“Privilege” Workshop Mandatory for Tempe Police

Neal Lester and Yvette Johnson led a anti-bias workshop series that all Tempe police employees were required to attend.
Neal Lester and Yvette Johnson led a anti-bias workshop series that all Tempe police employees were required to attend.
Ray Stern

Tempe police officers were required to attend a workshop recently on “privilege” to help them better understand their own biases.

Content for the classes came from a workshop series developed by Arizona State University's Project Humanities program.

Called “Perils and Perks of Privilege," the workshops were held in communities across the state last year. Neal Lester, an ASU English Professor and director of Project Humanities, led the workshop along with co-facilitator Yvette Johnson, a documentary filmmaker, writer and professional speaker.

Chief Tom Ryff approved the sessions for his department at the request of police instructors, who had seen Lester and Johnson on the news. Each of the department's roughly 300 sworn officer and 150 civilian staff members attended one of the 19 mandatory, three-hour workshop classes held at Tempe police facilities during May and June.

The city paid $27,500 for the program, says Lieutenant Mike Pooley, the department's spokesman, adding that “all effort was made to have our employees attend the training while on duty” in order to limit paying any overtime.

No specific incident spurred the training, officials said.

Yet the timing is certainly appropriate. The training follows bad publicity received by the department after a black man claimed he was racially profiled in a February traffic stop by white Tempe bike officers. Anderson Jean-Louis, 29, was stopped on February 13 on Mill Avenue and asked to turn down the volume on his car stereo. He refused, at first, and also declined to hand over his ID. After being told to get out of his car and sit on a curb, an officer stopped him from video-recording the situation. He's scheduled for a non-jury trial at 1:30 p.m. on July 21 in Tempe city court on charges of failure to provide ID and excessive music amplification.

Civil-rights activist Jarrett Maupin held a news conference with Jean-Louis on April 20, in which Jean-Louis threatened he would sue the city over his experience. In response, Tempe police released a statement mentioning that police employees were in the process of taking the workshop class with Lester and Johnson. The agency also sought to receive additional training from Lorie Fridell, a nationally recognized expert on racial profiling from the University of South Florida.

“Overall, it's been a pretty positive experience,” Tempe Lieutenant Noah Johnson said during a meeting last month with the researchers at a Tempe PD sub-station. Still, it's tough to say whether the training has made a noticeable difference in how officers treat people on the street, he admitted.

“We brought a different perspective to our officers,” he said. “Hopefully, it's an ongoing process. This is a journey.”

When you think you're being fair — but you're not

The workshop curriculum was developed to help people “make sure we understand what we're bringing to the table” during interactions with others, Lester said.

“This is not about finger-pointing or blaming,” he said. “'Privilege,' as we talk about it, are those invisible tools that each of us has wherein society accommodates us through nothing that we've actually done to earn them.”

It's not just about race – it's also about gender, sexuality, class and other factors that tend to convey disadvantages or privileges in society.

Johnson says she and Lester – who are friends – came up with the idea to do a community workshop series following President Obama's 2013 statements about the fatal shooting of Trayvon Martin. They applied for grants and conducted “a ton of research” for the program.

In one of the workshop activities, headlines to fictional news articles are offered to workshop participants who then had to guess which children's story or nursery rhyme goes with them. It's a fun exercise that gets the class participants laughing – and exposes how readers and authors tend to view things in “their own personal norm,” Johnson said.

The idea of heterosexuality can be “cemented,” she said, giving an example of the bias often found in American literature — “not that these works are guilty of anything. But there's sort of a collective narrative about what life is like and what the 'norm' is.”

These unconscious biases stack up in our brains, revealing themselves during various situations, she said.

“We address the times when you think you're being fair, but you're not,” Johnson said. “We do have an institutionalized, systemic bias problem. It's being maintained often by the quote-unquote 'good' people who don't see the problems.”

It's important, Lester and Johnson said, to recognize that the privilege is “systemic” as opposed to individualized. In other words, pointing out that some white people are – at times – marginalized in society, or that some black people are billionaires, doesn't negate the fact that white skin tends, in general, to be a privilege in the United States.

Responses to the workshop by Tempe officers “ran the gamut,” said Johnson. “We didn't have long, extended debates. People definitely disagreed with us on some things. Certain officers were really feeling the weight and the pressure of what's happened.”

Many officers were quiet at first, some seeming skeptical of the information provided. But by the end of each class, she said, officers were thanking the researchers and confessing they'd never thought of some of these concepts before.

Privilege and “White Privilege”

The concept of white privilege, tied to the overarching field of critical race theory, can be very controversial. Last month, an instructional paper for faculty trainers and hirers at the University of California made headlines last month when someone noticed it warns against using the phrase, “America is the land of opportunity” could be interpreted as a “microaggression” that implies people of color are “lazy.” The paper, which was reportedly the idea of former Arizona Governor Janet Napolitano, now president of the university, also opines on the “myth of meritocracy.”

Privilege based on race may be sidelined compared to privilege based on other factors, as the researchers stated. Whether you got your PhD in a “prestigious” university department, and whether you're male, may be the overriding factors for a successful academic career, according to a study published in 2012.

Clearly, some of the talk about privilege is biased itself — check out the interesting opinions found in the Project Humanities' "privilege checklists." 

Yet scientific research leans toward the idea that white privilege is real in many countries. A 2010 study, according to one write-up, states that “individuals with darker skin tones have less education, have lower status jobs and are more likely to live in poverty and less likely to be affluent” – and that's in Mexico.

To learn more about the concept of privilege, we talked to one of the country's premier experts on the subject, Peggy McIntosh, whose work was cited by Lester as influential for the workshop series. The researcher/activist, who works as associate director of the Wellesley Centers for Women at Wellesley College, is famous for her ground-breaking 1988 essay, “White Privilege and Male Privilege: A Personal Account of Coming to See Correspondences Through Work in Women's Studies.”

In the essay, she described white privilege as an “invisible weightless knapsack of assurances” and other tools. (Part of the essay is summarized in the Project Humanities "white privilege checklist," though McIntosh warns that the checklist is totally "autobiographical" and doesn't necessarily apply to all white people.)

While the idea of being “disadvantaged” by race, class, gender and other factors was well known, McIntosh says, “what was new about my work was that it looked at the upside of all that. It looked at the exemption from discrimination – the exemption from racial bias, the exemption from worry about how my children are going to be treated by police... The idea of privilege should be extended to mean the upside of every form of oppression.”

Working-class white people – a group that includes most average cops – “will be terribly angry they're called privileged when they know they've worked so hard,” she says. “Nobody's acknowledged that class privilege has been oppressing them.”

Police can also be disadvantaged by bias, she acknowledges.

“A lot of people look down on cops, fear them, mistrust them, or stereotype them,” she says. “That's a disadvantage.”

Lester and Johnson got to see some of that police bias first-hand on ride-alongs with patrol officers.

“We got to see some of the thoughtful, conscientious work that Tempe police do," she said. "The reception was sometimes grateful, while other times it was really sort of hateful, the reception they received from some members of the community."


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