Author and Former NFL Star Emmanuel Acho Says He Was 'Broken' After George Floyd's Death: 'I Needed to Speak'
Acho talks about race and hope for the future.
Just the other day Emmanuel Acho stepped into an elevator in Los Angeles. A white woman was already inside. A thought — apropos of nothing she did — flashed through his head: If she says anything happened in here, she’s going to be believed.
Later, sitting down for a Zoom call for work, he instinctively tucked his gold chain inside his T-shirt. I don’t want them to think, “Emmanuel might be like those other Black people.”
“This is all an every-week occurrence,” says Acho, a former Philadelphia Eagles linebacker turned sports analyst, in this week's issue of PEOPLE. “I’m consciously always trying to make sure I do my best, so that a white person doesn’t preemptively judge me. Being Black is just different. I’m not playing a victim or any of that — racism exists. And because of it, I have to navigate the way I live.”
A first-generation American raised in Dallas by Nigerian parents, for most of his 30 years Acho has just dealt with those moments of fear. But after George Floyd was killed while in police custody in May, he decided he needed to do something— anything — to help with the division between white and Black Americans.
“I was broken,” he says. “I needed to speak.”
The result was a series on YouTube titled Uncomfortable Conversations with a Black Man. Filled with clearheaded guidance and explanations — how to think about Black Lives Matter protests, why you might want to attend a Black church— the series became a runaway hit, earning Oprah Winfrey’s endorsement and racking up millions of views after Acho, a sportscaster at ESPN at the time, landed interviews with the likes of Matthew McConaughey, and Chip and Joanna Gaines.
Now he has written a book of the same name for Winfrey’s imprint. It’s as much memoir as guidebook, with deep dives on the dangers of stereotyping and cultural appropriation and the value of allyship between whites and Blacks.
Christian Peterson/Getty Emmanuel Acho
He has drawn on his own life experiences for the show and book. Throughout his childhood and high school, he attended nearly all-white schools.
Kids would say to him: “Emmanuel, you dress too nice to be Black. Emmanuel, you talk too smart to be Black. Emmanuel, you’re not like those Black dudes in the music videos.”
Alexis Mitchell Emmanuel Acho
They called him an Oreo: Black on the outside, white on the inside. He is not sure his friends were aware of the pain they were inflicting. “You can be racist and not know it,” he says. Nevertheless, identity issues began: “I worried I wasn’t Black enough.”
A talented football player, he received a scholarship to the University of Texas in 2008. “I got to college and found other Black people,” he says. “I was like, ‘Y’all look like me.’ It felt like I was home.”
Amazon Uncomfortable Conversations
After playing in the NFL, where “I was immersed in Black culture to the point where I’m riding through the hood with my homeboys,” Acho began to feel truly bilingual in an increasingly polarized country. “I realized I could talk to my white friends,” he says, “and be like, ‘Oh, y’all don’t get it.’ ”
Today, Acho, who lives in Los Angeles, advises his white friends — and audience, now reaching millions per episode — not to be afraid to ask the Black people in their lives potentially uncomfortable questions.