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TEDMED 2017

Howard C. Stevenson: How to resolve racially stressful situations

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Views 751,174

If we hope to heal the racial tensions that threaten to tear the fabric of society apart, we're going to need the skills to openly express ourselves in racially stressful situations. Through racial literacy -- the ability to read, recast and resolve these situations -- psychologist Howard C. Stevenson helps children and parents reduce and manage stress and trauma. In this inspiring, quietly awesome talk, learn more about how this approach to decoding racial threat can help youth build confidence and stand up for themselves in productive ways.

- Racial literacy leader
Dr. Howard C. Stevenson's work involves developing culturally relevant, in-the-moment, strength-based measures and therapeutic interventions that teach emotional and racial literacy to families and youth. Full bio

There's an African proverb that goes,
00:12
"The lion's story will never be known
00:14
as long as the hunter
is the one to tell it."
00:17
More than a racial conversation,
we need a racial literacy
00:21
to decode the politics
of racial threat in America.
00:25
Key to this literacy is a forgotten truth,
00:30
that the more we understand
00:33
that our cultural differences
represent the power
00:36
to heal the centuries
00:40
of racial discrimination,
00:42
dehumanization and illness.
00:43
Both of my parents were African-American.
00:46
My father was born in Southern Delaware,
00:49
my mother, North Philadelphia,
00:51
and these two places are as different
from each other as east is from west,
00:53
as New York City is
from Montgomery, Alabama.
00:57
My father's way of dealing
with racial conflict
01:01
was to have my brother Bryan,
my sister Christy and I in church
01:03
what seemed like 24 hours a day,
seven days a week.
01:07
(Laughter)
01:10
If anybody bothered us
because of the color of our skin,
01:12
he believed that you should pray for them,
01:16
knowing that God
would get them back in the end.
01:18
(Laughter)
01:21
You could say that his racial-coping
approach was spiritual --
01:23
for later on, one day,
01:26
like Martin Luther King.
01:28
My mother's coping approach
was a little different.
01:30
She was, uh, you could say,
more relational --
01:33
right now, like, in your face,
01:35
right now.
01:38
More like Malcolm X.
01:39
(Laughter)
01:41
She was raised from neighborhoods
01:42
in which there was racial
violence and segregation,
01:44
where she was chased out of neighborhoods,
01:46
and she exacted violence
to chase others out of hers.
01:48
When she came to Southern Delaware,
01:51
she thought she had come
to a foreign country.
01:53
She didn't understand anybody,
01:56
particularly the few black and brown folks
01:58
who were physically deferential
and verbally deferential
02:00
in the presence of whites.
02:04
Not my mother.
02:06
When she wanted to go
somewhere, she walked.
02:07
She didn't care what you thought.
02:09
And she pissed a lot of people off
with her cultural style.
02:11
Before we get into the supermarket,
02:15
she would give us the talk:
02:17
"Don't ask for nothin',
02:20
don't touch nothin'.
02:22
Do you understand what I'm saying to you?
02:24
I don't care if all the other children
are climbing the walls.
02:28
They're not my children.
02:31
Do you understand what I'm saying to you?"
02:32
In three-part harmony:
02:36
"Yes, Mom."
02:37
Before we'd get into the supermarket,
02:40
that talk was all we needed.
02:43
Now, how many of you ever got that talk?
02:45
How many of you ever give that talk?
02:48
(Laughter)
02:50
How many of you ever give that talk today?
02:51
My mother didn't give us the talk
because she was worried about money
02:55
or reputation
02:59
or us misbehaving.
03:00
We never misbehaved.
03:01
We were too scared.
03:03
We were in church 24 hours a day,
03:05
seven days a week.
03:06
(Laughter)
03:07
She gave us that talk to remind us
03:09
that some people in the world
would interpret us as misbehaving
03:11
just by being black.
03:15
Not every parent has to worry
about their children being misjudged
03:18
because of the color of their skin,
03:22
just by breathing.
03:24
So we get into the supermarket,
03:26
and people look at us --
03:28
stare at us as if we just stole something.
03:29
Every now and then, a salesperson
would do something or say something
03:33
because they were pissed
with our cultural style,
03:37
and it would usually happen
at the conveyor belt.
03:39
And the worst thing they could do
was to throw our food into the bag.
03:42
And when that happened, it was on.
03:46
(Laughter)
03:48
My mother began
to tell them who they were,
03:49
who their family was,
03:52
where to go,
03:53
how fast to get there.
03:55
(Laughter)
03:56
If you haven't been cursed out
by my mother, you haven't lived.
03:57
(Laughter)
04:01
The person would be on the floor,
04:02
writhing in utter decay and decomposition,
04:04
whimpering in a pool of racial shame.
04:07
(Laughter)
04:09
Now, both my parents were Christians.
04:11
The difference is my father prayed
before a racial conflict
04:14
and my mother prayed after.
04:17
(Laughter)
04:18
There is a time, if you use
both of their strategies,
04:20
if you use them in the right time
and the right way.
04:23
But it's never a time --
04:27
there's a time for conciliation,
04:28
there's a time for confrontation,
04:31
but it's never a time to freeze up
like a deer in the headlights,
04:33
and it's never a time to lash out
in heedless, thoughtless anger.
04:37
The lesson in this is
04:43
that when it comes to race relations,
04:45
sometimes, we've got to know how to pray,
04:46
think through, process, prepare.
04:49
And other times,
we've got to know how to push,
04:51
how to do something.
04:53
And I'm afraid that neither
of these two skills --
04:55
preparing,
04:58
pushing --
05:00
are prevalent in our society today.
05:01
If you look at the neuroscience research
05:06
which says that when
we are racially threatened,
05:11
our brains go on lockdown,
05:14
and we dehumanize black and brown people.
05:16
Our brains imagine that children
and adults are older than they really are,
05:19
larger than they really are
05:25
and closer than they really are.
05:27
When we're at our worst,
we convince ourselves
05:29
that they don't deserve
affection or protection.
05:32
At the Racial Empowerment Collaborative,
05:35
we know that some of the scariest
moments are racial encounters,
05:37
some of the scariest moments
that people will ever face.
05:43
If you look at the police encounters
that have led to some wrongful deaths
05:47
of mostly Native Americans
and African-Americans in this country,
05:51
they've lasted about two minutes.
05:55
Within 60 seconds,
05:58
our brains go on lockdown.
06:00
And when we're unprepared,
06:02
we overreact.
06:04
At best, we shut down.
06:05
At worst, we shoot first
and ask no questions.
06:07
Imagine if we could reduce
the intensity of threat
06:11
within those 60 seconds
06:15
and keep our brains
from going on lockdown.
06:17
Imagine how many children
would get to come home from school
06:20
or 7-Eleven
06:23
without getting expelled or shot.
06:25
Imagine how many mothers
and fathers wouldn't have to cry.
06:28
Racial socialization can help young people
negotiate 60-second encounters,
06:33
but it's going to take more than a chat.
06:39
It requires a racial literacy.
06:41
Now, how do parents
have these conversations,
06:44
and what is a racial literacy?
06:46
Thank you for asking.
06:48
(Laughter)
06:49
A racial literacy involves
the ability to read,
06:51
recast and resolve
a racially stressful encounter.
06:55
Reading involves recognizing
when a racial moment happens
06:59
and noticing our stress reactions to it.
07:02
Recasting involves
07:05
taking mindfulness and reducing
my tsunami interpretation of this moment
07:08
and reducing it
to a mountain-climbing experience,
07:13
one that is --
07:17
from impossible situation
to one that is much more doable
07:18
and challenging.
07:22
Resolving a racially stressful
encounter involves
07:25
being able to make a healthy decision
07:28
that is not an underreaction,
where I pretend, "That didn't bother me,"
07:30
or an overreaction,
where I exaggerate the moment.
07:34
Now, we can teach parents and children
how to read, recast and resolve
07:38
using a mindfulness strategy
we call: "Calculate, locate, communicate,
07:43
breathe and exhale."
07:48
Stay with me.
07:50
"Calculate" asks,
07:51
"What feeling am I having right now,
07:53
and how intense is it
on a scale of one to 10?"
07:54
"Locate" asks, "Where
in my body do I feel it?"
07:59
And be specific,
08:03
like the Native American girl at a Chicago
fifth-grade school said to me,
08:05
"I feel angry at a nine
because I'm the only Native American.
08:10
And I can feel it in my stomach,
08:15
like a bunch of butterflies
are fighting with each other,
08:17
so much so that they fly up
into my throat and choke me."
08:20
The more detailed you can be,
08:24
the easier it is to reduce that spot.
08:26
"Communicate" asks,
08:28
"What self-talk and what images
are coming in my mind?"
08:29
And if you really want help,
try breathing in
08:33
and exhaling slowly.
08:36
With the help of my many colleagues
at the Racial Empowerment Collaborative,
08:38
we use in-the-moment stress-reduction
08:42
in several research and therapy projects.
08:44
One project is where we use basketball
to help youth manage their emotions
08:47
during 60-second eruptions on the court.
08:52
Another project, with the help
of my colleagues Loretta and John Jemmott,
08:56
we leverage the cultural style
of African-American barbershops,
09:01
where we train black barbers
to be health educators in two areas:
09:06
one, to safely reduce the sexual risk
in their partner relationships;
09:10
and the other,
09:14
to stop retaliation violence.
09:15
The cool part is the barbers use
their cultural style
09:18
to deliver this health education
to 18- to 24-year-old men
09:21
while they're cutting their hair.
09:25
Another project is where we teach teachers
09:27
how to read, recast and resolve
stressful moments in the classroom.
09:31
And a final project, in which we teach
parents and their children separately
09:36
to understand their racial traumas
09:41
before we bring them together
to problem-solve daily microaggressions.
09:44
Now, racially literate conversations
with our children can be healing,
09:49
but it takes practice.
09:53
And I know some of you
are saying, "Practice?
09:54
Practice?
09:57
We're talking about practice?"
09:58
Yes, we are talking about practice.
10:00
I have two sons.
10:03
My oldest, Bryan, is 26,
10:05
and my youngest, Julian, is 12.
10:07
And we do not have time
to talk about how that happened.
10:10
(Laughter)
10:12
But,
10:14
when I think of them,
10:16
they are still babies to me,
10:17
and I worry every day
that the world will misjudge them.
10:19
In August of 2013,
10:23
Julian, who was eight at the time,
and I were folding laundry,
10:26
which in and of itself
is such a rare occurrence,
10:29
I should have known something
strange was going to happen.
10:32
On the TV were Trayvon Martin's parents,
10:35
and they were crying
10:37
because of the acquittal
of George Zimmerman.
10:40
And Julian was glued to the TV.
10:42
He had a thousand questions,
and I was not prepared.
10:46
He wanted to know why:
10:49
Why would a grown man stalk
and hunt down and kill
10:50
an unarmed 17-year-old boy?
10:55
And I did not know what to say.
10:58
The best thing that could
come out of my mouth was,
11:00
"Julian, sometimes in this world,
there are people
11:02
who look down on black and brown people
11:05
and do not treat them --
and children, too --
11:08
do not treat them as human."
11:11
He interpreted the whole situation as sad.
11:13
(Voice-over) Julian Stevenson: That's sad.
11:16
"We don't care. You're not our kind."
11:19
HS: Yes.
11:20
JS: It's like, "We're better than you."
11:22
HS: Yes.
11:25
JS: "And there's nothing
you can do about that.
11:26
And if you scare me,
or something like that,
11:29
I will shoot you
because I'm scared of you."
11:32
HS: Exactly.
11:35
But if somebody's stalking you --
11:36
JS: It's not the same for everyone else.
11:38
HS: It's not always the same, no.
You've got to be careful.
11:40
JS: Yeah, because people
can disrespect you.
11:43
HS: Exactly.
11:45
JS: And think that you're,
11:46
"You don't look --
you don't look like you're ..."
11:50
It's like they're saying
that "You don't look right,
11:55
so I guess I have the right
to disrespect you."
12:00
HS: Yeah, and that's what we call,
12:02
we call that racism.
12:04
And we call that racism, Julian,
12:06
and yes, some people -- other
people -- can wear a hoodie,
12:08
and nothing happens to them.
12:12
But you and Trayvon might,
12:13
and that's why Daddy wants you to be safe.
12:16
(Voice-over) HS: And that's why --
12:20
JS: So you mean like,
when you said "other people,"
12:22
you mean, like if Trayvon was a white,
12:24
um, that he wouldn't be
disrespected like that?
12:28
HS: Yes, Julian, Daddy meant white people
12:32
when I said, "other people," all right?
12:34
So there was a way in which
I was so awkward in the beginning,
12:36
but once I started getting
my rhythm and my groove,
12:39
I started talking about stereotypes
and issues of discrimination,
12:41
and just when I was getting my groove on,
12:46
Julian interrupted me.
12:49
(Voice-over) HS: ... dangerous,
or you're a criminal because you're black,
12:51
and you're a child or a boy --
12:55
That is wrong,
it doesn't matter who does it.
12:56
JS: Dad, I need to stop you there.
12:58
HS: What?
13:00
JS: Remember when we were ...
13:01
HS: So he interrupts me to tell me a story
13:03
about when he was racially threatened
at a swimming pool with a friend
13:05
by two grown white men,
13:09
which his mother confirmed.
13:11
And I felt happy
that he was able to talk about it;
13:12
it felt like he was getting it.
13:15
We moved from the sadness
of Trayvon's parents
13:17
and started talking about
George Zimmerman's parents,
13:19
which, I read in a magazine,
13:22
condoned the stalking of Trayvon.
13:24
And Julian's reaction to me was priceless.
13:26
It made me feel like he was getting it.
13:29
(Voice-over) JS: What did
they say about him?
13:32
HS: Well, I think they basically
felt that he was justified
13:34
to follow and stalk --
13:37
JS: What the -- ?
13:39
HS: Yeah, I think that's wrong.
13:41
JS: That's -- one minute.
13:43
So they're saying he has the right
to follow a black kid,
13:44
get in a fight with him and shoot him?
13:48
HS: As Julian was getting it,
13:51
I started to lose it.
13:53
Because in my mind's eye, I was thinking:
13:55
What if my Julian or Bryan was Trayvon?
13:57
I calculated my anger at a 10.
14:01
I found, located, my right
leg was shaking uncontrollably
14:03
like I was running.
14:07
And in my mind's eye,
I could see somebody chasing Julian,
14:09
and I was chasing them.
14:12
And the only thing
that could come out of my mouth
14:14
was if anybody tries
to bother my child ...
14:16
(Voice-over) HS: If anybody tries
to bother my child ...
14:21
mmm, mmm, mmm.
14:24
JS: What will happen?
14:26
HS: Well, they better run.
14:27
JS: Because what?
HS: I'm gonna get 'em.
14:30
JS: See? (Laughs)
14:32
HS: I'm gonna get 'em.
JS: Really?
14:33
HS: Oh, yeah.
14:35
JS: Then they're gonna get you
because they might have weapons.
14:36
HS: Well, you know what, I'm gonna
call police, too, like I should.
14:39
But I feel like I wanna get 'em.
14:43
But you can't; you're right,
you can't just go chasing people.
14:44
JS: They can be armed.
14:47
HS: Yeah, you right. Yeah, you right.
14:48
I feel like I wanna chase 'em.
14:50
JS: Plus they could be
an army or something.
14:52
HS: I know -- I feel like I wanna
go get 'em, messing with my son.
14:54
I don't like that.
14:57
JS: Um ...
14:59
HS: But you right. You gotta be careful.
15:00
And um, you gotta be careful.
15:03
You never know what some crazy people
will think about you.
15:06
Just as long as you believe
you're beautiful
15:10
like Daddy believes
you're beautiful and handsome,
15:12
and Mommy believes you're beautiful
and handsome and smart.
15:15
And you deserve to be on this planet,
15:20
just as happy and beautiful
and smart as you want to be.
15:23
You can do anything you want, baby.
15:27
HS: Racial socialization is not just
what parents teach their children.
15:31
It's also how children respond
to what their parents teach.
15:35
Is my child prepared?
15:40
Can they recognize when a racial elephant
shows up in a room?
15:43
Can they reduce
their tsunami interpretation
15:47
down to a mountain-climbing adventure
15:50
that they can engage and not run away?
15:52
Can they make a healthy
and just decision in 60 seconds?
15:55
Can I?
16:00
Can you?
16:02
Yes, we can.
16:03
We can build healthier
relationships around race
16:05
if we learn to calculate, locate
communicate, breathe and exhale
16:09
in the middle of our most
threatening moments,
16:13
when we come face-to-face
with our lesser selves.
16:17
If you take the centuries of racial rage
16:22
that boils up in all of our bodies,
minds and souls --
16:25
and anything that affects our bodies,
minds and souls affects our health --
16:29
we could probably use
gun control for our hearts.
16:34
I just want what all parents
want for their children
16:38
when we're not around:
16:41
affection and protection.
16:43
When police and teachers see my children,
16:46
I want them to imagine their own,
16:48
because I believe if you see
our children as your children,
16:51
you won't shoot them.
16:55
With racial literacy, and yes, practice,
16:58
we can decode the racial trauma
from our stories,
17:00
and our healing will come in the telling.
17:05
But we must never forget
17:07
that our cultural differences
are full of affection and protection,
17:11
and remember always
that the lion's story will never be known
17:16
as long as the hunter
is the one to tell it.
17:19
Thank you very much.
17:22
(Applause)
17:24

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About the speaker:

Howard C. Stevenson - Racial literacy leader
Dr. Howard C. Stevenson's work involves developing culturally relevant, in-the-moment, strength-based measures and therapeutic interventions that teach emotional and racial literacy to families and youth.

Why you should listen

With more than 29 years experience working as a clinical and consulting psychologist in low-income rural and urban neighborhoods across the country, Howard C. Stevenson is now Director of the Racial Empowerment Collaborative (REC). The REC is a research, program development and training center that brings together community leaders, researchers, authority figures, families and youth to study and promote racial literacy and health in schools and neighborhoods.

Stevenson is currently the Constance Clayton Professor of Urban Education and Professor of Africana Studies at the University of Pennsylvania’s Graduate School of Education. He has written numerous peer-reviewed publications, and he is the author of the teaching book Promoting Racial Literacy in Schools. His research publications and clinical work have been funded by the W.T. Grant Foundation, Annenberg Foundation and the National Institutes of Mental Health and Child Health and Human Development.

More profile about the speaker
Howard C. Stevenson | Speaker | TED.com