reporters reporting things at different times and with different information. But I think what you want to do is speak to the kinds of traumas that come from these events before you make statements like, ‘We’re really not like that.’ It’s natural for places to defend themselves and say, ‘This is not that kind of place,’ instead of saying, ‘Here’s what happened; here’s how it affected those who were injured; here’s how we’re taking care of those who were injured, and giving them a voice to speak to it,’ and then say, ‘We’re working hard to not be like this.’ If you start with defensive statements of, ‘This is an aberration,’ then you’re not really thinking about those who have actually gone through it, and I’d say that’s a mistake. Universities make this mistake all the time. A lot of places don’t know how to engage the public around these issues. The first instinct is to avoid being thought of as helpless or racist, but that’s self-protection of the institution, not of the people who have actually been harmed.

With regard to microaggressions, some people say that African Americans or other people of color are just being overly sensitive.

Yes, and that’s why for us in racial literacy, it’s important that you tell the truth about what’s going on with you. The mindfulness strategy that we use to help develop racial literacy is called ‘Calculate, Locate, Communicate,’ breathe and exhale. Calculate asks, ‘What feeling am I having right now, and what’s my stress reaction on a scale from 1 to 10?’ Location asks, ‘Where on my body do I feel that feeling?’ The more detailed you can be, the better. A Native American fifth-grader in Chicago once said to me, ‘I hate being the only Native American. I’m at a 9, I’m angry at a 9, and I can feel it in my stomach. It’s like a bunch of butterflies fighting so much that they fly up into my throat and choke me.’ It was very detailed. The reason the detail is important is if you know where the stress hits you, the more you can reduce the stress in that area. Communicate asks, ‘What self-talk goes on during the racial or microaggression moment?’ Do you say, ‘That was not a big deal,’ or, ‘I don’t believe he said that’? Whatever is going on, or whatever self-talk or images may arise, they happen all in the moment, and breathing and exhaling allows you to—if you do it slowly—regain more brain control. If a microaggressive moment bothered you at an 8 or 9, that’s what you start with. You have no control over how other people judge you, so just be honest about your own pain and where it’s happening, and don’t let other people’s misguided understanding drive your decisions about your health. If it bothered you, and you believe it bothered you, then it bothered you. The question is, what are you going to do about it if it bothered you? Nobody else can really judge that, unless you let them.

All these issues are things you work on at the Racial Empowerment Collaborative. What made you want to establish the Collaborative?

To address these issues in schools and with families. The different projects that we have, which are on the website RecastingRace.com, are designed to use some form of racial literacy and mindfulness training, and teach the skills to parents separately from their children so that they can work on their own traumas and then come together to talk about it. We train children on the basketball court, we train African-American barbers to be health educators for African-American men between the ages of 18-24, and we train teachers on how to deal with it in the classroom. They’re different audiences, but they’re learning some of the same skills. For young African-American males, it’s helpful if they can calculate, locate, communicate when somebody challenges their manhood on the street corner, so 60 seconds is important. What do you do in 60 seconds? For a teacher in the classroom, 60 seconds is important. Barbers do the health education while they’re cutting the hair of their patrons, so they’re doing it in a certain timespan to help the young men. We think that whenever people of color or children of color are in spaces where other people might perceive them as threats, it’s helpful to have a way to try to prepare for those moments.

You mentioned that when you first started out in clinical psychology, you used to take the children out on the basketball court to get them to open up. Was that the impetus for your mental health research project PLAAY [Preventing Long-term Anger and Aggression in Youth]?

Yes. Part of it was I used to play semipro soccer, so I wrote a book called ‘Playing with Anger: Teaching Coping Skills to African American Boys Through Athletics and Culture’ in 2003. During my experience playing soccer in California and Mexico, fights would break out and I would be in the middle of them. You learn a lot when people are at that level of anger in a crisis. You learn that some people who say they want to fight are also scared. The closer you are to somebody, the more you figure out what’s really going on emotionally with them, so to me it’s a perfect place to understand where people emotionally are, and to do something about it. All the young men that we worked with actually didn’t want to fight, nobody really wanted to fight, but they wanted to protect their dignity. In sports, you can express bravado, but because you want to stay in the game, you’ll restrain some of the anger. And if you have adults who care about you around, you can still talk like you’re angry, but you can leave and walk away without ever engaging, and then make up afterward without anybody throwing blows. Most of the young people we work with have traumas in their lives, and that’s why they’re angry. The situation on the court or with other people is just a screen. They’re dealing with family loss, they’re dealing with traumas that most of us are afraid to even think about, let alone experience. We understand that, so a fight doesn’t mean the same thing. It’s part of what you’re dealing with in life.

Within the last month or so, there have been a number of racist incidents in the area, including an incident in which black cheerleaders at Cheltenham High School were assaulted with rocks and racial slurs while at a football game in Quakertown. You helped lead a group-therapy session at Cheltenham after the incident. What did you say to the community?

Dr. Ali Michel [an anti-racism educator, consultant, and writer] and I led this group and the girls were fantastic. Initially, they weren’t sure they wanted to talk, but eventually they were courageous enough to share how they were impacted by being shouted at with racial epithets and gender epithets—not just by students, but by grown adults. They were able to tell a crowd of people, family members, parents, educators, superintendents. I think their agency in being able to do that gave everybody a sense that they’re finally getting their story out, so I think there’s an element of healing. I think you always have to check back on people to see how they’re doing after such an event. One problem with trauma is not being able to tell your story, or having other people try to tell your story without your input and distort it. That was something they really were bothered by. Since the election of Donald Trump, there have been much more intense racial hatred and physical attacks around schools. The Southern Poverty Law Center has been studying this and reported that the increase has happened since then. Around schools, educators feel overwhelmed. They’re not sure how to handle it. People feel emboldened, so how do you prepare young people for that, particularly when it comes out of the blue? The incidents affect students for weeks and months, and maybe even longer. We were with some parents and teachers [recently] and some of them recounted events as cheerleaders—after I told them what happened at Cheltenham—that happened 30, 40 years, ago, and they remember it as if it happened yesterday. That’s how some of these incidents can turn into traumas that are unresolved. The keys are they weren’t protected, they weren’t treated as humans, and they couldn’t tell anybody, and whoever they did tell didn’t believe them, so they had no one to help them through the process. If you get help, you don’t carry this burden with you. If you get support, affection, and protection, and you get someone believing you, these traumas don’t linger.

Why do you think people feel more emboldened to racially harass and abuse people of color?

I think people have always had these feelings of racial anger toward groups, and I think research suggests that some people have worldviews that they should be on top, and when that ideal doesn’t meet the reality of their situation, they take it out on people they think don’t deserve to be on top. The belief that some people are better than others is all it takes for someone to feel like they should be on top, and if they’re not, they think it’s OK to lash out at those who they think have taken their rightful space. Now, it’s all exaggerated, and it’s not true. That’s one part of it. Another part is that there are some folks across the racial spectrum who have faced some serious poverty hardships and some health hardships that people are not aware of. I think there are poor white communities that have been hit hard in the last 10 years that should also be understood and known. The health consequences of some folks not moving up socially are important to take into consideration. I think if you look at health statistics and the death rates of middle class and poor white Americans, you’ll find examples of why people are angry—it’s just interesting who they’re angry at, and who they take it out on.