On this episode of Unlocking Us
In Uncomfortable Conversations With a Black Man, Emmanuel Acho takes on all the questions, large and small, insensitive and taboo, many white Americans are afraid to ask―yet which all Americans need the answers to, now more than ever. With the same open-hearted generosity that has made his video series a phenomenon, Acho explains the vital core of such fraught concepts as white privilege, cultural appropriation, and “reverse racism.” In his own words, he provides a space of compassion and understanding in a discussion that can lack both. He asks only for the reader’s curiosity―but along the way, he will galvanize all of us to join the antiracist fight.
Shifting: The Double Lives of Black Women in America by Ms. Charisse Jones and Kumea Shorter-Gooden
Production by Cadence13
Brené Brown: Hi, everyone. I’m Brené Brown, and this is Unlocking Us. Unlocking Us is now officially only available on Spotify, so welcome to my Spotify home, everyone. I’m excited. They have built a beautiful new hub for the podcast, for our music. I really appreciate the warm welcome from the entire Spotify team. I know for many of you that download on Apple, you’re like, “Oh, does this mean a new app, and is it going to cost money, and is this going to be hard?” You can download the app. You can listen for free. I hope you join me. This community is an important thing to me, and I’m grateful that we are learning together, unlearning together, and walking together, and I appreciate this shift. I know change, especially right now when there’s so much shit going on in the world, is not always easy, so I appreciate you coming to Spotify with me.
BB: I’m so excited about this episode. I am talking with Emmanuel Acho, who is the host and producer of Uncomfortable Conversations With a Black Man. It’s a web series about racism. It’s just basically a human conversation that is open and uncomfortable and urgent and necessary. He has released an incredible book with the same name, Uncomfortable Conversations With a Black Man. This book is a manifesto, a mandate, a playbook. It’s generous. It’s full of love. It’s got incredible stories in it. He takes on just random questions from white folks, just—any question that he hears over and over, he takes it on. He gives us a historical understanding of the question in the answer. He asks us to get uncomfortable with him as he delves into what it means for culture today, and he invites us to walk the talk about our beliefs. It really is just smart, important, and real answers for real questions.
BB: I don’t know if you know this about Emmanuel Acho, but he is also a Fox Sports analyst and former NFL player and former Longhorn from the University of Texas. So you will hear all about his incredible book, Uncomfortable Conversations With a Black Man. We’ll dig into that, and I might even sneak in a question about the ’21–’22 UT football season. What a powerful learning, unlearning, and relearning episode. I’m glad you’re here with us today. Thank you.
BB: In June 2020, Emmanuel Acho launched a video series titled Uncomfortable Conversations With a Black Man, which opened a virtual conversation with white America about race, racism, and educational and economic inequality. The series has been a huge success, debuting with over 22 million views across social media platforms and garnering widespread media coverage. On November 10, Emmanuel’s book, Uncomfortable Conversations With a Black Man, launched. It’s found its way on to the New York Times bestseller list, where it still is comfortably sitting, which just—a book we all need.
BB: Let me tell you a little bit about Emmanuel. After earning his undergraduate degree in sports management in 2012, he was drafted by the Cleveland Browns. He was then traded to the Philadelphia Eagles in 2013, where he spent most of his career. While in the NFL, Emmanuel spent offseasons at the University of Texas in Austin to earn his master’s degree in sports psychology. In 2016, he left the football field and picked up the microphone to begin his broadcast career. In 2018, Emmanuel was promoted within ESPN, where he served as the youngest national football analyst and was named a 2018 Forbes “30 under 30.” In 2017, he and his family’s nonprofit organization, Living Hope Christian Ministries, raised enough funds to build a hospital in rural Nigeria. Let’s jump into this conversation.
BB: So welcome to Unlocking Us, Emmanuel. I’m so excited to have this conversation.
Emmanuel Acho: Brené, it’s been far too long. Like I said before you started recording, we run in the same circles, went to the same university, both bleed burnt orange–ish, so it is great to finally connect with you. I’m honored. I genuinely am honored.
BB: I feel the same way. And I’ve got to tell you—let me tell you what Uncomfortable Conversations With a Black Manhas meant to me. I have a call in to my son’s school that I will help pay for everyone to get this book. I just want to dig in. Can we dig in?
EA: Can I ask a question? I only have one question. That’s it, if I may. When did you first see either the book or an episode and how? I’m always very intrigued, because this was just little old me that recorded something by myself in a room. The next thing you know, I’m getting calls from McConaughey, Oprah, and now, I’m talking to Brené Brown. So how did you first hear about the book or see an episode, if you recall?
BB: I think I followed you and your brother on social.
EA: That’s possible.
BB: Yeah, and I think that’s the first thing I saw was the video in the very early stages, so I’ve been a follower from the beginning, and you know, I said a couple of times, this should be a book. This should be a book.
EA: I love it.
BB: This is a book.
EA: And now it is a book.
BB: Now it’s a book, and it’s not just a book. It’s somewhere between a manifesto, a mandate, and a playbook, and it kind of oozes love and generosity. And it’s really different. You’re really different.
EA: Thank you.
BB: I’m going to ask you my first big question. Tell me your story.
EA: That is a huge question.
BB: It is.
EA: I don’t like answering questions with questions, so I’m going to answer the question of “Tell me your story” in the way in which I interpreted it, rather than making you, like, tell me, “OK, what do you mean by tell me your story.” All right, great. Emmanuel Acho’s story. Emmanuel is the son of Nigerian immigrants. Emmanuel was born and raised in Dallas, Texas, and I went to this affluent all-white private school growing up. It’s called St. Mark’s School of Texas. All-boys school. Had to wear uniform, gray slacks, white button-downs. I was extremely awkward. I was never in class with girls, was never in class with women until I went to the University of Texas, so imagine me going from a classroom of 15 people, all guys wearing uniform, to a class of 300 people, women included. I was awkward. So at St. Mark’s School of Texas, you’re supposed to be, like, a National Merit Scholar. There was a kid in my class who literally scored a perfect on the SAT and the ACT. Meanwhile, there’s, like, little old me. A person in the grade above me won at the National Spelling Bee. His winning word was “pococurante.” His name: Sai Gunturi.
EA: So true story, I remember all of this. And so now there’s me at the school with a bunch of super geniuses, but I was 6’2″, 240 pounds, so I was like, “You know what? I guess I’ll play football.” Interesting thing, I’ve realized and then didn’t realize the difference between color and culture. You’ll understand the tie here in a second. See, I’m Black by skin color, but cultured, I was Nigerian. I grew up eating rice and stew, grew up eating goat meat, grew up eating different type of rice dishes. Black by skin color, but Nigerian by culture. Then, remember, I went to a predominantly white school, so I was white by culture. I had a huge identity crisis, because in middle school, I would often hear, “Emmanuel, you’re not even Black,” or, “Emmanuel, you don’t talk like you’re Black,” or, Brené, my favorite, “Emmanuel, you’re like an Oreo, black on the outside, white on the inside.”
EA: Because I guess I sounded too educated to be what my white colleagues perceived as Black, and so I was like, “Maybe I’m not that Black, I guess. I mean, my skin is pretty dark, but I don’t know, they’re telling me I’m not Black. Maybe I’m not Black.” So now I go to the University of Texas and am immersed in Black culture because I’m playing on the football team. This is back when Texas was good, by the way. Now let’s hope that they’re good again soon. I’m in Texas, immersed, fully immersed in Black culture. And it was weird, Brené, because I get there and I’m like, “You know, these are my people.” It was kind of like this awakening moment. Play at the University of Texas; get my undergrad degree in sports management; go to the NFL; drafted to the Cleveland Browns; get my graduate degree—my master’s degree while in the NFL in sports psychology, still at the University of Texas—leave the NFL after four years and end up hosting my own show, Fox Speak for Yourself; four years later, which is last year, write a book, Uncomfortable Conversations With a Black Man; and now I’m talking to Brené Brown. The end.
BB: OK, I want to unpack some of this. So when you were at St. Mark’s, did you have to do a lot of shifting? Were your parents strict, conservative?
EA: Golly. Do you know Nigerians, Brené?
BB: I do.
EA: You must be a doctor. You must be a lawyer. You must be an engineer.Like, you must be a doctor, lawyer, engineer. There is no other profession. My parents, it’s like, “You can’t date until you get married.” Like strict is an understatement. I don’t even know curfew. There’s no curfew because you’re not allowed to leave. What do you mean, leave? You don’t need a curfew if you don’t leave the house. Oh, man, my parents were extremely strict. My dad had his doctorate in psychology and is a marital counselor while also being a pastor, and my mom has her doctorate in nurse practitioning, so education was huge in our household. So I grew up in an extremely strict household. Now, to your point and question of shifting, the other term that people use is “code-switching,” right? Acting one way to somebody, acting another way to another. I didn’t really code-switch when I was younger, because I more so gravitated to my environment, right? Again, I was Black, but I was white-cultured, and so I really just acted very white-cultured.
EA: I hate, Brené, when people say, “Oh, he’s Black but he acts white,” because what’s that mean? Or, “Oh, he’s white, but he acts Black,” because what’s that mean? Let’s break down what you’re trying to say. They act white-cultured. So I really acted very white-cultured, and the only time I had to switch is when I was in my Nigerian environments in which my Nigerian culture would come out, but I do way more code-switching as an adult than I ever did as a youth.
BB: Wow. There’s a wonderful book called Shifting, and it’s about Black women in America and how exhausting it is to constantly be assessing your environment, adapting to the environment, and then the systemic racism that underlies all of the need for code-switching and shifting. So when I was reading about you growing up, I thought, “Man, you are like trilingual.” Like, you really moved in and out. Were your parents—what role did religion play in your family growing up?
EA: Everything. I think—well, first off, the reason I started my Uncomfortable Conversations With a Black Man series—I think the reason it resonates and permeates is because I understand—Brené, we have to do a better job collectively of speaking truth with grace and with love. And I understood that based upon my relationship with Jesus growing up in the church. Brené, if we only speak true without any grace or love, it’s honest, but it’s so harsh it can’t be digested. It’s like having a meal with too much salt on it. It’s just too harsh. If you only speak with love and grace but no truth, then it’s superfluous. It’s almost like meaningless nothings. Like, yeah, that sounded sweet, but there’s no depth to it.
EA: We have to—and I realize, just based on my own experience—and I believe that your experience is your expertise—based on my experience growing up in the church is trying to figure out how to speak with truth and grace, but having the omnipresent and ever-present love always abiding at all times. So that’s really the role I would say my faith played. I don’t really love religion. I don’t love that concept of religion, because we’ve taken religion in America and made it mean so many things. For me, it’s all about relationship. Like, what is your relationship with God? What is your relationship with Christ? Who do you call God? Who is God to you? Because as soon as you start talking about religion, that gets really weird based upon the history of Europe and religion in Europe, the history of America and religion in America. For me it’s all relationship-based.
BB: Tell me about arriving in Austin, at UT. Where did you live? Did you live in the dorm with the players?
EA: So my brother is one year older. For those listening and who will listen, my brother Sam Acho he was one year older than me, also went to St. Mark’s, also went to Texas, went to the NFL one year before me. So when I got to Texas, he had already laid a blueprint. I lived in the dorm for one year until he moved off as a junior into off-campus housing, and so Mack Brown, the head coach at the time, College Football Hall of Fame, he kind of pardoned the two-year rule so I could go live with my brother. But Texas was an eye-opener. I mean, remember, I didn’t go out in high school. I went to an all-boys school. And so I’m on campus, now, like, “Wait a second. They have long hair. Wait a second. These classrooms are gigantic.” It was a crazy, eye-opening experience for me, but I adjusted and adapted quickly.
BB: Did your brother look after you?
EA: Definitely, definitely, but more than looking after me with words, he looked after me with actions, and so he—I believe that your action speaks so loud I can’t hear what you’re telling me, and so he won the Academic Heisman. Smartest player in college football, double major at McCombs business school, which is held in high esteem, again for those listening. Drafted in the fourth round, all while maintaining, like, a 3.6 GPA. So he set the bar so high that even if I got close to the bar, I would end up in good territory, and so that’s really how he looked after me indirectly.
BB: By example. That’s beautiful. Tell me the birth story of Uncomfortable Conversations With a Black Man.
EA: The question of the hour.
BB: Tell me how you breathed life into this. Tell me where it came from.
EA: Because it is you, I will give you all the hidden details that I rarely express and I didn’t even express in my first book, but one day I will probably share. So let’s go back to the end of May 2020. I, a Black man, have just seen someone who looks like me, George Floyd, a Black man, be murdered by police, and so, Brené, I was heartbroken. I was devastated. I was in utter dismay. I’m walking around my house, true story, in Austin, Texas, and I’m like, “I don’t know what to do. I don’t know how to feel. Should I cry? Should I scream? Should I sleep?” I don’t know what to do, but, Brené, the sports in me has taught me, “Emmanuel, don’t complain about a problem unless you’re going to submit a solution.”
EA: See, Brené, if I realize after looking in the mirror, “Oh, I don’t like my physique,” well, guess what? I’m going to go work out. Because I’m not going to complain about a problem unless I can figure out a solution. So I said—this is what I’m going to do, Brené Brown. I realized the disconnect in our society is there’s a language barrier, and how did I realize that? Because I grew up with all white people, and then I spent my adulthood with predominantly Black people, and although we all speak English in America, that English is translated differently based upon the culture you grew up in.
EA: After George Floyd was murdered, I go to my white friends’ house—Brogan, Russell, Brandon, Ashley, two couples that live next door to each other. Before walking into their house, I have to gather myself. “Whoosah,” I said, because I was very upset. I was very angry. I walked in. They’re, like, “Emmanuel, what’s going on?” I said, “Sit down. We’ve got to talk.” They said, “Are you OK? I said, “No, I’m not. Why do white people, police officers, why do they still feel as though Black people are threats, even if they’re not threatening in the moment?” They’re like, “What do you mean?” We started talking about George Floyd. They said, “Well, Emmanuel, what’s a solution?” I said this, Brené, I said, “We have to expose my white brothers and sisters to more Black people. Proximity breeds care. Distance breeds fear. We have to expose my white brothers and sisters to more Black people.”
EA: My white friend, he said this, dear friend of mine, I’ve known him for 10 years. He said, “Well, Emmanuel, how?” He’s a religious man. I said, “You can go to Black church.” This is when I realized I had to have conversations, because his response, Brené, he said, “I thought Black church was your thing.” I said, “This is it.” Because this is a white friend of mine, who I’ve known for 10 years—we’ve gone to church together, we’ve gone to church separate locations, and he didn’t realize the jurisdictions or lack thereof of Black spaces. So I said, “We’ve got to have conversations.” I said, “Black church isn’t my thing. I went to a church in Austin, a predominantly white church called Austin Stone.” I said, “I go to white church all the time.” He said, “That’s not white church. That’s just church.”
EA: Brené, I said this. I said, “To you, it’s not white church, because you’re white. See, to you, America isn’t white, because you’re white. So when you walk outside, everything you see typically reflects you back to you, but when I walk to a restaurant, a nice restaurant, a five-star steakhouse, I’ll look around trying to find other Black people just to be like, “Man, I’m glad you made it too.” When I walk in the church, I’ll look around for the Black people, just to be like, “It’s good to see you here. I wonder what brought you.”
EA: So after that, Brené, I said, OK, I got to have a conversation because there’s a language disconnect. I said this: I’m going to get three white people together, three black people together, we’re going to sit around a table. We’re going to have a fish bowl that’s going to have questions in them. The white people are going to pull out the question, read it, and let the Black people and the white people discuss. Problem, Brené, we’re in the middle of a pandemic and you can’t get people together.
EA: And so my friends were like, “Hey, I love the idea, but I’m in Dallas, I’m in Miami, I’m in Austin, I can’t travel.” I said, “OK, I’ll do it myself.” This is where things get interesting. Uncomfortable Conversations With a Black Man, that is a title. It is not “Uncomfortable Monologue With a Black Man.” The first episode was never to be recorded by myself. I called a sweet friend, she was going to drive down from Dallas to Austin to record it with me. She did drive down, three hours from Dallas to Austin, Interstate 35, straight shot to record it with me. We rehearsed it for 24 hours. We went and we got Thai food. We rehearsed it in front of her mother, who’s a sweet history teacher, but over the course of the night, she had a change of heart and she just realized, you know what, maybe she shouldn’t do it.
EA: So I wake up the next day, an hour, two minutes, Brené, before I’m supposed to be in studio, 11 a.m. on Sunday—it’s now 9:58. And she has tears in her eyes. “Emmanuel, I can’t do it. It’s not right. I just—they don’t want to see me. They want to see you.” I’m pleading with her like, “No, no, no, no, no, I haven’t rehearsed this by myself. I desperately need you, just—we don’t even need to dress up, no makeup. I need you.” “It’s not right, it’s not right.” I said, “OK, I’ll do it by myself.” That’s why in episode number one, I ask the question and then I answer the question because I was never supposed to ask the question.
EA: Last little tidbit, which I don’t tell often, is I’m walking into the door at 10:48 a.m.—remember, call time was 11 a.m. for me to record this. I get a text on my phone. With my left hand I check my text. With my right hand I open the door. It was a friend of mine, a Black friend of mine. She says, “Emmanuel, I really don’t like this idea that you’re going to do. White people didn’t educate Black people as to how to assimilate into white culture. Why do we need to educate white people how to assimilate into our culture?” I simply responded, “I’m going to go as God leads.” I’m inside this all-white room with my best friend and Olympic gold medalist—her name is Morolake—and a videographer, a wedding videographer, people. This was not like some high-definition project.
EA: This is like wedding videographer. It is three of us. Videographer, his wife, my best friend, Olympic gold medalist. True story, Brené Brown. I put my head down. I count down from three. I say three, two, and at one, I open up my eyes. I stare into the lens of the camera, and for 9 minutes 27 seconds, we do not cut the camera. It was not edited. It was not fixed. It was not critiqued. It was nothing. After that, I post the video the next day, and within five days, we have 27 million views, and Uncomfortable Conversations With a Black Man began.
BB: Wow. I want to ask you about a theme that I saw throughout the book that starts with this story, actually, a story of sometimes aloneness and isolation in this work, and then a story of resilience in pursuing anyway, despite rising and walking alone sometimes when you have to. Have you had that experience?
EA: Absolutely. Now that will be my next book, which has not been written yet, but yes. And in my mind, I am very aware of two concepts. One concept is a concept of even when everybody else kind of leaves you, you got to go anyway. Like if you are convicted about a message, if you’re convicted about a word, if you’re convicted about a movement or a moment, go with your conviction. You have to understand: After my friend had her change of heart overnight, I was scared. I did not eat breakfast that morning because I was so nervous. She had a change of heart. I texted another one of my white friends. I said, “Hey, can you please come do this with me? I just need you to sit here and ask questions.” He’s like, “My 2-year-old daughter is teething. I can’t do it.” I’m like, “Oh, I got to do it myself.”
EA: Now, Brené, after I still have the confidence to move past that, I’m walking into the building, and now my Black friend texts me out of the blue. Hadn’t talked to her in a week, since I originally told her of the idea, and says, “Hey, I don’t think you should do it.” Now I’m getting deterred every which way, but I said, “You know what, I have to do it. This isn’t a matter of me. This is bigger than me. This moment is bigger than me. These words are bigger than Emmanuel Acho.” There is a language barrier. Our problem is communication and lack thereof and lack of understanding, and so I had to speak.
BB: Yeah, bigger than you.
BB: All right, you take on some really tough questions in this book. You talk a lot about the power of language. You take on questions like, Do we use the term “Black” or “African American”? Implicit bias, white privilege, cultural appropriation, angry Black men, the n-word, the n-word in music, and why do I have to not say it when my Black friend’s saying it and the Black artist is singing it, systemic racism, reverse racism, which is such a weird concept. I want to talk to you about a couple of these topics, but before we jump in, what has been the most difficult thing about hearing the questions? Has it been painful and hard?
EA: The most difficult and the most painful—I was doing a show with our mutual friend Oprah for an Oprah Conversation, for Apple TV, and I’m sitting there and I’m answering questions from 10 different people, just rapid-fire, non-rehearsed. I don’t know what they’re going to ask. I don’t have a prepped answer. One person chose not to be on camera, Brené, because of the question they were going to ask.
BB: Red flag.
EA: Red flag already. They said, “Emmanuel, the Holocaust was both more recent and more deadly than slavery, but Jewish people have managed to recover. How come Black people can’t recover?”
EA: And mind you, I’m sitting there—this is the second time I’m now talking to Oprah, because the first time was via FaceTime—this is now kind of a live format, and I have to kind of guard my reaction, because I was like, what in the world? That was difficult to hear because of the ignorance that was interwoven in that question. I think that’s a very ignorant question. Now, I was glad it was asked, because the only way we can get past our ignorance—the only way we can get past our naïvety—is if we have these conversations, as uncomfortable as they may be. And so I submitted my answer in very simply—it is easier to judge someone based off their skin color than it is to judge someone based off of a belief, right?
EA: And now obviously, the Holocaust was way more complicated than just a belief system. There was the whole blond hair, blue eyes, being extremely supreme, etcetera. But in America, in 2021, you can look at somebody just off their skin color from 100 yards away and like, “Oh, they’re Black,” and judge them before you ever know what it is that they believe or what it is that they stand for, before you ever know their sexual orientation, before you ever know anything else, and so we still judge based off the easiest thing that is to judge, which is skin color. Simple reply. But that was the toughest thing that I’ve had to hear up until this point.
BB: You know, it’s painful too, about that question for me, is how ultimately comparative suffering only benefits white supremacy. Do you always keep your cool?
BB: No, really. Do you really? Like you never lose your stuff? Like you never go—
EA: No, I don’t have that luxury. You see, this is what’s funny, and I’m glad you asked that question so genuinely. Brené, I’m 6’2″, 240 pounds, and I’m Black. I don’t have the luxury of getting mad, you know what I mean? I was telling people the other day, I said, when I’m cold walking outside, Brené, I don’t have the luxury of putting my hood on, because to be a Black man wearing a hood is to be perceived as a threat. George Zimmerman and Trayvon Martin—you remember Zimmerman, Trayvon Martin. Society has told me that I don’t necessarily have certain luxuries that other people have, and so I wrote a whole chapter, which you’ve already talked about, “The Mythical Me: The Angry Black Man.” I don’t have the luxury of getting upset even when I’m mad, because it’s what is called the Pygmalion effect, and I studied this in psychology. All it is is self-fulfilling prophecy, Brené.
EA: White person looks at Emmanuel Acho, 6’2″, 240-pound Black man. So white person believes that Emmanuel Acho is going to be angry, so Emmanuel Acho now acts in a manner that can be perceived as angry. White person looks at Emmanuel, who she already believed to be angry, and says, “See, I told you so,” and the process is cyclical. That’s Pygmalion effect, self-fulfilling prophecy. So I don’t have the luxury of getting mad, and so I just take a beat, pause, smile, and answer the question.
BB: Yeah, because we’re walking down Quad in Austin, right? And you’re coming toward me and you’re in a great mood. You’re walking to get some food somewhere, and I move over. I clutch my purse. I pull my daughter in a little bit closer to me. You respond with hurt. That shows up, and then I say, look, see, hostile.
EA: Exactly, exactly, and—because that’s so ingrained in us. Even now, Brené, I’ll be very honest. First time saying this, COVID has been tough for a few reasons, because I might try to work out outside before L.A. had crazy restrictions, and oftentimes, one, the world is just more predominantly white, particularly where I live, so I’m seeing more white people. They’ll run in different directions or run off the curb or run off the grass, and while it may be because, you know, “Well, he’s coming towards me,” even though I was 6 feet away, a part of me still feels the hurt of “I am Black, and so they’re moving because you’re a threat, not because of COVID, but just because of fear.”
EA: So because the way in which my brain has been wired based upon my experience, I’ve caught myself three to four times over the last few months just being like—I’ll be very honest with you. I want to turn around and ask, “Hey, why did you do that?” I can’t, but I genuinely want to turn around and ask and be like, “Look, I was 8 feet away from you. Why did you beeline left? Is it because of COVID or is it—?” Anyway, I’m not going to go there, but it’s very hard. It can be hard to exist at times as a Black individual, regardless of money, regardless of fame, because your Blackness will trump that.
BB: Yeah, you know, you say you don’t have the luxury. And I think that we’ll define that luxury as humanity—like what is the cost of denying people humanity? That’s humanity. And I think it is, I’m sure, compounded by the fact that you’re a big guy.
EA: Exactly right.
BB: First of all, I have to say your format of you take a question, then you say, “Let’s rewind,” and you look at history. You say, “Let’s get uncomfortable.” You talk real talk around what’s happening there and then talk it, walk it, put it into action. Man, I love this format. History teachers must be like, “Thank you.” Like, you give us history. So I want to talk about, and I’ll tell you why in a minute, but let’s start here. Your chapter on implicit bias. Here’s my well-loved and -worn book. This was a question that came in from Patrick. “What are some of the best ways to find and get rid of your implicit bias?” The chapter is called “What Do You See When You See Me?” Very much what we were just talking about, right, and you start with a story about Google’s rollout of its Photos app program.
EA: How crazy is that, by the way?
BB: Tell us the story.
EA: I believe it was 2015. Google rolled out this photo application, and it would group individuals based upon—essentially like a face scan. But the problem was, their photo application was mislabeling Black people as gorillas. And so they hire the engineers and they went to try to search the functioning and the programming of the system, but they couldn’t figure out why it kept mislabeling Black people as gorillas, so they removed the gorilla label altogether. And that just made me wonder, Brené, like, Wait, why didn’t it label white people as panda bears, right? How come only Black people are dealing with that kind of thing? And it’s just based upon programming bias, and it’s the society we live in, but that’s just so mind-blowing, that there was literally a photo application misidentifying Black people as gorillas.
BB: Yeah, the reason why I want to ask you about this, about implicit bias, because I work in a lot of companies, Fortune 100 companies doing leadership work, and what I hear over and over is really scaring me. What I’m hearing is, “Data don’t lie, people lie, and algorithms are the answer to anti-racism.” But I keep saying, “But people program algorithms.”
BB: Yeah, and if we don’t recognize the implicit bias in the developers and the programmers of the algorithm, the only thing the algorithm will do is scale racism and gender and everything else, like—
EA: Bias and racism aren’t scientific and they’re not mathematical, and so we can’t get to a sum of zero based on some sort of calculation, because racism and bias are typically emotional, and that’s the issue and the problem at hand. The other thing that was so baffling to me—it wasn’t until somebody shared a section of my book—that my white friends didn’t realize Band-Aids, Band-Aids match white flesh. Band-Aids don’t match my flesh, and so the world we live in is just predicated upon bias, if you will. And it’s not because a Band-Aid is racist. It’s not because a Band-Aid is sexist. It’s not because a Band-Aid has a—but who created and why did they create and who did they create it for? That’s the kicker. Who is this created for? That’s why companies struggle. That’s why marketing campaigns, Brené, struggle. That’s why social media managers struggle, because they’re putting out a tweet, but who are they putting out the tweet for and what lens is this campaign being created through? Who are these Band-Aids created with mind of? This Google photo application, who was in mind when it was being created? And that’s got to be the issue here.
BB: Who are we serving?
BB: I love—you start the chapters not only with these amazing chapter titles, but also with quotes, and I think it’s Nathan Rutstein: “Prejudice is an emotional commitment to ignorance.” Yikes. Man, that’s so good. OK, this is a question from Tracy. “My question is about the term ‘reverse racism.’ It seems to me that it’s an oxymoron. Isn’t racism just racism, whether it’s white people hating Black people, Black people hating Latinos, Latinos hating Asians, Asians hating white people? Hate based on skin color or nationality, it’s just hate. Isn’t that racism?” Like this whole idea of reverse racism, like tell us how you walk folks through this.
EA: Well, first off, I have to say and submit that reverse racism is not real. Racism is racism. Now, individuals can be racist. But in order for groups at large, for racism to exist amongst groups at large, I submit that there are three primary components: power, privilege, and prejudice. Power, privilege, and prejudice. And in America, Black people collectively, they do not have all three. Black people can for sure be prejudiced, no doubt about it. Some Black people can definitely have privilege, but their privilege is not because they are Black. I’m sure we will get to that later. But collectively Black people have no power in this country, not collectively. An individual Black person may have some power, but the group at large, Black people, don’t have power, privilege, and prejudice.
EA: The example I submit in my book—when I was playing in the NFL for the Philadelphia Eagles, there was a huge 6’4″, 300-pound defensive lineman, and for whatever reason, he would bully me. He’d make fun of me, Brené, for this. He’d make fun of me for that. Then one day after practice, I just looked at him and I said, “You’re the worst teammate in the history of teammates.” And he just looked at me and he shut up. And think how silly it would be to say, “Well, Emmanuel, that’s being a reverse bully.” In the same manner, reverse racism just doesn’t exist.
EA: People say, “Well, how come Black people get a Black History Month while white people don’t get a White History Month.” Every month is white history month. Because in America, we have always celebrated white culture, white accomplishments, white things, and Black people, we’ve never truly esteemed Black accomplishments. Barack Obama was a president. The reason he was the first Black president was because we ain’t never had no Black presidents. Kamala Harris is a vice president. The reason she is the first Black woman, first woman, first Black person to be vice president is because we ain’t never had no Black vice presidents. And so we have to shine a light on our firsts, because this country has never done so.
BB: Can I tell you a story from UT that I think just—yeah, so I took a course—I wonder if you took this course. I took a course from Dr. Ruth McRoy. She taught a class called the Black Family, and I couldn’t wait take this course, and she—probably the number one expert in the world on trans-racial adoption, open versus closed adoption. I end up doing research for her for a semester. That’s where I fell in love with qualitative research. Well, I walk into this classroom and it’s probably 90% Black students taking this class on the Black family, and I’m there and I see a couple of my social work friends and I go sit with them. One’s black, one’s Latina, and we’re talking, and then here comes Ruth McRoy. She’s got a suit on. She’s just like—everyone knows about her.
BB: And 10 minutes after the class starts, this white student comes in—“Excuse me, excuse me”— walks right in front of Dr. McRoy while she’s talking, and then finds a seat right next to me, and I’m like, “Oh God, don’t sit here.” Do you know what I mean? Just like, “No, no, no, don’t sit here.” And Dr. McRoy’s like going over the syllabus, and this woman raises her hand and she says, “I’ve got a question. Is this class racist just based on its existence?” And I just remember Dr. McRoy was like, “Say more.” And she said, “Well, what if I offered a class at UT called the White Family?” And Dr. McRoy said, “Interesting. Well, I’ll tell you, there’s 64 classes on the family at the University of Texas at Austin. Unless it says ‘Black’ in the title, it’s about the white family.”
BB: I was like, and there you have it. It’s the privilege of invisibility. And I remember going home that night, and remember when we used to get—well, I’m older than you, by a ton, but we used to get a big printout of all the courses, and I remember going through that week of all the courses and it’s like, of course, all the research in these family courses are going to be done on white families. Of course all the studies are going to be about white families. It’s such a powerful thing to know that when the descriptor is missing, it defaults to the majority culture.
BB: If you and I were doing a qualitative research study together on these questions, what would be the theme or pattern that we would be able to identify? What would we see?
EA: The primary thing that we would see is the complication or confusion around white privilege. We would see that a ton.
BB: Say more about that.
EA: There is such a visceral response to that word “privilege,” because when people hear “privilege,” they assume that they didn’t work for what they got, and people assume to hear “white privilege” is to hear that, well, your life hasn’t been hard, and to that I very much so submit that white privilege isn’t saying your life hasn’t been hard. It’s just saying your skin color hasn’t contributed to the difficulty of your life. As a white person, surely your life has been hard, because life is hard, but your whiteness isn’t what has made your life any more difficult. Whereas as a Black person, your Blackness has contributed to that difficulty.
EA: I offer this example, Brené. I recently received a celebrity card to go to a restaurant, and whenever you go to this restaurant, because of your celebrity card, you can eat there for free. It’s amazing. Order whatever you want—you swipe the card and you eat it for free.
BB: That’s amazing.
EA: It’s great. It’s fantastic. Because of my celebrity privilege, I have this card. Because all privilege is is immunity from certain punishment or special access granted to certain things. So because of my celebrity privilege, I have a card that grants me access to eat here for free. I don’t feel guilty about being a celebrity in someone’s eyes. The issue is, what do I do with that privilege? Brené, on the back of the celebrity card, in fine print, it says, “You are allowed to throw a party for up to 100 people once a year with this card.” So what I did, I threw it for the homeless. I would hit up a Salvation Army shelter, or in Philadelphia, I’d throw it for the homeless.
EA: Now, that’s not to toot my own horn. That’s to say this: To those that have privilege, my white brothers and sisters, don’t feel guilty about being white. That is dumb. So I say, use your privilege for the benefit of those that don’t have it, that don’t have the same privilege. That’s what I do with mine. And so when we talk about that through line of the questions of white privilege and privilege, I say, “Look, I have celebrity privilege at times. You can have CEO privilege. You can have able-bodied privilege.” When I was hurt playing in the NFL, I had to figure out, OK, is there going to be an elevator? Is there going to be an escalator? Are there going to be stairs? Is there a ramp? Because I didn’t have able-bodied privilege at that time.
EA: So, so many of us have able-bodied privilege as well. We don’t have to calculate if there are going to be a stairs versus a ramp, an elevator versus an escalator. We just live our lives, and that is the biggest thing on and about white privilege, and I so desperately want people to understand, don’t feel guilty. Do something with it.
BB: First of all, can I just say an amen? I mean, just so good and so clear. Like, your whole book is good and clear. Wow, does shame and guilt get in the way of good work, yes or no? Like the shame people feel about privilege gets in the way actually of people owning it and doing something productive with it.
EA: Correct. And we have to realize shame and guilt typically lead to denial. And I’ve said this before. I’ll say it again: Denial—I use the acronym, denial spelled D-E-N-I-A-L, Don’t Even Know I Am Lying, right? And so many people don’t know they’re lying.
BB: That is so good. Oh, my God, wait, I’ve been sober for 25 years, and no one said that in one of the 12-step rooms? Wait, you’ve got to, I mean, come on, you like—dang, this is a moment, and a learning moment. But say it again.
EA: Denial, D-E-N-I-A-L, Don’t Even Know—obviously, play on words there—I Am Lying. Don’t Even Know I Am Lying. And you can’t fix a problem, Brené, you don’t know exists. That’s what people have to realize. You can’t fix a problem you don’t admit exists. So as long as we stay in denial about our privilege, because of guilt or denial about our privilege, because of shame, we can’t fix the problem, and so that’s why I’ve always said, “Guilt doesn’t cause you to change. Love does.” Do your actions out of love, not out of guilt. I fed the homeless out of love. I didn’t feed the homeless like, “Oh, man, I get another free restaurant. I get another free meal. I hate this.” No, it was like, “You know what, I’ve been blessed. Let me be a blessing.”
BB: My team and I have read through the book a couple of times. Have you been on the receiving end of any criticism from Black colleagues or Black friends around, “Look, we don’t need to take responsibility for this teaching. This is not our emotional labor.” Like—almost the text, like the text you received walking in that first day.
EA: If you want to avoid criticism, you have to say nothing, do nothing, and be nothing.
EA: Obviously, like you, over the course of your career, I have received tons, not tons, but a fair amount of criticism. My criticism, though, is primarily, “Emmanuel, stop pandering to white people. These white people don’t care about you. These white people will never care about us. Stop begging white people for help.” My first episode, Brené, I say if white people are the problem, white people must be a part of the solution. “Stop begging white people for help. You sound pathetic, begging a white man for help.” This, that, and the third.
EA: And to that I’m just like, “Look, if somebody has their foot on your neck, you got to find a way to get their foot off your neck, so you going to ask them to? You can try to resort to violence, but one way or another, you have to find a way to get their foot off of your neck.” I realize that my white brothers’ and sisters’ hearts are now being open. They’re being soft and to receive—to want to change, to want to be. No white person alive right now owns slaves, hopefully. So if that’s the case, that there are some white people that may be in the lineage of slavery and things like that, but there also might be some white people that are ignorant. Brené, let me say this if I may. We have to understand there are degrees of racism in our country like there are degrees of murder. I think I say this in the book. I do not recall, it’s been a lot.
EA: You have first-degree murder that is premeditated, second-degree murder, heat of passion. Then you move down the rungs to involuntary manslaughter. It was not premeditated, but it still leads to death. I submit that so many white people in America right now fall under the rungs of involuntary racism. There’s not premeditated. You don’t own slaves. Rarely we see the crime of passion—George Floyd’s murder—but every day we see involuntary racism. “Emmanuel, you’re so intelligent for a Black man.” “Oh my God, you’re so pretty for a Black girl.” You see the involuntary racism. And that is what we have to do a better job of extinguishing, if you will.
BB: When you’re talking about this, I keep thinking about a conversation I had with Ibram Kendi on the podcast where he said racism just rains down and rains down, and so many white people don’t even know they’re wet. One of the words that came up for my team when we finished reading this was, there is a generosity of spirit in this book. Were you raised like that?
EA: Yeah, my parents did a phenomenal job, I think, and I say it in the acknowledgements, and I forget exactly what I said, but I said, my dad, he taught me how to speak and my mom taught me how to have compassion, and I think it’s that combination. Again, I saw my dad every Sunday stand in front of hundreds and at times thousands of people to deliver a message, but then my mom, I would go home and she taught me how to love, and so I was raised to figure out both how to speak in a manner in which people can understand, but then also how to love. We have to remember, Brené, there’s a book, Malcolm Gladwell, Outliers—I’m sure you’ve read it. I think I got it from Outliers, but maybe not.
EA: And it talks about how some countries are receiver-oriented and some countries are speaker-oriented. And it’s my job, because I believe speaker-oriented—where it’s my job to make sure that Brené Brown understands what Emmanuel Acho is trying to communicate. I’m not going to put the effort on Brené to understand. I’m going to make sure that I say it in a way that she can understand it. And so when I wrote this book, when I have my episodes, every time I speak, I try to do so to cater to the listener or to cater to the reader, because if I speak and you don’t understand, then what was the point of speaking? I spoke in vein. And that’s really how I wrote the book.
BB: It’s interesting, it reminds me of Frederick Douglass and how he thought about it. He was maybe the greatest orator in our country ever, and he talked about the generosity of great speaking to land in the hearts and minds of people, right? I want to read this quote to you. It’s from your book, page 182. Is it weird when people read to you from your book?
EA: Not at all. I haven’t gotten used to it yet.
BB: “True allyship demands that it move from conversation into action. And that action will include risks. This isn’t the 1830s or the 1930s, the 1950s or 1968. But I won’t lie to you and say it’ll be easy. The risks might be something as small as a distant social media friend unfriending you. But it could be something more severe, like ostracism from an intimate friend group, job insecurity, public or private ridicule, friction with loved ones. Know that when you say you are an ally, you are saying that you are willing to risk your white privilege in the name of justice and equality for marginalized voices.”
EA: It’s more powerful when you read it. I should have had you do the audio book. I’m going to make a note of that.
BB: I don’t think so. I just think when you say you’re an ally, you’re saying that you’re willing to risk your privilege, your white privilege, in the name of justice equality for marginalized voices. And that willingness to risk, I guess maybe, would you say is the difference between performative allyship and real allyship?
EA: Yeah, because—Brené, it’s scary. I get it. Again, I grew up with white people. Love my white people like I love my Black people. I love all people. It’s scary, Brené, to put yourself in the front lines of criticism. What do you—like, that’s scary. And when I say you lose your white privilege, if you are now white but marching with a sea of Black people, cops don’t have time to delineate. They about to punish you like they punish everybody else. Whereas if you were white marching with a sea of white people, oh, it’s going to be treated a little bit differently. So you lose that white immunity, and we’ve already said privilege is simply immunity or special access. I get that it’s scary, Brené. Again, I told you, Uncomfortable Conversations was never supposed to be done by myself, so a part of me has to wonder, like I wonder if my friend was a little fearful. It’s scary. That’s a lot of weight.
EA: There’s a lot of judgment, and there’s a lot of people who are going to say, “You’re white. What do you even know about this? Your intentions aren’t even pure. You’re just trying to be like a white savior and the white savior complex.” It’s tough. And here’s the other thing, the last thing I’ll say on this note. We live in a world that judges people by their actions and not their intentions, and so there are so many white people that are well-intended, but they can’t necessarily execute the action in the manner in which they want it to parallel to the intention. And so as a result, they get backlash, even though they were well-intended, and so now my white brothers and sisters are scared to say anything because they don’t want to say the wrong thing. And it’s scary, because you can’t always say the right thing. I don’t always say the right thing and I live in Black shoes. So I do think that’s a big reason why people are scared to get into the fight, because it’s dangerous out there.
BB: It’s such a powerful example of how there is no courage without vulnerability.
EA: That’s good. That’s really good.
BB: The willingness to show up and be seen and be heard when you can’t control the outcome, that’s really the definition of courage. And this is a book—every dang chapter you say, “Let’s get uncomfortable,” and I think that’s what healing is going to require, a big dose of courage and discomfort.
EA: Healing and growth.
EA: And I fervently believe that you don’t grow unless you get uncomfortable. Like greatest things are birthed through discomfort. I’ll mention this, before ever playing in a football game, you got to go through four weeks of camp, training camp, grueling Texas sun with 12 to 15 pounds of gear on and cleats and wet shoulder pads. You go through all that for the reward. A woman goes through no small amount of labor pains to bring forth a child. We have to get uncomfortable to birth great things, but I’ll say this, it’s only uncomfortable until you do it a few times. That’s it. When I first moved to L.A., it was uncomfortable waking up at 5 a.m., trying to be up when everybody else wakes up, until you do it a couple of times. Training camp and practice, it’s uncomfortable until you become more acclimated. These conversations are only uncomfortable until we familiarize ourselves with having them.
BB: Yeah, I always say that when you have them a couple of times, the discomfort doesn’t go away, but it shows up with grace, and grace is the whisper that says, “You can do this. You can get through this. We’ve done this before.”
BB: All right, are ready for some rapid-fire questions?
BB: I’m going to add an extra one because I got a football question for you that’s so important. OK, are you ready?
EA: Let’s do it.
BB: OK, number one. Fill in the blank. Vulnerability is—
BB: Number two, you’re called to be brave, and I mean really brave, but your fear is real. You can feel it in your throat. What’s the very first thing you do?
EA: Pray and breathe.
BB: What is something that people often get wrong about you?
EA: My intelligence.
BB: What is the last TV show that you binged and loved?
EA: Defending Jacob, phenomenal show.
BB: OK. I haven’t seen it. Is it good? Do you recommend it?
EA: Phenomenal. Well, I love that mystery type of stuff. It’s phenomenal.
BB: OK. One your very favorite movies.
EA: Bad Boys II, Oceans 11. I could go on, but I’ll say those.
BB: OK, I know who you are now. I see you. A concert you’ll never forget.
EA: Crazy—and you know what, I got to say two. John Legend, it was intimate, but crazy enough, Taylor Swift.
BB: I love it, both. OK, favorite meal. You can eat anything you want.
EA: Let me go with pad kee mao, Thai food. Yeah.
BB: Yes. OK. What’s on your nightstand?
EA: Currently, my book, and nothing else.
BB: I like it.
EA: A light, a lamp.
EA: I keep it simple.
BB: Yeah. I have two last ones, but I’m going to have to ask you this one. How’s Steve Sark going to do at UT?
EA: He’s hired a phenomenal coaching staff. To be a great head coach, you just have to be a great delegator of responsibility. As a result, it appears he will do well because of the staff he’s hired.
BB: What’s wrong with our offensive line?
EA: It’s hard for Texas to retain quality players on the offensive line because they typically leave early, as we’ve seen in the last four years—two players leaving early—so that’s really what I would say, and hopefully a new O-line coach.
BB: OK, back to the script. OK, a snapshot of an ordinary moment in your life that gives you real joy. Just like a Polaroid picture, a snapshot, what’s in it?
EA: It would be me sitting in front of a grand piano playing and singing.
BB: You play piano?
EA: Yeah, I like that. I taught myself how to play in Texas in San Jacinto, in that dorm there.
BB: I love it. OK, tell me one thing you’re deeply grateful for right now.
EA: Listeners. I’m grateful that people are willing to listen to the words I have to say, regardless really of what I have to say. Everybody is just kind of waiting for me to say something. I’m grateful that people trust me enough to listen.
BB: Beautiful. OK, we ask you for five songs you couldn’t live without. Here’s what you gave us. “Days of Elijah” by Donnie McClurkin; “Imagine Me” by Kirk Franklin; “This Time” by John Legend; “All of Me” by John Legend; and “You Made a Way” by Travis Green. In one sentence, what does this mini-mixtape, this playlist, say about Emmanuel Acho?
EA: It says that Emmanuel Acho loves love because Emmanuel Acho has received the ultimate love.
BB: That demands an amen. Very beautiful.
EA: I’m like there it is, there’s one through line. Emmanuel Acho loves love because he’s received the ultimate love.
BB: Man, very few people could do that that quickly. They give me those sentences that have 14 semi-colons and make it a paragraph. You just nailed it, crushed it. Thank you for being with us on Unlocking Us, and congratulations, your book is just sitting there, found a little comfortable position on the New York Times bestseller list.
EA: It’s crazy. It’s still there.
BB: It’s crazy-good is what it is. It’s crazy-good.
EA: Thank you, thank you, thank you. So good to finally talk to you, Brené.
BB: You too, and I am sure one day I will see you in person. I love it, and I will end with saying, Hook ’em, Horns.
EA: Hook ’em, Horns.
BB: What a man. A generous soul, a straight talker, a courageous conversationalist, of course, a Longhorn. There’s just no denying that this book is important and is making a difference. And I will never forget the anagram on DENIAL: Don’t Even Know I Am Lying. That’s painful and true, as the truth is often painful, I guess. Emmanuel’s book, Uncomfortable Conversations With a Black Man, is available everywhere. He’s Emmanuel Acho, @EmmanuelAcho on Twitter and Instagram. Facebook page is the same, and you can visit www.uncomfortableconvos.com to view all the episodes.
BB: I don’t believe we get to be the people we want to be, the people we need to be, create the world we need and want without hard conversations. And we have to show up. We have to be seen even when we can’t control the outcome. That’s the definition of courage. And I think that’s the definition of this book. Let’s get comfortable. Let’s walk the talk.
BB: Things to remember, church bulletin at the end of the podcast. Just to remember that every episode of Unlocking Us has an episode page on brenebrown.com. All the references, links, notes, you can find there. You can also sign up for our newsletter. We are very careful about how often we send it. You really get it once a month, and it’s got updates, everything that’s coming, everything, kind of highlights what I’ve learned from different podcasts. We spotlight different films and books and movies. It’s fun.
BB: And right now, if you’re interested in on the Dare to Lead podcast, part two of a conversation with Dr. Sarah Lewis. I cannot get enough of this conversation with her. The Dare to Lead podcast is also on Spotify, free to everybody. Thank y’all for giving me your time. Thank you for questions and comments and concerns and feedback. Just grateful to you. Stay awkward, brave, and kind, friends, and I’ll see you next week right here on Spotify.
BB: Unlocking Us is a Spotify original from Parcast. It’s hosted by me, Brené Brown. It’s produced by Max Cutler, Kristen Acevedo, Carleigh Madden, and by Weird Lucy productions and by Cadence 13. Sound design is by Kristen Acevedo and music is by the amazing Carrie Rodriguez and the amazing Gina Chavez.
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