Point of View

Point of View

Developing Racial Literacy: How to Confront Our Unconscious Taboos

By Ryan Howes

July/August 2018

As a nation, we prefer to address racial tensions from a distance: via sensationalized media coverage, academic analysis, and lofty social policy debates. But face-to-face encounters around issues of race remain so uncomfortable and downright scary that most people—even those who consider themselves tuned into the subtle and systematic racism of our society—go out of their way to avoid them. Our usually unstated assumption is they’ll lead to steely silences, angry confrontations, even violence.

Psychologist Howard Stevenson, a researcher at the University of Pennsylvania who trained as a family therapist, has devoted himself to studying the moments when racial tensions reach their peak. He runs the university’s Racial Empowerment Collaborative, and promotes racial literacy, a set of learned skills designed to help people more effectively read and resolve racially stressful encounters. His work is focused on moving beyond dangerous knee-jerk reactions around race, and helping people experience what he calls “racial health.”

With a popular TED talk and his book, Promoting Racial Literacy in Schools, he’s at the forefront of the urgently important movement to find better ways to face the troubling realities of racism in our culture.

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RH: What led you to focus on racial literacy in your research?

STEVENSON: I grew up in a family that was openly expressive about racial issues. It was only when I…

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