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Jesse Lipscombe Turns Ugly Racism Into 'Make It Awkward' Movement

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Jesse Lipscombe wasn't just minding his own business when he was the victim of drive-by racism a few weeks ago. The Edmonton actor, athlete and entrepreneur was in the midst of making a PSA for the city about how great its downtown is and the best ways to get there. (You can watch the video below.)

Aside from capturing the irony of the racist incident, the cameras also filmed Lipscombe's reaction when a passenger in a passing car yelled "the n****rs are coming, the n****rs are coming!"

See, rather than ignore it or get angry, Lipscombe walked over, opened the passenger side door and calmly asked the man to explain himself: "You have something to say? Tell me about it. We can talk about it."

The guy cursed at Lipscombe to "get the f**k out of here," yelling the n-word again for good measure as the car drove off. But the video was posted to Facebook and, thanks to Lipscombe's measured but uncompromising response, it went viral.

Soon, Lipscombe and his wife Julia met with Edmonton mayor Don Iveson to brainstorm what to do about what happened. Julia came up with a hastag — #MakeItAwkward — that they hoped would encourage people to join her husband in calmly calling out racism as well as homophobia, sexism, etc. rather than just ignoring it or getting angry.

Well, that went viral, too, making it all the way to 24 Sussex:

The Lipscombes have since been hard at work turning the hashtag's momentum into a movement.

The evidence that it's working can be seen in the hundreds of emails Jesse has received, the invitations to speak to students and the hashtag's Twitter takeover. Most recently, government leaders used #MakeItAwkward to amplify their outrage over racist anti-Sikh posters at the University of Alberta.

HuffPost Canada spoke to Lipscombe about what’s next for Make It Awkward, the inevitable racist push back he's faced, those Trudeau tweets and how he's explained what's going on to his two young sons .

Oh, and this is the video PSA he was shooting when the incident happened. Interview below:



Had anything like that ever happened to you before?

It has happened to me probably twice in the last five years in Edmonton. Exactly like that. One time I was just in my car with my business partner singing and a car drove by and screamed "shut that 'N' music up."

It also happened on a golf course once last year.

How big of a problem is racism in Edmonton?

I'm not taking the stance that Edmonton is a racist city by any means [but] everyone has their own experiences. If you don't have a lot of friends from different races you probably don't hear about it a lot. Video is amazing for just putting it in your face and allowing you to have a discussion about what's actually real.

Interestingly enough, still with video I've been having people commenting that it's fake, that it's not real. So even when you have the actual video evidence it's very difficult for them to accept the fact that this is actually happening.

We've had other recent call-out campaigns from #OscarsSoWhite to Black Lives Matter. How much does your Make It Awkward campaign tie into the broader race conversation happening on social media right now.

It ties into it, obviously, because it was a race incident that happened. But it's more about hate incidents and not just racism, there's sexism, homophobia, xenophobia or people making fun of people with disabilities.

So it ties into a number of different campaigns that exist but the underlying platform is awareness and conversation about what's acceptable and what's not acceptable.

"This one is more about empowering everybody to do a little something. It's all those little somethings that equal a really big thing."

Make It Awkward is really trying to start from a very small small spot — the social circle that you already are involved in, your friends and your family. These other movements are important, but they go after large issues at the very top. Sometimes that can be very frustrating, like I'm just waiting for someone else to step up and fix it.

This one is more about empowering everybody to do a little something. It's all those little somethings that equal a really big thing.

Today I was speaking at a junior high school about the Make It Awkward campaign and there were already all these anecdotal stories of what they've done. Like around the dinner table when a comment is thrown and asking the question "why did you say that, dad? Why'd you say that, mom? That's not really funny, would you say that if they were there?"

If we can just be responsible for the three metres around us, keeping that peaceful and respectful, then that's a pretty big change.

What's the most gratifying response you've heard so far from it?

One that caught me off guard completely, I was at the world triathlon series in Edmonton and a young girl wearing full hijab, probably 16, came up to me. I saw her kinda lurking and I knew she probably wanted to come chat. So she came up and asked me to get a picture. And then she turned around really quick with tears in her eyes and said "You're my hero," and then ran away.

There wasn't a lot of words but there was so much in that.

There was another one, whole family came up, mom, dad, and the children, and they were so thankful that it took the doubt away from the things that they've been saying over and over and over. Oftentimes their words had been diminished: "Oh no, it's not that bad in Edmonton." Now their stories got a co-sign.

"One man told me, 'I've been so exhausted trying to explain that I couldn't have done it better than this campaign.'"

There's story after story. One where a man told me, "I've been so exhausted trying to explain that I couldn't have done it better than this campaign. You've given me more words and more tools to be able to express and explain what I'm going through and in a not aggressive, not angry way."

I've never really had to talk about this with my children. So I posted a video of Julie and I and the boys for the first time going through racism and what it's like. That video got a lot of comments from parents, and a lot of people saying "I can't believe you have to have a conversation like that, it didn't even cross my mind."

And there's been a lot of people asking how can I help, what can I do — and that's taken us to the next step.

So what are the next steps?

I had a meeting with the mayor — we were discussing everything that's happened and what are the takeaways. People want to know how can we be involved, how can we donate money, how can we donate time. I want to make sure that it didn't get handcuffed by becoming a completely government city objective.

This thing was very grassroots, it grew from the people. But obviously it takes money to create a website, PR material, even small things like buttons and T-shirts.

So I asked the city what they're going to contribute. But we also have a lot of private people who want to donate so we created a GoFundMe that people can go on and give their support in anyway they can, and we can show what we're going to use our funds for and the Board of Directors that we're putting together.

"... even when you have the actual video evidence it's very difficult for [people] to accept the fact that [racism] is actually happening."

But the big thing we need is the kind of support to keep the conversation going and to make it more than just the hashtag.

I get that it's good PR for the city but for me, it's real life. It's real life that this happens to people on a daily basis, it's real life this happens to women and aboriginals and people with disabilities on a daily basis. So as good as a PR thing as it is, it's gonna take a lot more to make these things not occur on a daily basis.

We need to make sure we have something tangible, real clear objective, short-term medium term and long term, so that this can become what I hope it can be.

"I get that it's good PR for the city but for me, it's real life.'"

I'm watching it resonate with children. I'm watching it resonate with seniors. We got lucky with this unfortunate incident turning into something that became a collective experience for so many people.

Where do you see it in one year or five years?

In one year I would like to see it become a very colloquial term that's being used on a day-to-day basis. So that Make It Awkward can become one of the responses to bigotry on many different levels. Not just a hashtag but a proactive reaction to make our environment a little bit better to live in.

In five years I'd like to see something that just exists with branches in all the major cities around Canada, and everybody working collectively together with different community organizations and making it something tangible to the everyday person.

I just don't ever want it to look like a me thing. I'm trying my best to keep it at the forefront, I'm trying to raise money, trying to speak at different places because it's important to me but I also want to be extra clear that it's not for me, it's for me and everybody else. I'm a good candidate to help lead it right now but I want others on board doing the same thing.

Has there been any racist push back to this campaign?

Oh man, goodness gracious, so much. I read all the comments, I don't know why. I can't help it. My mom calls social media the new bathroom wall. But I think that will also change, social media is pretty new as well so we'll start to see the change of what's OK on social media. People will be in awe that this was ever OK before and I think that's just a matter of figuring out what this new environment looks like.

But yeah, definitely they're there. They affect Julia a little bit more than me. I'm not OK with it, but it doesn't affect my forward progression.

But I'm looking forward to when there's less of it.

On the other hand, Justin Trudeau has also tweeted your campaign out.

That was awesome! Julia and I had said we'll know we've hit critical mass when we get the Prime Minister, Ellen and Obama. She's like, I guess we got one of them.

It was really neat to know that the message had spread that far and that quickly, it lets me know that it just resonates.

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