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Remembering the LA riots: A teachable moment

This weekend marks the 20th anniversary of the Los Angeles riots and the first time I heard race being discussed on television. I was 10.

The year before, I had watched the Rodney King beating on the news with my parents. I knew that white police officers went to court for nearly beating a black man to death. My mother's reaction to the verdict was telling.

I was precocious enough to know that since the white police officers were "acquitted" it meant that they had essentially gotten away with committing a horrible crime. The L.A. riots ensued, and I watched. I recall wondering if the burning buildings, broken windows, random acts of violence within violence were going to spread to my hometown. I wondered what would have happened if there wasn't a videotape of the beating. I imagined the reactions of both blacks and whites had the verdict been different.


I had so many questions about the L.A. riots and why the police officers were acquitted. As an 11-year-old African American girl in small-town Massachusetts, I wondered if my race made me a second-class citizen.  The notion that children are color blind is debatable, but when an event such as the Rodney King beating and subsequent L.A. riots play out on the evening news, children are forced to think about race in a different way.

My parents used this opportunity as a teachable moment on race. We had several conversations about the L.A. riots and all of the subtopics that come with it -- police relations within the black community, poverty, justice (or lack thereof). They used language that was appropriate for my age. My dad asked me how I felt about the police officers not going to jail for what they did and if I thought the people should riot. I distinctly recall my mom asking if my friends at school were talking about the case. We had a dialogue. I knew my thoughts mattered.

That conversation cultivated my fearless passion to discuss race with people outside of my family. Since then, I've had numerous conversations about race with people from all walks of life to breakdown stereotypes and learn new perspectives.

The L.A. riots were a moment for my parents to capitalize on a conversation about race. And it is only through this conversation that Rodney King’s famous question can be answered: "Can’t we all just get along?" Not only are precocious 11-year-olds watching the news, but they are also listening and waiting for adults to facilitate positive conversations around race relations. Don't change the channel. Instead, talk about it.

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