Dr. Howard Stevenson joined Wharton’s Stew Friedman to discuss how to read, recast, and resolve racially stressful moments.

Managing the stress of racial encounters and navigating everyday microaggressions is difficult. Prof. Howard Stevenson, Professor of Africana Studies at the Graduate School of Education at the University of Pennsylvania and Executive Director of the Racial Empowerment Collaborative, notes the importance of helping people of color cope with the emotions of racial trauma and focuses on strategies for reacting to these charged moments. Dr. Stevenson joined Stew Friedman on his show, Work and Life, on Wharton on Business Radio 132 to discuss racial socialization, racial literacy, and how to respond to instances of racial confrontation.

Here are highlights from their conversation, available in full here as a free podcast.

Racial socialization often starts at a young age, whether directly through educational conversations with parents or indirectly through parental actions and reactions.

“I’m a clinical style psychologist primarily working with families and families of color. For about 30 years, I’ve been studying the question of whether it matters when parents talk to their kids about race. That area of research is called racial socialization. In a nutshell, one argument is Black and Brown families tend to think they need to talk to their children about race because of racial hostility in the world, and whether it’s direct or indirect, children pick up messages from family and make judgments about it.”

“One form of socialization, from a child’s view, is watching how your parent navigates racial disrespect, and another form is her telling you exactly why she did not tolerate the racial disrespect…We know now that kids pick up a lot more on what we don’t say and how we nonverbally behave, and that is a form of teaching or socialization. Everybody responds and notices what their parents say and don’t say about race every day.”

Racial literacy and the ability to read, recast, and resolve is a necessary strategy to calmly assess and confront racism in everyday life.

“Racial socialization is informing and preparing kids indirectly about dealing with race, whereas literacy is about being much more explicit. It’s about confrontation. It’s about moving away from all the obfuscations. ‘Let’s talk about what Daddy wants you to do when somebody comes (up to you) and says this.’”

“We define literacy as the ability to read, recast, and resolve a racially stressful moment. Racially stressful moments can come from anywhere: they can come from family, they can come from neighbors, they can come from school teachers, etc.”


“Reading is considered fundamental to a racial encounter. That is how well you pick up that something racial just happened. Because if you don’t pick it up, you’re not going to be great at making a healthy racial decision if you don’t see race.”


“But if you are stressed, let’s say on a scale of 1 to 10, how do you bring your 8, 9, or 10, which are threat-level conditions, down to a 5, 6, or 7 to be able to make a healthy decision? Eight, 9, or 10 is like facing a poisonous snake or tsunami. You either call on your creator when that happens or you give up and wonder what the afterlife is about. Five, 6, or 7 is like climbing a mountain. Challenging but not impossible and not an immediate threat. Recasting is, Can I get my 8, 9, or 10 down to a 5, 6, 7, or even lower?”


“Reading is ‘Do I see it?’ Recasting is, ‘Can I manage my emotions and stress?’ and resolving is ‘Do I walk away from the moment feeling I made a just social decision that matches my values? Did I under-react and pretend it didn’t really bother me when it did? Or did I overreact and curse everybody out, including the cat, the dog, knowing they had nothing to do with it?’”

Through the Racial Empowerment Collaborative (REC) and Lion’s Story, Stevenson highlights the necessity of developing a strong sense of self in order to tap into the courage you need to overcome these difficult moments.

“The REC is a center that I started about six years ago.  It is a program development center, a research center, and a training center. In many respects, we have developed different interventions around the notion of racial literacy. We knew that racial socialization was positive for young people and for adults, and we also knew that racial literacy allowed us to be more specific about how to include those strategies in teacher education.”

“We use a proverb that’s been useful since I came to Penn. It’s called a lion’s story. A lion’s story will never be known as long as the hunter is the one to tell it. My job and the job of (my colleagues at a nonprofit called the Lion’s Story) is to help you fall in love with your own story. You have to capture the flaws of those moments, such as the humiliation, but also capture the courage. If you can do that, then you’re not as vulnerable to other people narrating your story for you.”

“What if you could, in that moment, say ‘I reject your rejection of me?’ We’ve been helping young people and adults realize this moment or this microaggression could affect me for the rest of my life, and I’m not going to allow that. I’m going to find my voice. And we teach them what to say, how to say it in their own language and words, using skills around emotional regulation and confrontation. We think it can also be applied to preventing harassment around power issues and gender and other arenas as well.”

“You will see it when it happens. You will say, ‘That’s not my story.’ You will find the words, and practice is going to make you better at speaking up when you see injustice against you, somebody you care about, or somebody you don’t even know. You need practice to find that voice. It starts with you falling in love with your own narrative.”

— Erin Lomboy, W’21

Posted: October 22, 2020

Related Content

Read More Stories