Uncomfortable Conversations with a Black Man

Emmanuel Acho | 7 mins


Dear white friends, countrypersons: welcome. Pull up a chair.

Consider this book an invitation to the table. It’s a special table—but don’t worry, this isn’t one of those uptight, where’s-your-VIP-reservation places, rather a come-as-you-are joint for my white brothers and sisters and anyone else inclined to join us. The room where this table sits is a safe space, by which I mean a space to learn things you’ve always wondered about, a place where questions you may have been afraid to ask get answered. For all of you who lack an honest black friend in your life, consider me that friend.

My arms are open wide, friends. My heart, too.

Before I get into more of what to expect from the book, I want to share a few things about myself. I’ve been navigating the lines between whiteness and blackness all of my life—starting with growing up in Dallas, Texas, as the son of Nigerian immigrants. My homelife was steeped in Nigerian culture, rather than black American culture; I only got that on Sundays and on Wednesdays at church. My surroundings, meanwhile, were disproportionately white, from my upper-class suburban neighborhood to the private school I was fortunate to attend. I became “Manny” to all the kids who decided my real name was too foreign.

I wasn’t unaware of racism, growing up. My home state, as you may know, is the birthplace of Juneteenth, a holiday that celebrates the day enslaved people in Texas discovered they’d been set free—the last group of black people to find out. It’s a day that, among other things, calls attention to the state’s long Confederate history. There might not have been any Lost Cause soldiers terrorizing my neighborhood, but from the time I was nine or ten years old, I knew I’d experienced racism. It wasn’t that overt, call-you-the-N-word-to-your-face racism. It was more subtle. Like, for example, the uncountable times some kid in elementary school or middle school or high school plopped down at my lunch table and, after hearing me recount some playground feat, said, “You don’t even talk like you’re black,” or “You don’t sound black,” or “You don’t even dress like you’re black.” Or the ever-popular “You’re like an Oreo: black on the outside, white on the inside.”

I was offended, but I also thought—Maybe they’re right? Maybe I’m not black enough? Thank you if you’re telling me I sound smart . . . but then, are you saying black people can’t be smart? Let me tell you, kid Emmanuel was working on an identity complex.

You should’ve seen me when I got to the University of Texas and found myself surrounded by more black people than I ever had been. Yo, I realized, these are my people. I’m home at last. You know when Tarzan finally met some humans and was like, “Oh, I’m a human”? It was like that. Those early college years were the first time I understood what it means to be a black man in America. Part of this meant realizing how my childhood had given me misguided impressions about my own people. I had been fed the same stereotypical stuff about black people as the white kids around me, and I hadn’t been immune: they had me under the impression that the only real way to be black was to be Nelly circa 2002, minus the Band-Aid under the eye. Finally surrounded by so many different expressions of blackness, I knew I was fine the way I was. But I started to wonder: If I, a first-generation-American black man, could be taught to believe distorted things in such a short time, how much easier is it for a white person to believe them?

Today, I’m grateful for all my experiences, because they were all a kind of lesson. Ask anybody: to be fluent in a language, you have to study abroad. I studied Spanish all four years of high school, but I was never fluent because I never set foot in Spain. Well, my childhood was one big study abroad in white culture—followed by studying abroad in black culture during college and then during my years in the NFL, which I spent on teams with 80–90 percent black players, each of whom had his own experience of being a person of color in America. Now, I’m fluent in both cultures: black and white.

The book you’re reading is what I want to do with that perspective.

WE’RE IN THE MIDST of the greatest pandemic in recent times, which has the potential to be the greatest pandemic of all time. (Friends, wear your masks and wash your hands.) However, the longest-lasting pandemic in this country is a virus not of the body but of the mind, and it’s called racism. I’m not sure if we can cure racism completely, but I also believe that as we rush to find a vaccine for COVID-19, we should be pursuing with equal determination a cure for the virus of racism and oppression. “The ultimate logic of racism,” Martin Luther King Jr. once said, “is genocide.” I don’t mean to be the Bad News Bears, but we are living in an America that necessitated the Black Lives Matter movement. A country in which the simple declaration that people who look like me are worth saving has become controversial.

Enough. I want to be a catalyst for change, to help cure the systemic injustices that have led to the tragic deaths of too many of my brothers and sisters; prisons popping up like fast-food chains; inequalities in health care and education; the forced facts of who gets to live where; the ingrained ignorance of Americans who can’t see beyond skin color. I believe an important part of the cure, maybe the most crucial part of it, is to talk to each other.

Let me take a second to break down what I mean. I don’t mean chatting about whatever; I mean a two-way dialogue based on trust and respect, full of information exchanged and perspectives shared. The goal here is to build relationships—and, ultimately, to help us recognize each other’s humanity. I’d bet some Dallas Cowboys season tickets that it’s tough, if not impossible, to hold bigoted thoughts about someone whose humanity you recognize. I’d double down: it would take some next-level self-deluding to discriminate against someone you respect enough to listen to.

IN THESE PAGES, the only bad question is the unasked question. You’ll see that each chapter starts with a question, each of which is from a real email I’ve received in response to my video series. (Same title as this book, if you got here without watching.) I appreciate every one of them, because wherever the askers are coming from, they came to learn.

If things go the way I want, you will leave this book with an increased understanding of race. You will have more empathy and grant people more grace. And if you have more empathy and are more gracious, then you’ll be less judgmental. And if you’re less judgmental, then your judgment is less likely to play itself out in racism.

Now, there are degrees of racism. If you’re reading this, I imagine you’re not a white-hood-wearing, Confederate-statue-defending, Dukes of Hazzard–idolizing, tiki-torch-toting, N-word-barking first-degree racist. However, you might fall between the second or third degree, meaning someone who is not overtly racist but is on a spectrum between a person who is a little racially insensitive or ignorant and someone who holds deeply ingrained negative ideas about people of other races and ethnicities. Even if none of the above descriptions fit you, you might know someone they do fit.

PAUSE—DID THAT MAKE you uncomfortable to read? Look, I won’t lie to you, we’re only getting further in the weeds from here. We’re going to talk about slavery a lot. We’re going to talk about privilege. And complicity. And so on.

BUT: getting uncomfortable is the whole idea. Everything great is birthed through discomfort. Think about it—a mother suffers no small amount of trouble for nine months before enduring the mega-pain of labor in birthing the world’s next great hero genius. I endured years and years of grueling football practices, many of them under a scorching Texas sun, before I made it to the NFL. Most of our major accomplishments are accompanied by some form of discomfort. If we truly want to treat this four-hundred-year-old American virus that has been doing its work since the first stolen Africans landed in Jamestown in 1619, then we are all going to have to buckle in.

Before we get this thing going, a couple of caveats from me. I don’t profess to know everything about black culture, or to speak for every black experience in this country. I’m aware that I move through the world as a man (down with the patriarchy), that I’ve lived in affluent neighborhoods, and that I attended a private school growing up. Add to that the fact that I’m from a home of first-generation immigrants, which is a different experience from a black person whose family has been in America for generations. All told, mine is a particular perspective. That said: I am a black man in this country. I have been walking around in this skin all my life, interacting with black (and white) people for all my twenty-nine years. What I can do is tell you how it looks from here.

IN HIS POEM “Let America Be America Again,” Langston Hughes writes, “O, let America be America Again / The land that never has been yet.” Hughes published these words in 1936, almost twenty years before the civil rights movement, a time when he had strong reason to critique America for not fulfilling its promise. At the time of the 1965 march across the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Alabama, a large swath of white people were unwilling to make America what it could be. At the time of the 1992 LA uprising, scores of white people were still resistant to forging a version of America that made good on its founding principles. In 2016, when Colin Kaepernick started kneeling, white America showed that they were dramatically divided on accepting how far America still has to go. Now it’s 2020: more than eight decades after Langston’s poem. In the wake of the devastating murder of George Floyd, I believe the majority of white Americans are now ready to help America become the land it dreamed for itself.

It’s going to take all of us—you, me, everybody—to achieve the dream. You are going to have to learn how to move beyond being not racist, to being antiracist (a term that’s been around for decades, but was recently made popular by scholar Ibram X. Kendi). If you’re reading these words, I’m going to venture that you are ready to see an America that the great Langston Hughes challenged us all to will into existence. Huddle up, my friends. It starts with an uncomfortable conversation.

Thank you for listening, sharing, and believing. Let’s change the world—together.