It was Jan. 20, 1992, Martin Luther King Jr. Day, but the civil rights icon was far from my mind. I was home on maternity leave, having given birth to a baby girl just two weeks before. In a maternal fog, I wandered out to the curb in front of the house – baby in my arms – to check the mail.
“No mail today. It’s the n—–’s birthday,” hollered a woman from across the street. In our Monrovia neighborhood. In broad daylight. At the top of her voice. I’d never spoken to or even met this woman, and the most chilling thing about her “heads up” was her cheerful, friendly tone. I guess she thought that because we were both white, I thought the way she thought.
Without saying a word, I rushed back into the house and locked the door. I felt so scared, maybe because I was holding tiny Lauren and still getting used to being responsible for this little life. I had never heard that word yelled aloud before like that. I wasn’t sure what a person who would do that might be capable of. I’ve thought of many things I should have said to her, but in the moment, I panicked.
A few months later, the Rodney King verdicts were announced, and the city seemed to explode. And now it’s happening all over again – maybe because nothing has really changed since 1992. Even with the tragedy of the lives lost, the lack of change seems the saddest part.
That house we were living in almost 30 years ago was a rental, and I was glad to leave that neighborhood behind. We moved in time for Lauren to start kindergarten, which she did at the public school at the end of the block. There were many reasons for our choice (it was close, free and I liked the principal), but I especially wanted Lauren to go to school in an environment as diverse as the world we’re living in. It wasn’t a solution, but it would be a start. I was raised in a home where racist jokes, and even slurs, were uttered by my father and grandparents as a matter of course. My child wouldn’t be.
I felt fortunate, on the day our neighbor hurled that vile word across the street, that Lauren was just an infant and I didn’t have to try to explain what had just happened. But if I’m honest, I’ll have to admit that even today, I couldn’t explain it to her.
Why did that woman think it was OK to speak that way to a total stranger – or to anyone? Why did those police offers think they could beat Rodney King within an inch of his life and get away with it? Why did they get away with it? Why aren’t things any better now than they were then?
I’ve done my best to raise a child who also questions these things, who values equal justice and human rights, who looks at people from the inside out and speaks up when she sees something wrong. She’s grown now, married and ready to start a family, and I hope she will do the same. That, of course, is not enough in the face of the injustice and – let’s just say it – murder that we are seeing on our streets. One awful word, like a seed hurled into the wind, can take root and grow into so much more.
I didn’t speak up that day in front of my mailbox. But it’s high time people like me got over the shock and found our voices. The words we need to say are these: We don’t want to raise our children in a country where the color of a person’s skin matters more than the content of their character (to paraphrase Dr. King). This must stop. Things must change. We won’t be quiet until they do.
Here are some voices from our community.
– Christina Elston, L.A. Parent Editor
When you’re Black and blue
Todd E. Clease, a retired sergeant who spent 32 years with the Los Angeles Police Department and current senior pastor of NewLifeLA, shares an incident that took place in 1986, when he was a young LAPD officer. “My wife and I were in the city of Torrance at the Del Amo mall. We stopped at the bank (Security Pacific) to complete some banking chores, and then we were going to go walking in the mall to get some exercise. My wife was pregnant with our first child,” says Clease, who lives in Cerritos.
“I went into the bank to make a deposit, and I was served by an older white male. I thought everything went fine in the bank. I had two forms of identification— my California driver’s license and my police identification,” he says. On his way out, he saw several Torrance police cars approaching the bank with lights and sirens and thought it would be safer for him and his wife to leave the area, as he didn’t know what kind of trouble the officers were responding to. He and his wife got into their car, pulled out of the bank parking lot and turned into the mall parking lot a block away. Several of the officers then pulled up to their car with guns drawn. Clease identified himself as an off-duty LAPD officer. One of the officers took Clease’s service weapon, asked him to step out of the car, and asked how long he had been an officer and which LAPD division he worked for.
“One of the officers told me they received a call about a man impersonating an officer in the bank, and I fit the description,” Clease says. “This upset me because I conducted my banking business as a private citizen, and the transaction was completed without incident. The teller that served me did not let on that I offended him or threatened him in any way. The contact with the officers was verbally abusive, but I remained calm and professional as I had my pregnant wife with me throughout this whole ordeal.”
He later learned that one of the Torrance officers called his LAPD watch commander and accused him of unprofessional behavior and using profanity during the incident, and he felt as if he’d been victimized twice. “I felt singled out and mistreated because I was an African American and victimized for no apparent reason,” he says. “I know that if I could be treated like this by law enforcement, and I was a part of that same fraternity, what dangers and pitfalls my children could face if they were confronted by racist police officers abusing their authority.” And, in fact, Clease says his wife and both of his sons, who are now 32 and 34, have been stopped numerous times for “driving while Black.”
“So, I trained both my children in the art of de-escalation in how to remain calm when dealing with officers and not to show anger or to provoke them, even if they felt they were being unfairly treated,” he says. “This training is what we in the African American community call ‘The Talk.’ I have developed The Talk into an educational meeting at church in which we invite the community, church members and the local law enforcement together to better understand each other’s point of view and to give our children the necessary information needed to survive any contacts with the police.
“Police officers are chosen from society, which harbors systemic racism, which is taught in families for generations. In my opinion, racist officers seek out other officers on the department of like minds to work with, typically to hide themselves from supervisors and officers with opposing views. Racist officers seek out cliques on shifts less desirable, like the overnight shifts, to avoid detection. The old system of police policing themselves has not worked because of bias at the top of the system of command staff officers that adjudicate these personnel complaints, allowing the racist officers to stay in place on the department when those officers should have been removed.”
Telling the story for generations
Though he is a professor emeritus at UC Berkeley, a teacher at California College of the Arts and a critically acclaimed novelist, poet, songwriter, essayist and playwright, Ishmael Reed says he is racially profiled every day. “In markets, drugstores, parks, coffee shops,” he says. “I am regarded with suspicion every time I enter zones in the city that are predominately white.”
His neighborhood is also an example of racial inequity. “I live in a neighborhood which, until recently, was 98% Black,” Reed says. “For 40 years before gentrification, my Black neighborhood was denied services that residents of white neighborhoods receive. Life expectancy in our neighborhoods is at a rate lower than that experienced by residents of white neighborhoods. There are too many disparities to list.”
Reed expresses his frustration with racism through writing about it. In 1992, after a suburban jury acquitted the LAPD officers who beat Rodney King, he wrote a song called “Bitter Chocolate,” which was recorded.
His daughters, Timothy, 59, and Tennessee, 42, also express their views through writing. Timothy has written a novel about the exploitation of strippers at a Times Square club owned by organized crime and is working on her second novel. Tennessee has written seven books, including two that address discrimination against those with disabilities.
His family fights back
Jervey Tervalon is also an educator and literary figure. He is a lecturer at UC Santa Barbara, founder and director of LitFest Pasadena and founder and director of Locavore Lit LA. He has three daughters – Giselle, 26, Elise, 19 and 4-year-old Colette – and a 12-year-old stepson named Sammy. He and his family have experienced racism in several different ways – including in their neighborhood. “I’m a big guy, so usually comments are directed at me, but my wife is Asian and she is a runner,” he says. “She hears insults as she runs around the Pasadena area.
“My 19-year-old went to a private Catholic school where she was called n—– by a classmate, and that was difficult. I felt anger, and my ex-wife and I spent a lot of time educating the school administrators about how angry we were.”
He and his wife and ex-wife have also taught their kids to speak out. “The older kids are up to speed,” Tervalon says. “Giselle works for the Center for American Progress in D.C. and is in the belly of the beast. Elise, my 19-year-old, helped organized a Black Lives Matter march in Pasadena, and Sammy and Colette attended.”
Standing up for Black students
Educating the next generation does not always go as it should. Tanya Ortiz Franklin formerly taught in the Los Angeles Unified School District, where she says Black students make up less than 10% of the overall population, but are suspended more than three times the rate of their non-Black peers, are twice as far from grade-level proficiency, and about 1 in 4 are chronically absent. Her reflection is an example of why these inequities might exist.
“Chris and Shawn (names changed to protect their identities) were the only two Black boys in the sixth-grade class of 34 students I taught in the diverse city of Carson in 2007,” she says. “If that alone didn’t make them stand out, they stood out to me – and most likely to their peers – because they often contributed aloud in class, usually with so much excitement there was no time to raise their hand and wait to be called on. In other classes, they would be sent to the dean’s office for ‘failing to be respectful,’ ‘not following instructions’ or ‘being defiant,’ and honestly some of their classmates, their classmates’ parents and my colleagues expected me to do the same.
“That community expectation of writing discipline referrals might have led to suspensions or expulsions, where students’ out-of-school time may lead to normal adolescent risk-taking behaviors that might result in police involvement and a citation, arrest or incarceration. In other words, I felt expected to start the school-to-prison pipeline, but I wasn’t going to meet that expectation. Sending Chris and Shawn to the dean’s office would only have taught them and their peers that it’s OK for adults to give up on some students, or that eagerness for knowledge is to be punished. It would only have perpetuated the entrenched anti-Black racism in our education system.
“Educators are constantly faced with these choices and must deeply consider layers of impact in a matter of seconds. In my situation, Chris and Shawn actually helped me become a much better teacher by inspiring me to facilitate a lot more group work, using personal whiteboards to check for understanding, and build stronger relationships with parents to collaborate on what worked best for each student.
“I know that we adults must pause and reflect. Are we jumping too quickly to disciplinary action simply because of a child’s skin color or our own archetypes of ‘ideal’ student behaviors? We must intentionally do better with each and every interaction with our Black students and families if we are to truly become an anti-racist education system.”
Heartbreaking conversations with young children
Meanwhile, many parents are trying to equip their children to cope with the world we currently live in. Mariko Fairly, a board-certified behavior analyst whose Culver City consultation practice is Parenting Fairly, has a mixed-race daughter and son, ages 6 and 3½. She says she and her husband, Marcus, make race an open topic in their home.
“We talk about my kids’ beautiful brown skin and how, in our own family, there are many different shades of color, all beautiful,” she says. “I want my children to feel comfortable, confident and proud in their skin.
“In managing our own anger and grief about current events, my husband and I decided to tell our oldest, who is almost 6, that a Black man was hurt and died and lots of people were very upset about it. She asked who hurt him and we answered that a police officer did, and she asked if the man went to heaven. Then she said she doesn’t want to die. It was a heartbreaking moment.
“All we want to do as parents is protect our children, but part of protecting our children, especially our Black son, is to teach them about African American history and the racism they will likely encounter in their lives. The day before George Floyd was killed, I had a conversation with a friend about how we will have to teach our Black sons to put up their hands, state their names and state that they will not do any harm if they are ever stopped by a police officer. This is not how things should be, but this is the reality for families like ours.”
Teaching Black sons how to survive
Inglewood sports entertainment professional and entrepreneur Desireé LeSassier knows this reality well. “My sons and I have experienced racism and discrimination all our lives, in different capacities,” she says. “I was a teen mom, having both of my sons before I turned 21. I’ve challenged many stereotypes as a single Black teen mom, from being on government assistance programs, finishing school and raising two Black boys.”
LeSassier says she has battled many levels of sexism, harassment, gender and racial inequality, and has used her personal experiences to groom her sons, now 17 and 21, and teach them about racial injustices from a young age. “For kids who are too young to comprehend racism, it begins with teaching them manners, obedience, proper vocabulary, when and where it’s OK to use slang, how to conduct themselves in public, school clothes versus weekend clothes and, most importantly, making sure they memorized my phone number,” she explains.
“It was important to me to teach and engulf my sons in Black culture, but also to teach them how to turn it on and off,” she says. “For their safety and survival, I had to teach them how to survive in white America. Once they understood racism and discrimination, I was able to have ‘The Talk.’ The Talk is a key educational tool in the Black community: How to conduct yourself with and around police, how to respond to white authority figures and how to remain calm while being racially profiled.”
Her sons’ first eye-opening experience was Trayvon Martin and the Hands Up Don’t Shoot campaign because they were old enough to understand and old enough to relate, but both have also had experiences with racism in school and in the community. “It affects their everyday life: not being able to drive a certain car out of fear of being pulled over and profiled, not being able to wear certain clothes like hoodies or beanies, especially at night, being skeptical to wear certain hairstyles,” she says. “All of these fears and uncertainties are minimal struggles that my sons and many Black boys face while just trying to simply live and be teenagers and young men. That’s only scratching the surface. The social injustices, inequalities and racism impact their experience with jobs, sports, education, relationships, personal identity. It’s time for a change.”
Confronting passive-aggressive racism
Downey mom and nonprofit professional Claudia Sarmiento uses incidents she’s experienced to educate her three children, ages 14, 16 and 18. “I remember an occasion when I was coming back from a business trip from the East Coast,” she says. “There was a Caucasian couple sitting next to me. The customer service, the attention and tone of voice used to address them was unbelievably different than the tone of voice used toward me.” For instance, the flight attendant offered to bring extra snacks for the Caucasian couple, but not for Sarmiento.
“Guess what I did? Yes, I requested some of those goodies, too,” she says. She didn’t want the snacks but wanted to show the flight attendant that what he was doing was wrong. “I shared this story with my kids. Why? So that they know that, many times, we need to teach people how to treat us. We can’t stay quiet. We need to speak up against injustice. We need to protect the most vulnerable. This is part of the way I was raised.”
She also has shared with her children that discrimination can take many forms. “Because you were not born here and you have an accent, people may think that you are not as smart,” she says. “Because you are darker, shorter, a bit heavier, may have physical disabilities, where you live, etc., people will judge. I have felt racism firsthand numerous times. But I have also felt the love and compassion of many beautiful people who do not look like me. I have built many strong and great friendships with other people outside my own race, economic status and country of origin.
“My husband and I want to leave a legacy of educated children who know that they can contribute to the wellbeing of humanity. I want them to recognize injustice and discrimination and have the confidence to speak up for themselves and be the voice of those that need it when they see injustice taking place. We’ve had many conversations about the reality of racial inequity that continues today and we/they must work hard to stop that from continuing. We must speak up and not stay silent. We have a responsibility to ourselves, our families and communities to come together, be a voice and demand to be heard to make this a better place for all. I recently supported my daughter, who wanted to go to a peaceful protest to show unity to our brothers and sisters who are hurting, because as a result we also hurt. We put into practice what we preached – today for you, tomorrow for me.”
Strengthening their daughter’s spirit
Event planner Jasmine Arizmendi-Smith, mom of a 3-year-old daughter and 10-month-old son, recently moved from L.A. to Atlanta and says she has most often felt the effects of racism in the workplace – which motivates her to “control the narrative” for her children.
“In my early 20s, I had a boss talk to my co-worker (white male) about me while I was sitting there, and referred to me as ‘her’ and ‘she’ without acknowledging me once,” she says. “I held it together while he was there but ran to the bathroom and cried shortly after. Anger and disbelief kept the tears coming. I did not sleep that night. The next day I asked to speak to my boss privately. I stood up for myself that day and every day since.”
Arizmendi-Smith says she feels the need to “always take the high road when met with constant passive aggression,” and also finds herself being “the go-to girl for ‘all things people of color,’ which is equally offensive.”
She and her husband are focused on building their daughter’s self-esteem, “so that if she should encounter racism, her feelings may be bruised a bit but her spirit is not crushed,” she says. “It is important for me to talk about how we are all the same at the core but also how we are different. Recognizing, respecting and celebrating the differences of everyone is what is important to us. We intentionally read books that celebrate her, along with books that highlight diversity.”
Beginning a lifelong conversation
Tanya Peebles-Hill is an L.A. communications executive whose children are 4 and 10. She cites two recent examples she felt the need to address with her kids: the COVID-19 pandemic, “in which certain segments of the population have been targeted and judged,” and the video of George Floyd’s death in Minneapolis, “an especially painful reminder and breaking point.”
“Children are perceptive, and my kids could sense that I was worried and sad,” she says. “I referenced age-specific resources to guide discussions about the health crisis, race and racism – recommendations from pediatricians and child psychologists, books, videos, cartoons and tools from our school, as well as family and friends, and prayer for guidance because these talks are not easy. I try to begin and end every discussion by asking the kids if they have any questions, and address those as best I can. These are lifelong conversations their dad and I will carefully collaborate on and continue throughout their lives. My hope is that these talks evolve to focus less on repeated incidents of discrimination and more on embracing diversity, inclusion and equality.”
Peebles-Hill also sees reason for hope. “Local, national and global communities of all colors responded,” she says. “We collectively grieved, and the shock, anger and sadness also triggered a deeper transformation. We’re educating ourselves more about the history of systemic injustices. We’re talking more openly about discrimination, marginalization and race. And we’re recognizing that while at times uncomfortable, these conversations are essential and lead to change.”
Protecting her child in a broken world
Sometimes, those conversations start at the dinner table. “My 7-year-old daughter addressed the protesting without prompt,” says Sherman Oaks host and fitness instructor Tatiana Mariesa Mosley, whose other children are 5, 2 and 1.
“Mr. Trump rules the people and they are mad; they must be mad at him,” Mosley’s daughter said. “Why are they yelling with signs?” Mosley and her husband wondered where this question had come, as they hadn’t addressed the death of George Floyd directly with the kids.
“To talk about the death of a Black man by a white man was heartbreaking to reveal,” Mosley says. “We had already talked about slavery and segregation before. We had talked about the civil rights movement and its key players. (Exactly how much can you fit into a 7-year-old brain? I constantly ask myself.) But this was different because it was current. We talked about racism today in this world.”
Mosley and her husband have both experienced it. “Has he been pulled over by the cops for no reason and asked unnecessary questions while having his hands up and fingers spread? More than once, yes. My husband was followed around in a bookstore and, upon exiting, cornered and asked to empty his pockets. Just last year in Sherman Oaks, my husband was waiting for our water jug to fill up when a white man in a Toyota drove by and yelled, ‘Ya n—–.’ When I was young, I was told my knees were dirty because they were darker than the rest of my body. I was told in grade school by a fellow student that if the rules still applied, I would be his slave and he would whip me. I am asked to this day if my children all come from the same man.”
Mosley didn’t share all of this with her daughter. “But after talking through this recent death and tying it into what she already knew, it was like I took a slice of innocence from her and replaced it with the hate of the world,” she says. “I unexpectedly cried.”
“What I focused on was first and foremost, she is a child of God, uniquely curated to thrive. Her curly hair, her deep brown eyes, her beautiful brown skin have a history that is a part of her, yet it does not define who she is. If she shaved her head, dyed herself blue and wore white contacts, she would still be her. And her history would still be the same. I expressed that others will make snap decisions on how they think she should be based off of her skin color. That some hate others that look different than them, and this is something that is still being fought today by the death of George Floyd and Atatiana Jefferson and the many others that did not deserve the fate that was forced on them. That although she should thrive, her awareness and discernment should be ever present because this is the world we live in. Although it is far from perfect or altruistic, it the only one we have. And we can change it one person at a time.”
When not seeing race isn’t enough
Families of all types across our community are working on change. Calabasas resident David Rocklin, attorney and novelist, grew up in the Chicago suburbs, but as a kid was in love with the city. “At the age of 11, I began sneaking out of my house down to my local train station, where I would sneak on for the ride downtown,” he says. One of his favorite pastimes was watching films at the grand old movie palaces in Chicago’s Loop.
“My waking mind witnessed Bruce Lee, Jim Brown, Fred Williamson, Pam Grier, Shaft and Coffy and Foxy and Superfly and TNT Jackson and Cleopatra Jones, and every offering Shaw Brothers and Golden Harvest put out,” he says. “Over time, the others in these theaters came to know me. Before the lights dimmed, they began to look for the odd little white boy whose best life happened outside of his primary life. They saved a seat for me, and together with this crew that took me in, I watched all manner of horrors perpetrated in garish, grindhouse blood and guts upon Black bodies. Perpetrated by the grown versions of me. White men. Leering, cursing, vile and murderous white men. Together we watched those men get their comeuppance, and the lights would rise, and I was a white boy among a sea of Black men and kids my own age, and we’d cheer and get popcorn and wait for the lights to dim so Bruce Lee could square off against all comers. I felt at home. We were a crew. I didn’t see race. Not on screen and not around me. That is what I believed.”
Rocklin is now married and has two daughters, the younger of whom is a person of color. “She went to a school through fifth grade that took great pride in its foundation beliefs: tolerance, diversity and ‘compassionate confrontation’ should things ever go wrong. Which they did,” he says. “One day toward the end of fifth grade, a classmate – a little white boy – hurled the n-word at her without any provocation. She was flummoxed and upset. I was livid. I contacted the school and demanded to know how they intended to handle this. They spoke of their values, of confronting the boy in a teaching moment and of steering clear of the word and its hateful legacy.”
When Rocklin asked officials how a school dedicated to opening the eyes of its children could turn away from what happened, the response was: “We teach the children not to see race.”
“I spent a good deal of time thinking about this ethos,” Rocklin says. “What else haven’t I seen? What else have I erased? What didn’t I see of the friends in the theater rows? Their pain. Their legacy. Their separation. Their bearing of injustices. Their fear and their hope and their strength. My daughters and I talk about race. We talk about injustice and the whys of protests. We talk of police murders and privilege. We talk a lot about what we see when we see race. We will continue.”
Learning how to confront racism with action
Los Alamitos writer Jennifer Genest admits that it’s hard for her to talk about race, especially with people of color. “I feel ashamed to be white, sickened and horrified by the cruelty white people continue to inflict on Black people,” she says. “I feel outraged and yet I don’t know what to say, and I know silence is not enough; it will not help bring change.
“The response to George Floyd’s murder has made it impossible to look away. I live in a mostly white suburb, where there haven’t been protests and life goes on as usual … but isn’t that in itself saying something? What’s happening around race right now in our country is helping me face and examine the pieces of racism that live in me. I am listening, I am asking, What can I do? How can I use my privilege and act – to amplify needed voices, to be a better advocate, friend, role model and parent?
“As a parent, I used to think I was doing enough to just answer my kids’ questions about race as they came up – and thought I was doing OK because they rarely had questions. Now, I know it’s not enough to give just the simple answers about things like outer differences. It’s just as important to teach and elaborate on how life can be different for people of color, to explain Black Lives Matter, for kids to know about the current climate of racism in this country, the responsibility white people have in that, and that we cannot turn from it because it’s uncomfortable. I hope to get better at this, and to be an example of a person who steps up.”
For Justice … and Peace
Poet and Long Beach resident Li Yun Alvarado shares a poem inspired by her family’s experiences. “My great grandfather was a tall, skinny Black man who owned a gas station in a small town on the southern coast of Puerto Rico,” she says. “My 3-year-old MexiRican child is a blondie with hazel eyes whose favorite game is being chased. For my husband and me, there was never a doubt that conversations about race and racial justice would take place in our multiracial, multiethnic, bilingual MexiRican home. I’ve been surprised to witness how unbearably uncomfortable these kinds of conversations make some people, even so-called ‘leaders’ in the parenting space. What a lost opportunity for them, and also what an important lesson for me. This poem pays homage to those lessons learned, particularly the need to get crystal clear on our own family’s core values and then seek out and invest in those parenting coaches who are most aligned with the future we’re working to co-create with our kiddos, families and communities.”
To the White Parenting ‘Expert’
Your instruction: we
must design our
homes into havens,
for exploration, play,
growth, mistakes, learning.
My implementation: flawless.
Diligent adherence to the
tenants: good enough
is good enough; no
judgement; one right
action after the next.
The floor to ceiling
bookshelves in our
living room, organized
into baby blue baskets
dedicated to each
pretend, sensory, focus,
movement & peace.
A monument to my
penchant for &
teacher’s pet status.
My naïveté: the presumption
that your concern
for designing presence
& peace included
for black babies.
Presuming you were
ready / capable / willing
to lead when called
to help design for
fighting for justice
peace. I look at my
baby blue baskets
feel my throat
tighten in the clench
traumas passed down
from ancestors of all
colors on my multiracial
family branches. I take
a long breath. Hear the
air leave my throat,
a whisper: no justice,
no peace. Then a scream:
NO JUSTICE! NO PEACE!
I re-begin the work
of healing age old wounds,
growing into my roots
as good ancestor. The
blue baskets remain,
a reminder: reserve my
faith & following for
proven guides. & also:
there are many
ways to design a home
with zones for peace:
celebration of self
& others; acknowledgement
of ancestors & legacies;
knowledge of histories
& social movements;