Noted Penn GSE Researcher Howard Stevenson Investigates Racial Stress in Schools

January 8, 2014 - Racial conflicts in schools often remain hidden at the expense of a healthy school climate and the well being of students of color, says clinical psychologist Howard C. Stevenson in his provocative new book, Promoting Racial Literacy in Schools: Differences That Make a Difference (Teachers College Press, January 12, 2014).  Dr. Stevenson, a professor in Penn GSE's Applied Psychology and Human Development Division, has studied racial socialization for the last two decades. 

Despite our best efforts to avoid the subject, much like ignoring the elephant in the room, racism and racial stereotyping continue to haunt American society—and American schools, particularly predominantly white schools. Racial stereotypes, Dr. Stevenson explains, undermine the quality of relationships between students and their teachers and among students within the classroom, and lay the groundwork for the academic underachievement that helps gives rise to the stereotypes in the first place. 

Drawing on his two decades of research and clinical practice, Dr. Stevenson argues that the problem of American race relations is rooted not simply in our failure as a society to have an in-depth meaningful conversation about race—but in our denial and refusal to admit to our fears of what such a conversation will ignite. Most schools, he says, fail to act on racial micro-aggression because the stress of negotiating such conflicts is extremely high. Stress affects thoughts, feelings, body reactions, relationships and actions, and racial discourse is so stressful physically, physiologically, and intellectually that instead of facing conflict directly, educators and school leaders perpetuate a set of avoidance coping strategies.

A healthier and competent approach, says Dr. Stevenson, is to cultivate racial literacy—the ability to read, recast, and resolve racially stressful social interactions—by means of storytelling, journaling, relaxation, debating, and role playing. “Racial storytelling is the first step toward racial literacy,” he writes. “In stories, we can relook at our roles, the information we were given, and question or research its authenticity. As each person shares his or her own story of racial micro-aggressions, he or she can begin to recast the racial politics of avoidance from one’s childhood. Storytelling of racial experiences, small and large, makes room for one to see the television, the neighborhood, the street corner, the supermarket, and the classroom as different contexts of social interactions.”

Promoting Racial Literacy in Schools stresses methods of noticing and lessening the racial fears and the stressful reactions that teachers, parents, undergo when they experience racial conflicts. The book offers:

  • A model that applies culturally relevant behavioral stress management strategies to address racial stress in schools
  • Workable solutions for students, parents, teachers, and administrators
  • Measurable outcomes and strategies for developing racial literacy skills that can be integrated into the K-12 curriculum and teacher professional development
  • Teaching and leadership skills that will create a more tolerant and supportive school environment for all students

A forceful wake-up call about racial conflicts in schools and a prescription for meaningful reform, Promoting Racial Literacy in Schools is must reading for policymakers, practitioners, teachers, and parents—and anyone committed to removing barriers that prevent any child from achieving his or her full potential academically and socially.