For a having titled his book Uncomfortable Conversations with a Black Man, author Emmanuel Acho seems to be doing his best to not make white people feel threatened by the topics in this book. Then again, maybe I’m just out of touch with the most racist members of our society (I can only hope).
In his book, the former NFL football player and son of Nigerian parents addresses topics about race and equality that many white people have been wondering about. His original idea for a title was Questions White People Have and, in fact, each chapter starts with a question he has received from a white person (either a friend, or a fan, or a stranger who has contacted him by email). These questions range from “How can I be an ally?” to “Why can’t I use the ‘n’ word?”
While I’m happy to report that not too much in this book made me truly uncomfortable (other than occasional shock at white person behavior; like, WTF, people actually go up to black women and just want to touch their hair?), it does a good job of laying out information in preparation for discussions about race. In a couple of instances, I thought to myself, “Well, that’s a stretch,” and then I knew that maybe I should stop and think about those passages a little bit more, because maybe that’s where I have a blind spot. (Case in point, never in my life have I thought of slavery when I heard the term “plantation shutters.” Like, that’s just what those wooden slat type window treatments are called. I’m happy to call them something else, but I’m not gonna lie: I like my wooden slat window coverings.)
Now I know full well that many people who don’t seem overtly racist are in denial about things like white privilege, and it’s helpful that Acho has provided some real-life context around this: “For many white people, white privilege is the power of feeling normal. It’s the silent reinforcement of being able to walk into a store and see its main displays show products that cater to you. It’s the ability to turn on the TV and see people who look like you represented in all walks of life. . . .its talking the way your local news anchor talks, the way the authorities say is ‘standard’ or ‘proper.’ It’s something as simple as having a Band-Aid, or a foundation color, match your skin.” Many white people are in denial about white privilege because it’s simply invisible to them. It’s standard. It’s normal life.
Acho also delves into history, not just the history of slavery and civil rights in America, but more recent history and laws. In his chapter on crime and black imprisonment, he references President Clinton’s 1994 crime bill which implemented the “three strikes” mandatory life sentence for repeat offenders. In a speech supporting her husband’s anti-crime agenda, Hillary Clinton alluded to the superpredators that law-abiding citizens came to fear: “We need to take these people on. They are often connected to big drug cartels. They are not just gangs of kids anymore. They are often the kinds of kids that are called superpredators. No conscience. No empathy. We can talk about why they ended up that way, but first we have to bring them to heel.” Damn, when you consider that those are the words of 2016’s least racist presidential candidate, you can understand what black people are fighting against.
I wish this book went deeper into many of the issues it discusses, but I suspect the intent was to make it friendly and not scare off potential allies by making the content too intense or heavy. From the persuasiveness angle, it was probably the right choice; as a reader, I wanted to be challenged more. You also might wonder whether this book is simply “preaching to the choir.” I thought that too, but again, I think the intent is to clarify points about which potential allies might already be wondering, to give them the context to make stronger arguments. I doubt any hard core racists are going to pick up this book and have a change of heart; however, people who are normally sympathetic but silent in the face of racism might be more inclined to speak up.
I’ve oscillated between giving this book 3 or 4 stars. I settled on 4 because, while the content and writing aren’t earth shattering, this book is necessary, clear, and helpful. And, dare I suggest, brave. It’s a quick read, so if you have questions and are interested in being an ally, you really should check it out. More information and videos can also be found on Acho’s Uncomfortable Conversations website,