Emmanuel Acho: “Uncomfortable Conversations with a Black Man”

Adrian Liang on November 10, 2020

Emmanuel Acho and ‘Uncomfortable Conversations with a Black Man’

Says Emmanuel Acho in the first few pages of his new book, “For all you who lack an honest black friend in your life, consider me that friend. My arms are opened wide, friends. My heart, too.”

So begins an invigorating and even sometimes laugh-out-loud series of answers to questions that range from what to do when you fear of saying something wrong and being labeled “racist,” to where the line is drawn on cultural appropriation.

I’ve described Acho’s book to many people as the perfect read for those who might be intimidated by weightier books like How to Be an Antiracist. But that doesn’t mean this book is frivolous or lightweight. Listening to this former NFL player talk about race is like listening to the insights of a trusted friend, so that even the uncomfortable bits sink in without sparking defensiveness. It’s one of the many reasons why the Amazon Editors named Uncomfortable Conversations with a Black Man as one of the Best Books of the Month in November.

We wanted to learn more about what drove the former NFL player and current sports analyst to write this book, and here’s what he had to say.

Adrian Liang, Amazon Book Review: The book is inspired by a web series of videos you created called “Uncomfortable Conversations with a Black Man.” What sparked you to make those videos—and how did they become a book?

Emmanuel Acho: In the aftermath of the murder of George Floyd, I thought a lot about my place in the fight against systemic racism. As a black man who has spent a lot of time in white spaces, and as a professional communicator—courtesy of my day job as a television host—I decided I could serve best by speaking, and listening, across the racial divide that has kept so many white Americans ignorant of the ways BIPOC remain marginalized and oppressed. My goal, in having these uncomfortable conversations, was to create a space where people could ask the tough questions and get honest answers. My goal with this book is to give even more people access to those answers, in a lasting way.

Based on the title, I was expecting to feel a lot more discomfort while reading your answers to people’s questions about race and racism, but this book feels like a conversation with a friend. How did you find that perfect balance between achieving a connection and delivering meaningful, important information?

I think the trick to having productive conversations is in making someone feel welcome but also being a truth-teller. These are hard conversations no matter what, but for me they’re conversations that need to be conducted with patience, with understanding—with what I would call grace. We can’t steer far from the reality of the situation, the reality of America’s history, the reality of racism and injustice in our world. But I try to have every conversation from a place of grace, truth, and love.

This book contains a wealth of information—especially in the “Let’s Rewind” sections, which gives historical context to the issues. But you also include references for the readers who want to dive even deeper on their own. Why is that important to you?

I understand that my book is just one tool, one resource in the fight against racism. No matter how invaluable I think it is, it isn’t going to single-handedly solve hundreds of years of issues. We need a lot of education to do that…so the more ammo I could pack in here, the better!

You end each chapter with a section called “Walk It, Talk It.” And you conclude the book by saying, “Ending racism is not a finish line that we will cross. It’s a road we’ll travel.” Can you tell me more about the need to take action?

Let’s talk about the difference between action and intention. On the path to change, intention is great, but action is necessary. A lot of people right now lack the direction to turn their great intentions into action; that’s where this book comes in. I end each chapter with a call to “walk it,” to do something, because I want to make the steps from intention to action not only clear, but habitual. I want to get people used to feeling something and then thinking about how they can turn that feeling into change.

I imagine that some people would think that Black NFL players would escape prejudice because they are famous. What was your experience?

As soon as you take off the uniform, you’re still just black. You’re safe on the field during the 60-minute game, but as soon as you hit the showers, there goes your veil of protection. People have to remember that money and prestige don’t alter one’s skin color. Money may grant you access to certain spaces that have protection, but when you’re not in said spaces, you’re once again just black in America and you’re subject to whatever that means.

I enjoyed the section at the back called “Quick Talks,” which addresses lighter questions such as Durags and Lotion. At the same time, as I read this section, I kept asking myself, “Why don’t I know this stuff?” Why are so many aspects of Black culture either invisible to non-POCs or seen by non-POCs as “weird”?

When something is unfamiliar to us, we see it as “weird” only when we’re not ignoring it entirely. Remember when you bought your first car, and suddenly you saw that car all over the road? It’s not that it wasn’t there before, it’s that now that it’s your car, too, you notice it. Likewise if I’m in a grocery store I can easily pick up someone speaking in a Nigerian dialect, because my ear is listening for it; a white person isn’t listening for that and won’t notice it. Black people notice black things because they are black, and white people notice white things because they are white. Now, black people also notice a lot of white things, because white culture has been the default mainstream in this country—in politics, language, entertainment, education—for a long time. White people don’t have to parse black cultural nuances because they’re not inherent to the one thing everyone sees about our community: black-ness, black skin. But on a basic level, it’s the same with any cultural thing—if you’re attuned to it you see it; if it’s undeniable it might be “weird,” and otherwise it’s probably invisible.

To me, 2020 feels like the year that many white people took off their blinders and recognized the racism embedded in the system and the prejudice embedded in their brains. What’s your take on 2020, racism, and antiracism?

I think that the coronavirus, as detrimental as it has been for our physical health and so many other aspects of society, has actually been beneficial for our racial health. Without the coronavirus disrupting our day-to-day lives, I believe we would have been too distracted to focus on this much older social pandemic. The conversations of 2020 haven’t advanced our racial health yet—it’s a road we’ll travel—but they’ve been a starting point, promoting awareness of the problems that were already there.

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