In the “Uncomfortable Conversations with a Black Man” video series, Emmanuel Acho sits down to lead viewers through the tough conversations white folks need to be having, in order to better understand struggles with racism and social injustice. In this first video, he discusses some frequently-asked questions around rioting, privilege, and the pain and hurt that Black Americans are feeling.
“In order to stand with us, and people that look like me, you have to be educated on issues that pertain to me,” he says.
The whole video is well worth a watch—here are just three of the understandings Acho shares to help us increase our empathy so that we can act from deeper understanding and solidarity toward racial justice.
3 Ways to Better Understand Racial Struggle
1. Riots are a last resort
To many, rioting is simply an act of senseless and destructive aggression, and the recent riots in many US cities appear to have come out of nowhere. However, it’s clearer why this has happened when we look at the long history of struggle for equity in the US.
Acho reminds us that “For years, Black people have tried peacefully protesting, going back to 1965 and before with the Selma march.” The riots that broke out in June 2020 were only one facet of this most recent wave of protests. Even after decades of primarily peaceful demonstrations, Black people still face many of the same struggles of violence, poverty, and unequal rights they have always faced in colonial nations around the world. In recognizing this, we can better understand the perspectives of people who feel rioting is the only way to demand change.
Acho illustrates with a story of a time he was biking on a narrow path, and called out to a woman walking on the path ahead of him. “I want to notify her I’m coming, so she can change her course of action.” Though he continued to call out to her, the women didn’t hear Acho’s warnings, and they collided. “My goal was never to hit her, but because she had her headphones in, she didn’t hear me and she didn’t change her course of action.” Similarly, he says, riots are a result of white society’s overall failure to listen to Black voices and help create an equitable society for all. “Now, you see the collision that’s occurred in America,” Acho says.
2. White privilege exists in real, tangible ways
We can see how white privilege works by thinking of it as a race, Acho says. Those with white privilege are empowered to run the race with no impediments, while people have been held back for the first 200 meters. “In America, we’ve simply said, ‘Okay Emmanuel, you’re free to run,’ and acted as though it was a fair race, when in all honesty, Black people were held back for hundreds of years.”
“White privilege is having a head start due to hundreds of years of systematic and systemic racism. It’s having the head start intrinsically built into your life.”
“White privilege is having a head start due to hundreds of years of systematic and systemic racism. It’s having the head start intrinsically built into your life. It’s not saying your life hasn’t been hard, but what it’s saying is your skin color hasn’t contributed to the difficulty in your life.”
Not only has historic racism left Black communities greatly disadvantaged, Acho says, racial prejudice also impacts Black people’s daily lives through white people’s attitudes and beliefs that can endanger Black people. “If I’m on an elevator with a white person, I try to hit the button first and get off the elevator first, because I don’t want them to perceive me as a threat,” Acho says. In this way, white privilege is frequently weaponized against Black people.
3. To understand calls for racial justice, we need to take an honest look at the current reality
An accusation sometimes leveled against anti-racist activists is that Black people care more about white-on-Black crime than Black-on-Black crime. First, Acho explains that research shows high rates of violent crime exist between all racial groups, not only Black people. Further, when the focus is shifted to Black-on-Black violence, it’s unhelpful because it ignores the kind of oppression where white people can truly have an impact by pushing for systemic changes.
“It’s the same issue as saying ‘All Lives Matter’ instead of ‘Black Lives Matter,’” Acho explains. “We understand that all lives matter, but right now, Black people are dying at the hands of white people, and I can’t change that. Only you, my white friends, y’all can change that.”
“If you want to know how can you help, how can you stand with us, how can you stand with me? First, educate yourself, so you know exactly what you’re standing for and why you’re standing.”
Anti-racist work is mindful work. Acho reminds us that understanding leads to empathy and compassion, which ultimately leads to change. In this video series, he offers a safe space to learn answers to common questions he’s heard from white people. “If you want to know, how can you help, how can you stand with us, how can you stand with me? First, educate yourself, so you know exactly what you’re standing for and why you’re standing.”
In this moment, and as we move forward, it’s important to use every tool available to us for becoming effective allies for the fair and nonviolent society we all deserve. In learning more from Black people about their lived experience and knowledge, people with white privilege are asked to face difficult realities. The greater clarity, compassion, and calm that we can learn from a steady mindfulness practice all support us in showing up for this learning process with an open mind and a willingness to grow beyond old ideas. With these, it’s more likely that our actions—not least our conversations—can align with our social values.
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