“Going doooown,” says Emmanuel Acho. “I don’t know my own strength.” Acho, a consensus All-Big-12 linebacker at the University of Texas who played four seasons in the NFL for the Browns and the Eagles, once made a living off intentional violent collisions. In this case, however, the six-two, 240-pound player-turned-sports- caster has inadvertently brushed against his iPad while speaking, knocking it off its reading stand. On that tablet is a different sort of playbook, one aimed at bridging a racial divide in America that became more pronounced this year than at any time in recent memory: Uncomfortable Conversations with a Black Man, a new book based on Acho’s unexpectedly popular and powerful web series of the same name.
Seated in a recording booth at Village Studios in Los Angeles, where he is narrating the audiobook, Acho places the iPad back on its perch and exhales. “Okay, now I gotta hammer this home.” He begins reading aloud. “Let’s get uncomfortable. . . .” Moments later, Acho reaches the book’s final refrain, which he delivers with quiet, steely resolve: “Ending racism is not a finish line that we will cross. It’s a road we’ll travel.”
Although Acho may not know his physical strength, he is quickly understanding his power and his reach. In less than four months, the 30-year-old has catapulted from being a sports analyst to becoming an emerging conciliatory voice on one of the thorniest issues of our time. Organically, out of his own anguish, Acho has created a dialogue around race, racial justice, and allyship that has moved millions.
“There’s a difference between your career and your calling,” he says, sitting on a sofa at the studio in head-to-toe Nike gear—T-shirt, shorts, and slides. “My career is sports—playing in the National Football League, hosting Speak for Yourself,” he says, referring to his talk show on FS1. His calling, he says, is these conversations, which he didn’t intentionally set out to have.
How Uncomfortable Conversations began
When George Floyd was killed at the hands of police, he says, “that shook me to the core. I’m not an emotional person. I’m not. I saw that, and I was distraught. I said, ‘I don’t know what I’m going to do, but I have to do something.’ ” Within a few days, he enlisted a wedding videographer and a friend to help produce what turned out to be the first episode of Uncomfortable Conversations with a Black Man. It cascaded out of him in a single, unedited take. “I put my head down, I say, ‘Three, two . . .’ and on ‘one,’ I open up my eyes and stare into the camera. For nine minutes, 27 seconds, I poured out my heart. Three days later, we have 20 million views,” Acho recalls. In that YouTube post, sitting on a stool and speaking directly to the camera, Acho set forth his goal: to educate white America on its blind spots. He dove right into issues like white privilege and Black people’s use of the n-word and never looked back.
The overwhelming response convinced him to keep going. Dwyane Wade posted the video. Jennifer Aniston and Reese Witherspoon messaged him. Matthew McConaughey cold-called him and appeared in the second episode, acknowledging that things were far from all right all right all right. Acho added episodes featuring biracial couples, reverse racism, and NFL commissioner Roger Goodell, whom he pressed on the league’s response to players’ protests.
Acho is “opening the aperture of understanding,” according to one notable guest: Oprah Winfrey, who joined him on a July video announcing that she had signed him to write a pair of books for her imprint with Macmillan. The same day Winfrey buzzed Acho, he received calls from Goodell and Joe Biden’s campaign, all before 9:00 AM. It would all be overwhelming if Acho weren’t so grounded, even in his outrage. After Winfrey had Acho on The Oprah Conversation with a panel made up mostly of white viewers, she called him later. He recalls, “She said, ‘You’ve got the thing, my friend. You’ve got the thing. You have the ability to tell someone a hard truth without them being offended.’ ”
His ability to handle the hot-button topic of racial injustice didn’t appear overnight, though Acho’s graduate work in psychology (he earned a master’s in sports psychology at the University of Texas in 2017) possibly helps him do this thing he likens to walking a tightrope.
Acho grew up in Dallas, with one eye on sports and one on social issues. His father, a pastor with a Ph.D. in psychology, and his mother, who has her doctorate in nursing practice, were both born in Nigeria. Each year, they’d bring him and his siblings there on humanitarian missions. It wasn’t hard for Acho to leap back and forth between athletics and activism.
Bridging the chasm between communities has been a bigger challenge. “I grew up at this affluent private school with all white people, primarily,” Acho says, referring to Dallas’s elite St. Mark’s School of Texas. “Then I go to college and played in the NFL with Black culture. . . . I have a ton of white friends. I have a ton of Black friends.” He remembers a day in 2014 when he was the last player to walk into the Eagles cafeteria. He saw the entire team seated in two groups, broken down completely along racial lines. It struck him. “I paused for a second. I said, ‘Wow, this is crazy. Sixty years after segregation ended and we’ve segregated.’ I realized there’s a language barrier between Black and white people. I said to myself, ‘How can I translate?’ ”
Now, in the midst of widespread civil unrest, Acho has become something of a Berlitz guide to tough discussions. He approaches them with empathy—the exact quality he’s trying to instill in others. The essence of Acho’s plea is: Help me help you help me. “In order to stand with us, and people who look like me,” he says in the first episode, “you have to be educated on issues that pertain to me . . . and fully educated, so you can feel the full level of pain and have full understanding.”
A week after that episode, Acho was hired away from ESPN to host Speak for Yourself alongside Marcellus Wiley. As his side project has grown, Acho’s schedule has become even more packed, but one hour each day remains sacrosanct: 9:00 to 10:00 AM, when he works out. Six days a week, he steps onto the terrace of his apartment, where he jumps rope for 15 minutes and spends the rest strength training. Once a week, he’ll take a long bike ride.
As Acho finishes the last audiobook recording session, he makes no secret of his fatigue. He’d gladly suffer through two-a-day practices rather than endure the pressure of recording a solo episode of Uncomfortable Conversations (which he’s done twice in nine shows). “You’ve got the weight of millions on these words,” he explains. Not everyone is willing to hear him, however—he’s received criticisms as well as racist rants and even threats via social media and email. “I don’t care about the hate, because I don’t have time for it,” he says. “There’s work to be done.”
He’s received critiques from racial-justice activists too, which neither surprises Acho nor makes him second-guess what he’s doing. He’s confident that his contributions have value, and so far he’s complementing, not detracting from or replacing, other, more strident voices. He’s answering these questions so other Black people don’t have to.
Acho plans to keep Uncomfortable Conversations going, and he’s eager to promote the book, which covers new topics (like “sagging”), dives deeper into some from the show, and offers resources on what to watch and listen to in order to understand more. At some point he’ll begin writing the second book. Beyond that, however, he’s not sure exactly how he’ll harness his influence, although he’s certain that it won’t include political office or sensationalizing his show. “People have asked me, ‘Why don’t you bring on x or y person? It’ll be fireworks,’ ” he says. “The goal is not fireworks. The goal is understanding. I don’t want drama. I don’t even want clicks. I want peace.”
After he speaks, Acho brings a tiny, plungerlike device to his throat to draw oxygen into his vocal cords. “I have to use this between every commercial break,” he explains. “I bruised my vocal cord.
I popped a blood vessel because I was talking so much. Uncomfortable conversations? Every one of them is uncomfortable,” he says with a laugh.
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