Uncomfortable Conversations with a Black Man

Review by Mary C. Verstraete, Ph.D., F.SWE, SWE Editorial Board

acho book cover

By Emmanuel Acho

Flatiron Books: An Oprah Book; First Edition (November 2020)

Hardcover, 256 pages

Video series: https://bit.ly/3x8SAyV

In the Spring 2021 issue of SWE Magazine, I wrote an article describing my personal journey to fight against racism. The events of 2020 made it clear to me that racism was alive and well in the United States and in the world. I was determined to not just be non-racist (not racist); I wanted to become anti-racist (actively fighting against racism). The beginning of that process needed to be education; I wanted to learn how I could contribute to creating a better world.

I mentioned in the spring article that I had stumbled upon “Uncomfortable Conversations with a Black Man,” a series of videos made by former NFL player Emmanuel Acho. I found them on Facebook and followed them by liking Acho’s page, but they can also be found on YouTube by searching for the title.

These videos provided me the opportunity to hear directly from a Black man about the issues and questions I as a white person have about the Black experience. The first video is a tremendous introduction to fundamental questions such as: Why are Black people rioting, why does white privilege exist, and why can Black people say the “N-word,” but others can’t? Although this first video was a monologue, subsequent videos include conversations with Matthew McConaughey (“White Allergies”); the “Fixer Upper” family — Chip and Joanna Gaines and their children (“Seeing Color”); NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell discussing the protests of the national anthem; interracial couples; white couples raising Black children; several police officers; and others. The videos are eye-opening as they discuss issues that many of us typically avoid thinking about because they make us uncomfortable.

I highly recommend these videos as a great first step in the education process. Each is only 10 to 20 minutes long, and they include intelligent conversations with diverse groups of people. Many of the topics I have heard discussed before, but not as clearly as in these videos. Given, they seem to be based on Acho’s opinions, but after reading his book — which he wrote following the success of these videos and the many e-mails, tweets, and comments he received — I understand the extensive research he has performed to not only base his opinions on, but also to reinforce facts that he discusses. Any seasoned YouTuber also knows that each video has a spot below for comments. I encourage you to view the videos without reading the comments, to make your own decisions based on the topics discussed without the input from others.

Videos led me to the book

I ordered the book and quickly started reading it to further my education into the Black experience. The first three lines of the book’s introduction reads, “Dear white friends, countrypersons: welcome. Pull up a chair. Consider this book an invitation to the table.” I immediately thought of all of the discussions women engineers have had over the years about being “invited to the table” and quickly saw many similarities between these issues and the issues of being a female engineer. Now, don’t get me wrong; I don’t believe the severity of the issues are the same, but I found it easier to relate to many of the topics discussed in the book due to my experiences as a female engineer, which many times has meant feeling isolated and that no one else in the classroom or setting looked like me.

The introduction provides some background to the book, both Acho’s personal history and journey of self-discovery and the story of how these uncomfortable conversations started. The book is divided into three parts: “You and Me,” “Us and Them,” and “We,” and each part into several chapters based on questions Acho received from individuals.

Significantly, each chapter is then divided into three sections: “Let’s Rewind,” “Let’s Get Uncomfortable,” and “Walk It, Talk It.”

“Let’s Rewind” provides the reader the historical background needed to understand the question asked and its importance to the narrative. Not meant to be a thorough historical review, the first sections provide sufficient information and references to allow familiarity with the subject being discussed. In the second section of each chapter, “Let’s Get Uncomfortable,” Acho further elaborates on the issues contained in the question being asked, providing personal reflections and examples that relate. In my opinion, the third section, “Walk It, Talk It,” is perhaps the best in our journey to become anti-racist, rather than just non-racist. Suggestions are made that allow the reader to take action. How can I, as a white person, combat racism in my day-to-day life? I believe that this is one of the challenges we face, how do we make a difference.

The book also includes a section called “Quick Talks,” which Acho compares to a playbook used by football players and “things to look out for” about the opposing team. These talks include topics I have long wondered about, such as why are Black names so different? One of my long-held biases has to do with “sagging,” the habit of many Black teens/youths (as well as some whites) to wear their pants low slung on their hips with their underwear showing. The book provides a background into where this began and how it became a fad. I chuckled as Acho continued to discuss how the style has been shown to create hip and back problems, since my background in gait analysis has contributed to my bias against this trend.

The book is an easy read, filled with factual information, numerous resources, and references. It makes one reflect on their own feelings but is not a deep and dark read. I found myself often setting the book down midchapter as I sometimes felt the uncomfortableness of what was being discussed. I also found myself laughing frequently, and also getting angry by things I did not know. I plan to reread it in the not-too-distant future, as well as some of the other books referenced, to continue my education.

Overall, I feel much more empowered to make small changes to my life and the lives around me by not only having these discussions with friends and family, but also to take some action to make the world a better place for all who live in it. I also have been motivated to do some soul searching and discover who I truly am and what I truly believe. If these discussions are something you do not feel comfortable initiating, I have discovered that by simply having Acho’s book sitting on my coffee table when people come over allows for an easy transition into “Uncomfortable Conversations.” I’m ready to listen if you want to talk, and willing to discuss our experiences without judgment.

Mary C. Verstraete, Ph.D., F.SWE, is an associate professor emeritus of biomedical engineering at The University of Akron. She is immediate past chair of the SWE editorial board, was named SWE’s Distinguished Engineering Educator in 2007, received the Society’s Outstanding Faculty Advisor Award in 2011, and became a SWE Fellow in 2016.