Howard C. Stevenson

Belonging Without Fitting In: Three Keys to Racial Literacy from Howard C. Stevenson

Howard C. Stevenson, an expert on how to resolve racial stress and trauma, delivered the 2024 Walter N. Ridley Distinguished Lecture at the UVA School of Education and Human Development.

Laura Hoxworth

When Howard C. Stevenson became the first Black psychologist in his department, he was determined to fit in. “I concocted a theory that I would try to be the kind and gentle colleague,” he said. “Even though there was no such thing as a congeniality award, I was going to try to win it.”

Soon, however, he realized this approach was flawed – because fitting in depends on others’ perceptions of you.  

“It’s kind of grandiose of me to think that I have the capacity or power to change the fear of my difference simply by myself,” he said. “It's a grandiose idea to think I have that kind of influence.”

Since this experience, Stevenson has built a decades-long career as a recognized expert on racial literacy: having the knowledge, skills, and awareness needed to identify and talk thoughtfully about race and racism, as well as strategies to counter or cope with racism. On Tuesday, March 12, he delivered the 2024 Walter N. Ridley Distinguished Lecture at the UVA School of Education and Human Development.

Stevenson is the Constance Clayton Professor of Urban Education, Professor of Africana Studies, in the Human Development and Quantitative Methods Division of the Graduate School of Education at the University of Pennsylvania. He is also the executive director of the Racial Empowerment Collaborative, which studies and promotes racial literacy and health in schools and neighborhoods. He has served for 32 years as a clinical psychologist working in under-resourced rural and urban neighborhoods across the country.  

Weaving stories and anecdotes from his own life into lessons from his research and years of experience, Stevenson outlined how racial literacy can mitigate the negative effects of racial stress and trauma. Three lessons from his talk are below.

Your story matters

Stevenson began his lecture with an African proverb that has guided his work: “The lion’s story will never be known as long as the hunter is the one to tell it.”

According to Stevenson, while fitting in depends on others’ perceptions, belonging is about accepting yourself and your story. He said storytelling is a core part of his racial literacy work, as it's important to understand and process our own personal stories – to feel a sense of belonging – in order to navigate racial conflict.  

“Everybody has a story, and everybody's story is powerful and important,” he said. “Your story is not better than mine. And my story is not better than yours. But there is a caveat. And the caveat is, is that if you don't take the journey to find out the struggle and the joy of your story, you won't get that power, it won't be as important.

“You have to engage.”

Mindful awareness is key

According to Stevenson, the ability to regulate emotions and physical responses is key to racial literacy, as stressful or threatening encounters can activate a physical “fight or flight” response.  

“When we are in a racial conversation or moment, and we feel stressed, our brains go on lockdown, we lose peripheral vision and hearing,” he said. “We can be threatened by the experience to the degree that we can't see or hear to our left or right. And that challenges our ability to engage.”

Stevenson said he integrates mindfulness practices – which build awareness of the thoughts and physical sensations happening in the body in moments of stress – as an important tool in his work.  

“The ability to notice what's happening to you in a moment is key to your ability to self-care, and to heal from anything,” he said.  

It takes courage

Finally, Stevenson shared that racial literacy includes another important set of skills: the courage to stand up for your views and values in moments of conflict.  

“It's about healing, not harm; confrontation, not retaliation; dignity, not dehumanization,” he said.

While there are many different strategies, Stevenson emphasized the importance of first believing that you are capable of doing something in the moment when someone dismisses you. “If I have a racial coping strategy, I'm seeing the climate as less dangerous compared to my peers who don't have that sense of confidence,” he said. “Those who have more confidence that they can do something when they get dismissed will also have a greater sense of belonging.”

A sense of autonomy, he said, improves mental well-being.

“The history of this country is not about who makes it and who doesn't,” he said. “It's about how much we don't know about each other's stories. It's about how hate is stealing our courage to fight injustice. And it's about can we find our voice of resistance to say, ‘that's not my story.’”

The Walter N. Ridley Distinguished Annual Lecture

This annual lecture series was created to honor the legacy of Walter N. Ridley, the first African American to graduate from the University of Virginia. When he graduated in June 1953 with a doctorate in education from the School of Education and Human Development, Ridley became the University's first Black graduate and the nation's first African-American to receive a doctorate degree from a white southern university. Throughout his life, he was committed to the education of Black college students and making a positive impact on society.  

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Laura Hoxworth