Racism 101

(Photo illustration by Chava Sanchez/LAist)

Racism 101

Published Oct. 26, 2020

George Floyd’s killing and the protests that followed changed how, when, why we talk about race. We produced Unheard LA: A Deeper Listen to provide a platform for these important conversations about race. We invited past Unheard LA storytellers to discuss their experiences with race in our community, and the talk got real. People in the comments section joined in with questions too, but we didn’t have a way to address everything that came up.

The answer was what became Racism 101. Our intention with this new project is to hold space for the community to safely ask questions and discuss race with us — and with each other.

Select a section to get started:


Racism 101 is an offshoot of our Race In LA series, which has been publishing essays since June — from LAist staff and community contributors — each week about personal experiences related to one’s race/ethnicity. Race In LA was conceived following the 2019 mass shooting in El Paso, Texas. LAist staffers gathered and shared stories about being racially profiled; about being put in a racial or ethnic box; about feeling unsafe, daily; about never being "enough" of an American. Our newsroom realized there was more we could do to make sure more diverse voices were heard in our coverage.

2020 has been a wakeup call and our newsroom wants to answer that call in the most transparent way. KPCC/LAist is revisiting its style guide, addressing the increased need for diversity in our newsroom and is looking to engage a more diverse audience.



On Oct. 12, (fatefully timed to Columbus Day Indigenous Peoples’ Day), we introduced Racism 101 on LAist. The project is a part of the Race In LA ecosystem, and was conceived as a community engagement follow-up to the Unheard LA: A Deeper Listen virtual event series. Audience members peppered us with insightful questions during the broadcast. And we continued to get feedback on social media after the event recording was posted. They also wanted to know how we were able to facilitate such deep, thought-provoking conversations about race and racial issues. We knew that it took weeks of prep to make our production look polished but organic. We knew that our audience didn't have our kind of research or resources. So we decided to give it to them.

Racism 101 was born. It began as a conversation “starter kit” to guide conversations about tough race-related issues. It was inspired by the discussion questions geared toward book clubs at the end of some novels. We also included a buffet of contextual resources to help guide and inform users’ conversations.

The project then became two-fold: We not only wanted the community to talk to each other; we wanted to hold space for them to talk to us too. Consequently, we created a callout for questions — any questions (so long as they’re civil and respectful) — folks might have for others from other racial/ethnic backgrounds or life experiences other than theirs.

Through the Deeper Listen series, we heard that fear, embarrassment and having no one to ask keeps many people from speaking up. We wanted to make the information accessible — about others’ ethnic dishes or hairstyles or experiences with microaggressions or overt acts of discrimination — to those who wanted to know from people who were willing to answer. We assembled a diverse 12-person answer panel of community members and several people from our newsroom who are willing to put in the emotional work necessary to respond to topics that might be triggering or traumatic. They’ll respond to inquiries in text, audio and video. We’ll post their answers online and on social media and give the community the opportunity to tell us how they would answer too.

The fine print: We’ll try to provide an answer to every question that comes in. Questions can be quirky, awkward or even silly, but we won’t respond to hate speech or offensive language. We won’t post any details about who asked the question, but we will be transparent as to who provided the answer.


Conversation “starter kit”


Racism 101 may sound like a formal learning experience to you. We promise — it’s not. It was produced to be approachable, contextual and self-paced.

The discussion guide is organized into five chapters. Each chapter centers around a racial issue that’s controversial and has multiple aspects to approach it from. There is no right or wrong answer, per se.

The chapters get increasingly more difficult and complex to discuss. Each chapter includes:


There aren’t always multiple sides to an issue. Some things are cut and dry. For example, everyone is entitled to civil liberties and civil rights, and no one should be discriminated against because of their skin color. There are some basic truths and facts that we, the creators of this guide, assume that everyone is on the same page about. So, if you think Hitler was right or Black folks belong at the back of the bus, this guide is NOT where you should start.

First and foremost, your discussion space should be a space where ideas and thoughts are heard but can be challenged respectfully and civilly. In doing so, you help support the physical, mental and emotional well-being of every participant.

DON’T feel responsible for another person’s ignorance or racist attitudes. If they don’t “get” it because they’re ill-informed, and don’t want to be or choose not to believe any way but their way, you’re fighting a losing battle.

DON’T go into this conversation on a mission to change hearts and minds.

Gauge the type of conversation that you’re about to have. Trust us: Things are gonna get heavy. The conversation may get emotional. Tempers may flare. There might be tears. It’s not about who you’re talking to so much as how you’re talking to them and under what conditions. DO make sure you’re in a setting that is private enough and quiet enough for this type of discussion. You want to make sure that everyone can hear each other clearly and that no one is in a space where they’ll be hesitant or embarrassed to express authentic feelings.

DON’T spout off at the mouth just to have something to say. Hold those who do accountable for their actions, and if necessary, ask them to leave the conversation.

DO have a healthy discussion to engage and learn from others, especially those unlike you.

DO challenge ideas and back them up with supporting evidence or research.

* * *


What does it mean to be an ally?

There has been much talk about how to be an ally, what the word itself means, what acts of allyship feel performative, what’s real. Perhaps most critical to being an ally is being comfortable having uncomfortable conversations as you try to better understand. If just talking about systemic racism is difficult for you, imagine what it feels like to have to live within a system rigged against you.

Don’t ask Black and Brown folks what you can do or to educate you; the onus is on you to put in the work. You’ve got the internet and all kinds of resources, like this handy website. Start taking action by asking these questions, reading articles, having tough conversations, speaking up when you recognize problematic behavior and you’re on your way.


  1. How you know it’s racism: A BLM explainer by W. Kamau Bell - YouTube
  2. BLM and Asian American history explainer - Time Magazine
  3. Courtney Ahn’s Guide to White Privilege21-Day Racial Equity Challenge
  4. 21-Day Racial Equity Challenge
  5. BLM and LGBTQ History - ABC News
  6. “Inaction is what got us here.” The problem with Blackout Tuesday. - The Guardian
  7. Ivirlei Brooks on How to Be an Ally - Instagram


  1. What is an ally?
  2. What does support look like? Is it protesting, posting on social media, donating to causes...?
  3. When do you recognize that you’ve done enough for the cause?
  4. While supporting others in the short term, how do you also take care of yourself for the long haul?

* * *


Code switching

Here’s the academic take on it: “Cross-cultural code-switching is the act of purposefully modifying one's behavior in an interaction in a foreign setting in order to accommodate different cultural norms for appropriate behavior.”

We do it all the time to some degree — using a professional voice at work and a more relaxed way of speaking with friends or family. Code switching for some people is as casual as that, for others it’s a technique to survive dangerous, or even deadly situations fueled by racial tensions.


  1. Black and biracial Americans wouldn’t need to code-switch if we lived in a post-racial society - The Daily Beast
  2. The Costs of Code-switching - Harvard Business Review
  3. Code-Switching Is Not Trying to Fit in to White Culture, It’s Surviving It - YES! Magazine
  4. 5 Reasons Why People Code Switch - NPR
  5. Cheryl Farrell’s “Sistahood of Black Women Over 50” - Unheard LA
  6. Key & Peele’s Obama “Meet and greet” - YouTube


  1. In what ways — big or small — do you find yourself code switching in your everyday life? At work, at school, with elders, bosses, with friends or neighbors...?
  2. Where or when do you see yourself (or others) code switching the most?
  3. Do you think that we’re more critical/accepting of certain races/ethnicities than others when they code switch? If so, why?
  4. Why do you code switch? Comfort? Necessity? Survival?


* * *


Cultural appropriation

“If you don’t understand cultural appropriation, imagine working on a project and getting an F and then somebody copies you and gets an A and credit for your work.” — Tenisha F. Sweet

Bo Derek’s freshly corn-rowed hair. Vanilla Ice’s early 90s rap. The Jenner and Kardashian women sporting braids, big lips and even bigger derrières. The #GentrifiedGreens that ignited Black Twitter.

There’s a difference between copying a culture’s elements — hairdos, clothing and accessories, traditional music and dance, religious rites, cuisine — to emulate them out of respect and in a context that credits the origins and being a “culture vulture.” Culture is closely tied to one’s identity. When a piece of that culture is used to turn a profit as a “trend” or is presented as something “new” without crediting the true origins, it marginalizes the people within that community.


  1. How it feels when white people shame your culture’s food — then make it trendy - The Washington Post
  2. White People Need to Learn How to Appreciate a Different Culture Without Appropriating It - Teen Vogue
  3. Cultural appropriation: Why is food such a sensitive subject? - BBC
  4. Setting the Record Straight on American Music's Black Roots - KQED
  5. Cultural Appropriation Was Always Inexcusable - InStyle Magazine
  6. Origin of Everything cultural appropriation explainer - YouTube
  7. Padma Lakshmi on Appropriation and Discrimination in Food Media - W Magazine


  1. Can you think of ways you may have personally appropriated another culture?
  2. Where do you draw the line between cultural appreciation and appropriation?

* * *


Defund the police

This is a hot button issue that seems to be widely misunderstood. Simply put, many people, including some officers, agree that police are called to emergencies that they shouldn’t be covering: mental health crises, encounters with people behaving erratically because of drugs or alcohol, homeless outreach. Defunding the police calls for reallocating some funds from police departments to social services agencies who are better equipped to handle those types of calls.

The origins of American policing itself, from slave patrols following the Civil War, is also an argument in some circles for defunding the police to the point of nonexistence. For some, abolishing the police entirely as we know it now, an institution that they say is inherently racist because of how and why it even exists in the first place, is the only way to eradicate the problems with the system.


  1. ”What defund the police” really means (video) - Vox
  2. The history of America’s racist police, from slave patrols to present - NewStatesman
  3. Defund the police explained by a protester - Twitter
  4. Defund the police explainer (article) - Vox
  5. What does ‘defund the police’ mean and does it have merit? - Brookings Institute
  6. What It Really Means To ‘Defund The Police,’ According To These Simple Instagram Graphics


  1. What do you personally think about calls to “defund the police?”
  2. Have you had interactions with police that you think might have been better handled by another non-law enforcement agency?
  3. Would defunding the police put people at risk? Why or why not?

* * *


Confronting America’s legacy of slavery and oppression

Colleges are renaming campus buildings to acknowledge a past tied to slavery; they’re issuing public apologies for their schools’ ties to slavery. Confederate monuments have been toppled across the South. We’re reconsidering sports mascots, team names and cheering gestures that, to some, insult indigenous communities. In this pivotal moment of racial reckoning, we’re having long overdue conversations as a society about how we frame historical narratives.


  1. Confederate Statues Are Being Removed Amid Protests Over George Floyd's Death. Here's What to Know - Time Magazine
  2. Pinterest And The Knot Will Stop Promoting Wedding Content That Romanticizes Former Slave Plantations - BuzzFeed News
  3. Dear White People: Thoughts on the Washington Football Team - The Independent
  4. Ending the Era of Harmful “Indian” Mascots - National Congress of American Indians
  5. The First Reparations Attempt at an American College Comes From Its Students - The Atlantic
  6. Stanford is removing Junipero Serra’s name from parts of campus - The Los Angeles Times
  7. The Lesser-Told Story Of The California Missions - Hoodline


  1. After many years mired in controversy, the Washington Football Team finally changed its name from a Native racial slur to a more generic moniker. Do you think mascots and team names should be renamed years later if the origin of the name is problematic for a certain group or race/ethnicity? Why or why not?
  2. If you were invited to a wedding being held on the site of a former slave plantation or a Spanish mission, would you go? Why or why not?
  3. While some people advocate for keeping Confederate monuments and adding explainer placards to remind people of the historical context, others want them removed entirely as they, as some have said, “honor the oppressor.” What do you think?


Read, watch, listen and learn

To talk intelligibly about these types of issues, you have to have a baseline understanding of what the issues actually are. To that end, We’re providing a buffet of resources to help you learn.


Anti-racism essays, books, videos and podcasts.

Essays & books

The 1619 Project from The New York Times Magazine

The 1619 Project is an ongoing initiative that began in August 2019, the 400th anniversary of the beginning of American slavery. It aims to reframe the country’s history by placing the consequences of slavery and the contributions of black Americans at the very center of our national narrative.” (via The New York Times)

Caste: The Origins of Our Discontents by Isabel Wilkerson

New York Times best-selling author Wilkerson examines the unspoken caste system that has shaped America and shows how our lives today are still defined by a hierarchy of human divisions.” (via Amazon)


“The Origin of Race in the USA” from PBS

“Do you believe that your race correlates to your skin tone? Because that wasn’t always the case. So how did Americans come to believe that race equals certain visible physical characteristics such as skin color and hair? And why is it that certain ethnic groups that were once considered ‘non-white’ became reclassified as ‘white?’” (via PBS/Origin of Everything) (Available on YouTube)

“Eyes on the Prize” from PBS

“Eyes on the Prize” is an award-winning television series, told in 14 one-hour episodes, that cover all of the major events of the civil rights movement from 1954-1985, including the Montgomery bus boycott in 1954 to the Voting Rights Act in 1965. (via PBS) (Available on Netflix and Apple TV)


Code Switch from NPR

“Hosted by journalists of color, this podcast tackles the subject of race head-on. It explores how it impacts every part of society — from politics and pop culture to history, sports and everything in between.” (via NPR)Available on Apple Podcasts, Google Podcasts, NPR One, Pocket Casts and Spotify)


Through a partnership with Justice in June, we have permission to republish their 30-day anti-racism read/watch/listen/act plans in their entirety as mobile-friendly and downloadable resource guides.

The holidays are just around the corner. Despite the social distancing challenges posed by COVID-19, you'll likely be connecting in some way with family and friends. We see these gatherings, albeit virtual, as the perfect time to talk about the tensions running high in this county, civilly and respectfully. And we want to help.

We'll be posting the materials from Justice in June on our Racism 101 site the week of Thanksgiving. That will give you plenty of time to do crash course before Christmas, Hanukkah, Kwanza and Eid with the 30-day anti-racism learning plan laid out in Justice in June.


This section includes content produced by creators of an affinity group from the perspective of that group with an eye to speaking to that group. In creating this list, we worked diligently to omit narratives that perpetuated stereotypes or pigeonholed people or tokenized their communities. Yes, these writers and their characters and podcasters and poets address issues that adversely affect the marginalized. However, their depiction of adversity doesn’t define these people or places.

They grapple with poverty, violence, racism, exploitation. But they aren’t victims to be pitied because they’re brutalized or looked down upon as less than — less deserving, less intelligent, less ambitious — because of those circumstances. The contemporary voices highlighted on this list embrace, normalize, amplify the joy and pride and passion of what it means to be “other.”

Use the dropdown menu to filter by group. Click a content box to open a modal for additional details. Click anywhere outside the modal to close it.


You’ve got questions, we’ve got answers


Here are the questions we've answered so far. We'll post the story links here as they're publisheed.


We've been posting short promo videos on social media to illustrate the kinds of things people have actually said to some of our answer panelists. Their personal experiences have been honest and have illustrated just how much we don't always understand each other.


Ask us questions. Panelists on our #Racism101 project will answer.

♬ original sound - LAist - Voter Game Plan


What questions do you have about people from different backgrounds? Our Racism 101 panelists will answer. #racism101 #raceinla #LetsTalkLA

♬ original sound - LAist - Voter Game Plan


Leave your questions in the comments. #racism101 #raceinLA

♬ original sound - LAist - Voter Game Plan

So, don't be shy. Ask us what you’ve always wanted to know, no matter how awkward. Our amazing team of 12 is here to field any and all respectful questions so your friends (or strangers) don’t have to. Racism 101 is about learning and understanding.

So, let's talk, L.A.


We’ve assembled a small, diverse group of people with strong voices and opinions to answer your questions. Our panel is made up of 12 individuals, several from our newsroom, but mostly community members from around L.A. They are men and women. Some have kids, are single or have partners. They range in age from 30s to 60s. They identify as cisgender and queer. They identify as Native American and Asian American and Latinx, Black, mutliracial, Hawaiian and white. We tried our best to represent a cross-section of Angelenos’ multifaceted cultural, racial and ethnic diversity.

Brianna, 35

Brianna Lee

(Courtesy Brianna Lee)

Until 7th grade, Brianna was surrounded almost entirely by Asian Americans, in one of the most diverse cities in the world. She was deeply affected by that homogeneity — she and her peers were acutely aware of being racially different from the rest of our community, but only had media depictions of other groups to base their differences upon.

She also consumed media voraciously, and was likewise affected by the centrality of whiteness in every book, movie, TV show and history lesson she came across — to the point that when she wrote fictional short stories as a hobby, all her protagonists were white. This all made her really interested in probing the structures that shape how we view race and what prevents us from recognizing ourselves as the center of our own stories.

Mike, 30s

Mike Roe

(Chava Sanchez/LAist)

Mike is a mixed-race journalist/writer. Born in Palo Alto and raised in the Pacific Northwest, he moved to Los Angeles more than a decade ago. His mother, half-Hawaiian and half-Puerto Rican, was born in Hawaii before Hawaii became a state. She came with her mother to the mainland as the first in the family to do so, leaving her siblings behind. Mike grew up with split custody between his mom and his white/Jewish father. His mixed background always left him feeling on the outside, unable to find a group he quite fit in with — at times, even within his own family. Mike has spent time in faith spaces and dealt with explicit racism there, as well as seeing how those beliefs can be used to fight racism. Outside his work as a journalist, Mike writes screenplays with his wife, working to create diverse characters beyond what we’ve traditionally seen in our entertainment. He’s also written a book scheduled for release in 2021.

Roseanne, 60

(Courtesy Roseanne Carmen

Roseanne is a descendant of the Mescalero Apache and Tewa tribes originating from the state of New Mexico. She grew up in the L.A. area. The daughter of a single mother, she moved around Southern California until she found a home in the Inland Empire. Roseanne is now a mother of six — four girls and twin boys, who have made her grandmother to nine grandchildren. Roseanne began her college career later in life and is currently a student in a medical anthropology doctorate program. Upon graduation, she plans to pursue and devote her career to improving Native American health care policy.

Matthew, 33

Matthew 'Cuban' Hernandez

(Courtesy Matthew “Cuban”

Matthew is a multi-ethnic Afro-Indigenous educator, poet and rapper from Jacksonville, Florida. living in Los Angeles. He’s a first-generation American whose parents immigrated to the United States; his mother, who is of Jamaican and Indian descent from Honduras, his father from Cuba. Matthew’s writing is often about being raised in an environment where no one looked or sounded like him, as well as racism and microaggressions he experienced as a youth. He is currently a director at Street Poets Inc. He’s the co-founder of the Spoken Literature Art Movement, an L.A.-based writing and performance workshop series celebrating its third year of programming.

Roy, 37

Roy Lenn

(Courtesy Roy Lenn)

Roy says that you might call him half lumpia and half biriyani – he’s half Filipino and half Indian. Growing up in different corners of the United States exposed him to the cultural and political diversity of the country. Born in Lake Forest in Orange County, Roy’s family then moved to Poughkeepsie, New York, Augusta, Georgia, Albuquerque, New Mexico, and then Richmond, Virginia, where Roy lived from late elementary school through college. Roy’s mom is from the Philippines, and his dad is from the state of Kerala in South India. The two cultures have a lot in common – with values rooted in extended family bonds and centered around Catholic faith. Since English was the common language of his parents and what was spoken around the house, Roy never learned Tagalog or Malayalam.

Today, Roy works as the underwriting coordinator at KPCC, and he feels that it’s important for everyone to see representation in the media of people who look like them. At a young age, Roy felt a connection with the music group The Jets (eight siblings from the South Pacific island nation of Tonga, but that felt close enough) and the movie “Surf Ninjas” (about two L.A. teens who discover they’re Asian crown princes) which was hilarious and still holds up.

Donna, 33

Donna Simone Johnson

(Courtesy Donna Simone

Donna is a Black, queer artist (and mother) who celebrates, liberates and disrupts as a form of activism and spirituality. Donna serves on several local boards and committees for theater professionals including LA STAGE Alliance, IAMA Theatre Company and Watts Village Theater Company. Donna is also co-founder of Hardcorps, an arts organization which provides training to under-resourced artists, and an anti-racist workshop facilitator. She has also taught at universities and conservatories across the country. Currently, Donna is working with nonprofit HowlRound to craft curriculum to support a revised theater canon, with attention to BIPOC, LGBTQ2A+ and disabled stories that seek to revitalize American storytelling in this new era. She is a third generation native Angeleno and takes that sh*t very seriously.

Carene, 26

Carene Rose Mekertichyan

(Photo by Paris Helena)

Carene is an actress, writer, singer, educator and proud Angelena. As a Black Armenian woman, she is drawn to storytelling that centers marginalized narratives and firmly believes that true art exists to create empathy and social change. Her identity and upbringing in Los Angeles informs both her art and intersectional activism. Carene serves as the Artistic Associate for Social Justice at Independent Shakespeare Co. and is a teaching artist with Unusual Suspects Theatre and Creative Acts.

Pat, 64

Pat Alderete

(Courtesy Pat Alderete)

Pat was born in 1955 and raised in East Los Angeles. Born to a Mexican mother and a Chicano father, the families of her parents lived less than 500 miles apart but were separated by the political border that eventually settled between them. They embodied the saying, “We didn’t cross the border – the border crossed us.” Pat came of age during the Chicano Moratorium of the late 1960s/early 1970s. Her writings, which reflect those times, are anthologized and she is currently finishing her novel/memoir. Pat is a lesbian who completely identifies as a woman, whose femininity has a name: butch. She has a lifelong love of motorcycles and has ridden for almost 50 years. Pat married the femme of her dreams in 2008. They have a daughter who just turned 20.

O’Neil, 45

O’Neil Cespedes

(Courtesy O’Neil Cespedes)

O’Neil is an actor who was born in Kingston, Jamaica to a Cuban father and a Jamaican mother. He came to the United States at age 12, moving to a rough neighborhood on the southwest side of Detroit. He attended Michigan State University, where he studied theater and discovered his love for Shakespeare. After graduating with an MFA, he moved to Los Angeles to pursue his love of performance. O’Neil has three kids: one boy and two girls, one of whom is biracial. He has lived in L.A. for 20 years and has loved every minute of it.

Julian, 41

Julian Fang

(Courtesy Julian Fang)

Julian is a first-generation Chinese American. He immigrated to and grew up in Monterey Park in the early 80s, just as it became the first Asian-majority city in the continental U.S. Julian then spent nine years in Williamstown, Massachusetts, navigating an interesting divide between liberal arts activism and New England conservatism. Julian now spends his time staying up to date on technology, all things media and pop culture via TikTok, food and hospitality trends, and the role and intersectionality of race and activism in those arenas.

Ahmed, 49

Ahmed Youssef

(Courtesy Ahmed Youssef)

Ahmed is a first-generation Egyptian American born to parents who immigrated to the U.S. in 1969. Coming from a country that had such an array of diverse skin colors, he says his parents didn't even know the word "racism" until they came to America. Ahmed grew up in white suburbia of the San Fernando Valley. He was only one of two kids in his entire elementary school "of color." His family moved to Thousand Oaks during his senior year. It was then he was first accused of being a "narc" and threatened with notes calling him a "sand-n*gger." He focused on his studies and worked various jobs and slowly moved up the corporate ladder. However, Ahmed says, looking back at the challenges he’s faced, he knows he could have progressed even farther in his career if it weren't for the color of his skin.

Debora, 38

Debora Kamel

(Courtesy Debora Kamel)

Debora is a first-generation Egyptian American. She grew up in a single ethnicity, dual religion home. Debora spent her early years in Downey, a city she describes as “culturally sterile.” Halfway through middle school, she moved to Arcadia, predominantly Asian and white. She says the recurring theme in her life was not fitting in. Debora says that she was too naive to realize it when she was younger, but came to understand that many disadvantages she faced were due to her ethnicity and, sometimes, her religious beliefs. “I’ve seen how suppressing one's true self can get you places, but I’ve also seen how being so fake to appease others will destroy a person as well,” she said. Despite the discriminations Debora faced, she refused to be fake for the sake of being accepted. In fact, being so different is what she says helped her land one of her first jobs, an internship at local radio station KROQ.

Chava Sanchez, Caitlin Hernández and Peri Wallent also contributed to this project.