Make it Awkward was how Jesse Lispcombe responded to a racist incident on the streets of Edmonton, Alberta, on August 31st. Since then, his reaction has caught on, and it’s shaking Canadians out of the illusion that racism is not an ugly reality here. It is also providing the opportunity for conversations about what to do about it.
In the middle of shooting a public service announcement, extoling the wonders of downtown Edmonton, Lipscombe, an actor an entrepreneur, was greeted with racist shouts from a nearby car.
He walked up to the vehicle to confront the person, and listened to the man deny, face to face, what he had said. Lipscombe said he’s not a violent man and he believes in the power of words.
“They didn’t see the normal ‘Angry man responds to racist attack,’ instead they saw ‘Racist attack with conversation.’
The scenario was caught on video and when Lipscombe posted the footage to his Facebook page it went viral.
The team continued to complete the ad they were shooting, but troubled by the incident, Lipscombe talked it over with his wife Julia. The couple consulted with the city’s mayor, Don Iveson, and #MakeitAwkward began as a hashtag.
Now it’s becoming a movement, with buttons and decals and pledges and challenges. Lipscombe says some 50 to 60 businesses have taken the pledge; that is to “stand up in the face of hate, bigotry, racism, sexism, xenophobia, etc.”
Lipscombe explains that following the pledge they will send an individual a “Make it Awkward” button, and in the case of a business, they’ll receive the decal that can be displayed at the entrance “so that people can see that they’re an inclusive, supportive company and business” Lipscombe explains.
Like the very popular ALS ice bucket social media event, forwarding the challenge is part of this campaign too, Already 50 to 60 businesses is displaying the decal, and over 300 people are sporting buttons.
Lipscombe has received several invitations to speak, and with the original hashtag having gone as far as the Prime Minister’s office, support is coming from across Canada.
“Race is a really awkward topic for most people,”
When asked about the international impression of Canada, Jesse Lipscombe is frank: “There’s definitely an assumption, I know, that Canada is an all peaceful all-loving place where racism is a thing of the past but I think if they really asked about it, of course it exists… room for growth is definitely, I think, everywhere on the planet. It is without a doubt a wonderful city, and a wonderful province and a wonderful country, but yeah there’s work to do and there’s people that are definitely oppressed and need the help of everybody in order to make it a little bit better.”
Last week, at a high school gathering of students varying in age from 11 to 15, Lipscombe shared the video and his reaction. “They didn’t see the normal ‘Angry man responds to racist attack,’ instead they saw ‘Racist attack with conversation.’ Several of the students in the multi-cultural school were put at ease and able to talk about their experiences of racism, and hopefully empowered by the example.
Isaac Tyler is First Nations, Métis, and the Inuit transition coordinator at another high school in Edmonton. He told CBC News that students at his school are very familiar with racist incidents and discrimination, but will only share their experiences in a one-on-one situation.
He hopes Lipscombe’s presentation allows them to speak more openly, and to confront people in a non-violent way.
“Race is a really awkward topic for most people,” Tyler said. “I think it was great getting young kids comfortable talking about it or learning how to guide those conversations in a positive way.”