“Racial stress is observable and resolvable because we can see it,” Dr. Howard Stevenson told Milton students recently. “And if we can see it, we can do something about it, but only if we face it in our own racial stories. Courage is in how much we ask about what we don’t know.”
Stevenson, the first of Milton’s 2023 Diversity, Equity, Inclusion, and Justice (DEIJ) speakers, gave Upper and Middle School students racial literacy strategies to handle the inevitable discomfort of situations involving racial stress and threat present in our everyday lives. When people are prepared with tools—including reading and recasting scenarios, locating where stress manifests in our bodies, communicating with ourselves and others, and deploying calming breathing techniques—they are better prepared to make just decisions.
When people encounter conflicts related to race, they’re not just facing the facts of the moment: They’re bringing in a lifetime of internal and external factors that may influence their reactions, so awareness is necessary for a good resolution, Stevenson said.
“My racial story’s not better than your racial story, and your racial story’s not better than mine,” Stevenson said. “But there is a caveat, and that caveat is it’s not anybody else’s fault if I don’t know my racial story. And it is clear that if I go discovering and searching, I will find some shame. I will find some otherness. But I will also find some hope, and I will find some strength that I can use to navigate the politics of difference that we are facing today.”
Anyone can be prepared to navigate racial stress, Stevenson told students. It starts with being aware of our own stories as they relate to race, and then by acknowledging that everyone else’s story is different. The key is knowing that cultural, historical, and sociological factors tend to prioritize some stories over others and to distort narratives that are less common, or which belong to marginalized groups, he said. When we acknowledge that everyone has a different story, we are more likely to feel empathy with others’ struggles and to accept their truths.
“We have to cross the divide and take the risk,” he said. “It’s not going to be as scary as you think. My job is to help people fall in love with their own narratives so that they can finally say, ‘That is not my story.’”
Stevenson is the Constance Clayton Professor of Urban Education and professor of Africana Studies, in the Human Development & Quantitative Methods Division of the Graduate School of Education at the University of Pennsylvania. He is the Executive Director of the Racial Empowerment Collaborative, designed to promote racial literacy in education, health, and community institutions. He is a nationally recognized clinical psychologist and researcher on negotiating racial conflicts. His book, Promoting Racial Literacy in Schools: Differences that Make a Difference, summarizes this work.
Milton has invited a variety of DEIJ speakers for student and adult audiences to kick off 2023. These events include virtual talks for all members of the community. Dr. Chloe Breyer ’87 will speak on February 28, and Grace Chan McKibbon ’86 will speak March 7. All events can be found on the school’s events calendar.