Tempe police workshop explores how diversity training can help prevent unconscious bias

To many, diversity training is a loaded phrase. Oftentimes diversity training and workshops about bias and privilege are seen as preachy, or sometimes vindictive. Too often, groups attempting to correct the inequality they witness get in their own way by distorting their message with anger or hate.

Yvette Johnson, an Arizona State University graduate, along with Dr. Neal Lester, also of ASU, have collaborated to create workshops that stand out among others aimed at delivering the same messages.

Johnson first became interested in privilege and bias and how they can lead to inequality when she was still a student at ASU. While doing research on the topic she learned that her grandfather, Booker T. Washington, was a civil rights hero in the South.

Her casual research blog titled The Booker Wright Project rapidly turned into a documentary exploring the life and death of her grandfather. The documentary went on to premier at the 2012 Tribeca Film Festival, where it garnered extensive praise.

“When the film premiered at ASU, (Dr. Lester) contacted me. This was in the wake of the Trayvon Martin case and the uproar that came with it. I asked Dr. Lester if he would be interested in collaborating on a project in order to move the conversation about privilege and bias in America along, and he was on board.”

Johnson and Lester worked together on producing a series of workshops on privilege and bias in order to raise awareness among people of the unconscious biases that can govern behavior. Most recently they did a workshop with the Tempe Police Department titled Humanity 101 in the Workplace: Privilege and Bias.

“Part of the challenge in working with Tempe Police for us was that we absolutely had to be diplomatic in our message. In light of all the discord in this country and the increased scrutiny of law enforcement, we knew we had to establish healthy communication. We did this by going on multiple ride-alongs as well as communicating our goal which was to educate all people on these issues. This is not a workshop we only give to police because it is not just a police problem.

“All people can benefit from attending one of these workshops.”

Johnson’s objective is to educate people on how the unconscious mind can make biased decisions without us even realizing it. An overriding message is that no one is immune to this—not even Johnson herself.

“One thing I do to make people realize that my message is for everyone is to admit my own biases and how they may affect my behavior. It is a really embarrassing and humbling experience but it shows how serious I am about this issue.”

By acknowledging that all groups and people have inherent privileges, disadvantages and biases, rather than singling out specific groups, Johnson’s workshops are designed to be more inclusive than most.

“The biggest thing is getting people to realize that our unconscious mind exercises a lot of power. In a society as opinionated as ours, it takes a lot of humility to recognize this and realize that we all make biased choices.”

Although the U.S. elected its first black president in 2008, there have been several high-profile incidents involving racial incidents in recent years. Johnson hopes that honest conversations about race, privilege and bias can help this country heal the wounds that she warns threaten to divide it.



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