Talking About Race With Teens

Conversations about Race

Sex isn’t the only topic some parents find uncomfortable discussing with teens. Race is another challenging subject and frequently considered just as critical during adolescence. To better understand this complex and often emotionally-charged subject, I spoke with Dr. Howard Stevenson, Executive Director of the Racial Empowerment Collaborative at the University of Pennsylvania and director of Forward Promise, a national program supporting young men and boys of color.

Headshot of Dr. Howard Stevenson, expert on talking about race
Howard Stevenson, PhD

Allison Gilbert: You talk about “racial literacy.” What do you mean by that, and why is it important to teach in schools?

Howard Stevenson: Racial literacy is the ability to negotiate and navigate racial conflict. When we think of conflict, teens may have to make decisions about what to say and how to respond in less than two minutes. They can get very anxious, tongue tied, and stutter. People are unprepared. They’re afraid to say the wrong things and worried about appearing racist. I think there are skills to be taught to manage emotions, resolve situations, and regulate healthy decisions. Students often tell us how hopeless they feel when racial moments show up. Too many don’t feel confident.

AG: You’ve stated that fractured race relations have the capacity to silence students of color, in essence, to take away their voice. Can you help us understand this notion and explain what you mean by “The Monster of Racial Stress”?

HS: When people are stressed they feel out of control. A racial moment is stressful and can feel like you’re facing a tsunami or poisonous snake or monster. For some people, these kinds of moments leave them feeling incapacitated. They can feel hopeless. We need to learn to regulate our emotions, especially under threatening situations. One important way to do this is by role-playing. We can act out scenarios we’ve faced imperfectly so the next time we’re not so overwhelmed. And this idea is not just for black students. It’s for anyone, because everyone can be stressed by racial conflict. (Note: To learn strategies for resolving racially stressful situations, watch Dr. Stevenson’s TedMed talk.)

Find a way to fall in love with your own story, the story that makes you different.

AG: You often quote the following West African proverb: “The lion’s story will never be known as long as the hunter is the one to tell it.” In what way is this especially meaningful to you?

HS: Part of the problem with racial conversation and healing is that we tend not to talk with each other. It’s hard for someone to really know me because they don’t know my story, my narrative. Other people can’t tell our story. We can’t let others tell our narrative. 

AG: You are Executive Director of The Racial Empowerment Collaborative at the University of Pennsylvania’s Graduate School of Education. If you could speak directly to parents and teenagers across the country, what would be the one message you’d most want to get across?

HS: Find a way to fall in love with your own story, the story that makes you different.  

AG: Finally, in your work with Forward Promise, the national program supporting boys and young men of color, can you reveal the most pressing research you’re focused on right now?

HS: Right now we’re supporting agencies and community-level groups that are trying to help schools, organizations, jails, anywhere boys and young men of color are being exposed to policies and circumstances that are dehumanizing. We also want to help train the people who work with young men of color, assisting them to respond in ways that are respectful and respect personal identity.


About Allison Gilbert

Allison Gilbert is Senior Writer for the CPTC. Her pieces cover an array of topics including self-care, bullying, grief, and resilience. Allison is author of numerous books and speaks across the country to corporations, non-profits, and community groups. You can learn more by visiting

Read more articles by this author

Get our weekly newsletter for practical tips to strengthen family connections.