Panther Senses: How Racial Literacy Makes It Possible for Our Children to Keep Belonging Without Having to Fit In

Written and submitted by Howard Stevenson, Ph.D..

Howard C. Stevenson is Director of the Racial Empowerment Collaborative (REC). Howard is also the Constance Clayton Professor of Urban Education and Professor of Africana Studies at the University of Pennsylvania’s Graduate School of Education. Howard spoke on the TEDMED stage in 2017, and you can watch his talk here.

Imagine someone walking up to your 12 year old while they are styling down the street, playing in the park, or simply listening to music. To you, these are the daily experiences of childhood. To your child, these are behaviors of belonging in the world. But what if the person who walked up to your 12 year old saw your child as a thug, assumed the toy they were holding was a weapon, misjudged their cultural styling as a threatening move and assaulted their bodies, history, knowledge, identity, beauty, freedom, and genius in self-defense?

For parents of Black and Brown children, the stress of wondering if our children will come home safely is debilitating. We cannot always trust authority figures to act humanely toward our children. Our worry about their safety disrupts the ground we walk on. Moreover, not all parents have to fear that their children will be racially profiled. Racial threat research suggests that adults over-react to the ways boys and girls of color speak their minds and physically move. When racially threatened, adults perceive children and adults of color as older, larger, and closer than they really are. When authority figures over-react, they protect themselves first and too often make the most punitive “in-the-moment” decision toward youth of color.

What is the emotional cost for youth and adults of being exposed to repeated disrespectful attitudes, social interactions, and false accusations? The more Black and Brown youth experience subtle or blatant racial rejection from society and within schools, the less they feel safe, trust others, get peaceful sleep, or perform well at school.

Some parents try to teach their children to fit in and assimilate so as to not appear different and garner any negative attention. Be pretty. Some prepare them explicitly for potential racial hatred. Be on guard. Others still prefer to not “racially burden” their children, hoping they won’t face trouble. Be invisible. Unfortunately, a lot of “don’ts” lurk close by, like “don’t be angry” or “loud” or “too Black.” What is a parent left to do? Teaching racial literacy—or the ability to read, recast, and resolve racially stressful situations—can be one answer.

It’s like panther senses. Did you know that panthers have sensitive whiskers that help them navigate darkness? What if young people of color could learn to trust their panther senses before, during, and after these situations and learn to “be you?”

Racial literacy involves teaching youth of color to appreciate their cultural genius and discern racial support and rejection (read), reduce the stress of that rejection (recast) so they can make healthy decisions that benefit their well-being (resolve). Neither a cure for discrimination or a last ditch survival strategy, racial literacy skills can be a healing response to daily racial microaggressions.

Our research at the Racial Empowerment Collaborative shows that the more parents or children report socialization about negotiating racial politics, the better they report improvements in self-esteem, anger management, depression, and academic achievement. However, not all the racial conversations parents report yield positive results. The more children reported their parents socialized them to fit into mainstream society, the higher their depression scores. Why? We think it’s because many of the environments our young people of color enter don’t appreciate their difference.

Howard and the REC team.

Racial literacy can also be applied to the school environment. When harassed at school, students of color struggle to see the benefits of trying to fit into hostile social networks for the sake of future social mobility. We believe racial literacy at school is more likely to lead to more positive health outcomes because it 1) affirms Black and Brown youth’s accurate discernment of societal hostility or support; 2) reframes any racial rejection as the haters’ problem, not theirs; and 3) promotes them to embrace their genius and not question their potential. Once youth of color embrace their differences and the healing benefits of their culture, they develop confidence to engage rather than fight, flee, or freeze in the face of discrimination.

But without practice, none of these literacy skills become instinctual, like panther senses.

If “belonging” is the acceptance of my difference and competence, and “fitting in” is the dependence on other people’s acceptance of me, then why am I not questioning that acceptance if it’s rooted in inferiority? For many youth of color, “belonging” is to “fitting in” what “being myself” is to “pretending.”

Parents can’t always be there to protect their children from racial discrimination, and life offers no guarantees for our children. But we can equip them with the cultural tools to belong within whatever context they inhabit. Additionally, we can encourage them to choose to make healthy decisions around whether to accept or challenge other people’s perceptions of their difference and their potential. Be you.