Editor’s note: This article was initially published in The Daily Gazette, Swarthmore’s online, daily newspaper founded in Fall 1996. As of Fall 2018, the DG has merged with The Phoenix. See the about page to read more about the DG.
Nearly 100 students, faculty, and staff gathered in Bond Hall on Monday afternoon to attend a lecture from Dr. Howard C. Stevenson in honor of Martin Luther King Jr. Day. Dr. Stevenson spoke at length about people can address racial inequality in day to day, face to face interactions.
The lecture began with a short introduction from Louis Laine ‘16, followed by a prayer from Muslim student advisor Ailya Vajid ‘09, who reminded those present that King’s faith played a key role in his work as a civil rights leader.
Stevenson began by discussing the unique position of young people of color in America. “The worth of a black or a brown child is the least respected,” he said. “We fear that truth […] but doubt, fear, and hope are ineffective coping strategies.” His work, including the book Marching Onward and Inward: The Activism of Racial Literacy in Traumatized Communities, focuses on preparing communities to confront America’s “long history of racial trauma.”
Stevenson spoke about how activism focuses on “speaking up and speaking out” against racial inequality, and said that there is a lot of energy focused on proving the existence of “humanities we already know to be alive and well. […] It should be a given.” “It is not enough to fight or protest for legal equity,” Stevenson said, because racism is also the cause of intense emotional trauma.
Stevenson’s lecture focused on “speaking in.” The father of two sons (a 24 year old and 10 year old), he found himself struggling to talk to his younger child after the George Zimmerman verdict in 2013.
He then shared his own experiences growing up in Southern Delaware, which he compared to the Deep South. After sharing stories of how his mother would instruct her children to behave at the grocery store (“she was worried about how other people would see us”) Stevenson asked the crowd to turn to others at their table and share a childhood story about race.
After audience members spoke with each other, Stevenson walked the crowd through a strategy he called “Calculate, Locate, Communicate.” He asked crowd to identify the parts of their stories that caused the most stress, where that stress was located in their body, and how they might react to the situation.
Stevenson said that in any situation involving conflict, people who aren’t prepared will be overwhelmed, and “scared people do scared things.” He then said that while systemic change is valuable, he is not sure what difference it would have made in specific instances like the deaths of Michael Brown or Eric Garner. His goal is to teach people to study their own reactions and prepare so they can react well to face-to-face racial conflicts that play out every day.
Stevenson said that “encounters are more important than symbols,” referring to the importance of microaggressions and face-to-face interactions. Having a black president in the White House has not changed the day to day realities of young children of color, he said, who are expelled at far higher rates than their white peers.
Stevenson urged the audience to think about “competence, not character.” A professed commitment to fighting racism needs to be accompanied by cultural competency. Your grandfather may have marched with Dr. King, said Stevenson, but how will you deal with racial conflict? Not being prepared “doesn’t mean you’re wrong,” he said, just that “you’re not competent. Being a good person doesn’t make you good at algebra.”
Stevenson closed the lecture by stressing the need to have open, honest conversations about race. Stevenson said that fears that talking about race will only increase racial tension are unfounded, arguing that “putting on an oxygen mask doesn’t cause a plane crash.” It is our responsibility, he said, to ensure that the people in our communities are able to address tension without over or under reacting. “None of us can be free,” Stevenson said, “if just one of us can’t breathe.”