Neal Lester became more politically aware of the reality of being an African-American long after the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. died.
It was 1981 and the Ahwatukee man, a Georgia native, was studying for his doctorate at largely white Vanderbilt University.
“I saw an entitlement I had not seen before,” the Arizona State University English professor recalled. “There was something going on with race and class.”
It wasn’t just the fact he was to become the first African-American to earn a doctorate in English from Vanderbilt. Or the fact that the female faculty members who helped him get that degree could not get tenure. Or even that a professor asked him to recite the words to “Dixie.”
It was a combination of those and other factors that led him to dedicate his life to trying to change people’s unconscious as well as conscious attitudes toward race and class by looking inward and discovering how a sense of privilege “may inform our decisions and control our actions.”
Lester’s work in class, eight books, lectures and the community earned him the 2017 MLK Diversity Award from the Tempe Human Relations Commission. It will be awarded at 8 a.m. Monday at a breakfast ceremony and his portrait will hang permanently in the Tempe Historical Museum.
“Dr. Lester’s work in race relations, empathy and workplace training creates a more welcoming and inclusive environment, not only at ASU but throughout our Tempe community. His belief that culture and difference should be acknowledged, valued and celebrated is a shared vision with our city,” said Ginny Belousek, City of Tempe diversity manager, in announcing the honor.
Lester in recent years has been showered with honors and special recognition for his work inside and outside the classroom.
A resident of Ahwatukee since 1997, he has been dean of the humanities and English Department chair as well as vice president of humanities and arts at ASU.
He has taught courses on an array of subjects, including African-American women writers, children’s books, the Disney representations of women, the N-word and even the racial and gender politics of hair.
A lecturer around the world, Lester also is the founder and director of ASU’s Project Humanities, a multi-dimensional approach to broadening perspectives on the interconnectedness of people “to create positive change in people and communities across political, socioeconomic, geographic and cultural boundaries, and in our daily lives.”
Using film, books and other media, Lester aims to increase understanding and acceptance through “talking, listening and connecting.” His efforts have taken him to a variety of workplaces and other venues, from churches to even the Pomegranate Café in Ahwatukee.
For example, after the deadly 2014 police shooting of a juvenile in Ferguson, Missouri, he led 19 workshops for all 400 members of the Tempe Police Department.
“They assumed I was going to start talking about how racist they are, but that’s not my approach,” Lester explained. “I talked about how they demonstrate a sense of privilege—not from what they have done but from what they have.”
That sense of privilege or entitlement often conditions people unconsciously to make choices that either ignore different races, cultures or ethnic heritages—or act disrespectfully, even hatefully—toward them, he said.
Lester recalled an illustration for a blood drive on Facebook, for example, that showed two white arms stretched out and prepared for a needle.
“Why two white arms? It makes me wonder what went into the decision consciously or unconsciously,” he said.
This is not a matter of political correctness, Lester asserted, but a matter of learning to respect and acknowledge another person’s identity.
With the Tempe police, as he does with other groups as well as his ASU students, Lester said he tried to get them “to peel the layers” of their actions and attitudes to explore how they are influenced by privilege.
He urges listeners to explore “the unseen stuff you have that you didn’t do anything to earn.”
It’s a more complex issue than many people understand, he added, because people are not just a race, a gender or a sexual orientation.
“We’re a bundle of things,” he said.
The racial and other conflict in society today, he said, isn’t much different from what it was in Martin Luther King’s day.
However, he said, “social media has emboldened people and allowed people to be less self-censoring.
“But I don’t want to make this a matter of technology,” he added. “Technology also has connected people in new and different ways.”
Lester is particularly fond of using literature to enable people to explore their attitudes toward those who different from them.
For example, he said, “Children’s literature is assumed to be assumed to be apolitical, but it isn’t.”
And because “we were always exposed to it” as youngsters, he uses it as a springboard for self-examination, urging people to explore how their attitudes have been shaped since they were young.
“My approach allows people to walk into this a little less defensively,” he said.
He maintains his philosophical perspective when asked about America today and last year’s brutal election cycle.
“We’ve always been in a moment when we have to reconcile best of times and the worst of times,” he said. “Just when we think we have made progress at one level, we take two steps back on another level.”
When six Desert Vista High School girls caused a scandal two years ago by posting a photo of themselves wearing a shirt with letters that spelled the N-word, Lester was called in to help students and adults sort through the whys and the consequences of their actions.
“The lesson here must be about the importance of words, self-reflection, personal responsibility, and social accountability,” he wrote in the Ahwatukee Foothills News.
“Poet Maya Angelou offers warning and wisdom in this regard: ‘Words are things. You must be careful, careful about calling people out of their names, using racial pejoratives and sexual pejoratives and all that ignorance. Don’t do that. Someday we’ll be able to measure the power of words. I think they are things. They get on the walls. They get in your wallpaper. They get in your rugs, in your upholstery, and your clothes and finally into you.’”