The first thing I want you to know is, I get it. I prrrrrrromise you, I get it. Because I went through it. We’re all a little unsure of who we are right now. Unsure of who we’re supposed to be or who we’re going to become. We are all either going through that awkward phase, about to head into that awkward phase, or just coming out of it. Trust me, I know what I’m talking about. There was a time when I was insecure. I was the black kid at the predominantly white private school—St. Mark’s School of Texas—who stuck out like a sore thumb. Yet, I was also a black kid who went to a predominantly black church, but I wasn’t exactly “black cultured.” So at church, whose congregation was mostly black Americans, I wasn’t sure I fit in there either.
Add to that, I was an awkward kid who wore braces for two years—from eighth grade to tenth grade. I didn’t know how to dress or carry myself with any kind of confidence.
So Monday through Friday at school, I stuck out and felt awkward. And Sunday at church, I stuck out and felt awkward. To be true, the only place I felt comfortable was in sports. Growing up, I did football and basketball and track, and it was the only time I felt like I knew all parts of myself completely.
Back in those days, I didn’t have the language or the courage to talk about blackness or whiteness. And there were no adults talking to me about it either. Consider this book my attempt to be one of the adults who broaches those difficult conversations about race. Life is already hard enough as a young person trying to figure everything else out; the last thing we need is to make life any harder, to expect you to untangle racial issues and racial tensions America had handed you all on your own.
I can tell you that I wasn’t unaware of racism growing up. My home state of Texas is the birthplace of Juneteenth—the June 19th holiday that celebrates the day enslaved people in Texas finally discovered they’d been set free by the Emancipation Proclamation, a full two years after it had been signed by Abraham Lincoln. They were the last group of black people in the country to find out. It’s a day that, among other things, calls attention to the state’s long Confederate history. From the time I was nine or ten years old, I began to experience racism.
It wasn’t that overt, call-you-the-N-word-to-your-face type 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 story, 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.” Unfortunately, I’m sure you’ve either heard this or said it yourself. Or the time after we watched the movie Roots—a movie that tells the story of a black man captured in Africa in 1750 and enslaved in America, and what happens to generations of his family—and people started coming up to me saying, “My name is Toby” (a line from the movie where the plantation overseer is beating an enslaved man to make him accept his new, slave name), which was straight up a joke about slavery. To be clear, young peoples, these racist insults were wrong and deeply hurtful to me. My white classmates taunted and teased me because I didn’t meet their racist stereotypes of what a black person should be. That kind of behavior is never okay.
After my time at St. Mark’s, I ended up at the University of Texas and found myself surrounded by more black people than I ever had been before. Yo, I realized, these are my people. Those early college years were the first time I truly understood what it meant 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. The way my peers picked apart the way I looked, the way I sounded, the way I acted, they’d got me under the impression that the only real way to be black was to be like Tupac or Nelly (you might know him from Dancing with the Stars, but when I was a kid back in 2002, he was a popular rapper). But finally surrounded by so many students who looked like me, so many different expressions of blackness, I knew I was just fine the way I was. But I started to wonder: If I, a second-generation 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 good lessons. Some of you might be studying a foreign language right now. Well, your teacher might have already told you: To be fluent in a language, you have to study abroad. I studied Spanish all four years of high school. “Manuelito” was my Spanish name in class. I even got kicked out of class a couple of times by Mrs. Hiner for being a class clown, but that’s a story for another book. Even though I studied Spanish for four years, I was never fluent because I never set foot in Spanish-speaking country. Well, during my childhood, living in a predominantly white neighborhood, I was fluent in white culture—and then I studied abroad in black culture during college and during my years playing in the NFL. I played on teams where 80–90 percent of the players were black, each of whom brought along 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.
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The COVID-19 pandemic of 2020 will go down as one of the greatest pandemics in recent history. I’m still not sure how y’all went to school from home for so long. (How many times did your grown-ups tell you to “wear your masks and wash your hands” back in 2020?)
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 believe that just as scientists rushed to find a vaccine for COVID-19, we should be equally steadfast in finding a cure for the virus of racism and oppression. However, this time around you are the scientist tasked with finding the cure, and get this, you don’t even have to go to med school.
Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. once said, “The ultimate logic of racism is genocide.” I don’t mean to be that guy, but we are living in an America where a white police officer felt comfortable kneeling on the neck of an unarmed black man named George Floyd for over eight whole minutes until he died. And the officer did it in broad daylight! In front of witnesses he knew were recording his actions! This is why America needs the Black Lives Matter movement. This is why, in 2020, in the middle of a pandemic, America erupted in nationwide protests against police brutality. And this is why the simple declaration, “black lives matter”—that people who look like me are worth saving—has become controversial.
I want to be an agent of change, want to help cure the systemic injustices that have led to the tragic deaths of too many of my black brothers and sisters; from prisons popping up around the country like fast-food chains; to inequalities in health care and education; to the often unseen racism behind who gets to live where; to the ingrained ignorance of Americans who can’t see beyond skin color. I believe an important part of the cure we’re looking for, 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 just casual chatting; I mean a two-way dialogue based on trust and respect, a give-and-take conversation where all parties share their perspectives and trade information. The goal here is to build relationships—and ultimately, to help us recognize each other’s humanity. Remember the new kid at school, how you thought they were a little bit different until you actually took time to talk to them and quickly realized they were more similar to you than you thought. That’s the same goal here, to ask questions and get some questions answered, because we’re all more similar than we are different.
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In this book, the only bad question is the unasked question. If you’ve seen my video series, Uncomfortable Conversations with a Black Man, on social media, then you know I believe real change begins with thoughtful discussions over hard questions. During each video, I speak to white people who want to understand black Americans and our experience in this country better. We talk about racism, culture, and history. And we talk about solutions that will help lift our country out of the current mess it’s in. You, my young friend, are a part of the solution.
If things go the way I hope they do, you will leave this book with more confidence in yourself and how to treat people who don’t look like you. 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 racist ways.
Racism comes in many forms. To understand what I mean, I think it’s helpful to imagine racism as a very ugly building with three floors. Enter the building and you’re on the first floor, where the white-hood-wearing, cross-burning, Confederate-statue-defending, tiki-torch-toting, N-word-barking racists hang out. They believe their skin color or DNA makes them superior to others. Think of these people as the type of folks who would join a white supremacist group or attend a hate-filled rally against immigrants. Now run to the elevator, quick, before they see you.
When the elevator door opens to the second floor, things appear a little different. Look around and you won’t see Confederate flags waving (more on that later), or hear people boasting about the size of their Nazi tattoos. Instead, you see regular folks going about their everyday business. But if you peered inside their minds, you’d see that second-floor racists believe, with their whole hearts, very negative ideas—what folks call biases, or as they said back in the day, stereotypes—about people from other racial groups or ethnicities. They may condemn organized hate groups like the KKK, but the folks on the second floor are holding on to some of the same ideas that you might hear shouted out at a Klan rally. Sometimes they may act on their racism by refusing to hire or work with people because of their skin color or foreign-sounding accents. They may even believe overly simplistic ideas like “black families are dysfunctional,” or “black culture is bad,” or even “illegal immigrants bring crime.” Applying these stereotypes to entire groups of people—millions!—without having any real factual evidence to back them up. I know, these ideas stink. Moving on to the third floor!
Up here reside the people who are not visibly racist or holding on to harsh opinions about other racial groups, yet they’re still a little racially insensitive, ignorant, or somewhere in between. In other words, it’s usually not their intention to hurt people with their words or actions, but sometimes they do. What they don’t realize is that just by living in this culture, they have become fluent in the language of racism. That’s because racism has been a part of our country’s culture from the very beginning—more on this later. Folks on this floor may say things like, “I don’t see color, I just see human” or “Racism isn’t a problem anymore, because Dr. King fixed all of that in the sixties.” Crazy, right? If Dr. King fixed everything in the sixties, we wouldn’t still be having these conversations today.
I know that’s a lot to take in, but perhaps one of those descriptions might fit you or someone you know. If your answer is “yes” or “maybe” or “I’m not sure,” just relax and take a deep breath, because I got you. You don’t have to stay here. Just keep reading.
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Let’s take a pause—are you uncomfortable yet? 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—I endured years and years of grueling football practices, many of them under a scorching Texas sun, before I made it to the NFL. I suffered through twenty-six months of braces, power bands included, to get my million-dollar smile (minus a few cents; I wasn’t very disciplined). Most of our major accomplishments are accompanied by some form of discomfort. If we truly want to cure this four-hundred-year American virus, which has been infecting this country since the first stolen Africans landed in Jamestown in 1619, then we all are going to have to buckle in.
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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, a time when Jim Crow laws, formal and informal, still ravaged the country and he had strong reason to criticize America for not fulfilling its promise to all of its citizens. And almost thirty years later, in 1965, when civil rights leader and future senator John Lewis, then just a college student, led over five hundred marchers in Selma, Alabama, to protest segregation, white people were still unwilling to make America what it could be. Instead, the marchers were greeted on the other side of the bridge with tear gas and angry police officers who beat them with clubs.
Even fifty-six years after Langston Hughes published his poem, the version of America he was looking for still hadn’t arrived. By the time of the 1992 Los Angeles uprising, when people took to the streets in protest after four police officers were cleared of all charges after brutally beating an unarmed black man named Rodney King for fifteen minutes (sound familiar?), scores of white people were still resistant to forging a version of America that made good on its founding principles. In 2016, when NFL player Colin Kaepernick, and later others, started kneeling during the playing of the national anthem to protest police brutality, white America showed that they were dramatically divided on accepting how far America still has to go. Now it’s 2021, the beginning of a new decade: over eight decades after Hughes’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, little kids, adults, everybody—to achieve the dream. You are going to have to learn how to move beyond being not racist, or “seeing everybody equally,” to being anti-racist (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 might be ready to see the America that Langston Hughes challenged us all to will into existence. Huddle up, my young friends. It starts with an uncomfortable conversation.
I don’t proclaim to have all the answers, but I do pledge to share what I’ve learned in order to help you figure some things out about whiteness and blackness.
Thank you in advance for listening, sharing, and believing. Let’s change the world—together.
Copyright © 2021 by Emmanuel Acho