Edmonton’s #makeitawkward movement—co-founded by Jesse and Julia Lipscombe—is raising important awareness about prejudice within our community.
The campaign is creating a respectful dialogue about racism and bigotry; introducing an alternative approach of responding to racist comments.
“As the title has become, I’ve always wanted to make it a little bit awkward,” Lipscombe explains. “If I felt weird, I wanted to ensure that somebody else knew that I felt that way, and explain themselves for why they wanted to do that to me.”
Tensions appear to be growing exponentially in Edmonton and Alberta. Most recently it was reported (in the Edmonton Journal and elsewhere) that an anti-Carbon-Tax rally at the Alberta Legislature included offensive signage directed towards the LGBTQ community. There were also anti-immigration flyers (reported by the CBC).
This is on the heels of pro-white flyers on Whyte Avenue and “Fu*k Your Turban” posters at the University of Alberta.
“In my opinion, people are feeling threatened—and fearful somewhat—of people speaking up against what they are not comfortable with,” Jesse Lipscombe says of the rhetoric.
“When you’ve been living the life where what you’ve done has never been challenged; how, and who you are has never had any level of ridicule. And now people are mainly saying ‘be sensitive,’ and I would say ‘be honest.’ That feeling is causing people to react in, I guess, manners perhaps we didn’t see beforehand,” he says.
While shooting a PSA commercial to promote Edmonton’s Downtown core, Lipscombe was the victim of racist comments. As a 36-year-old black male, this is something he has dealt with his entire life.
This moment of caught-on-tape racism spawned the #makeitawkward campaign.
The video shows Lipscombe on the sidewalk being called the n-word by someone in a car full of people ahead of him. Following the slur, Lipscombe decides to approach the car, which was stopped at the red light. Lipscombe opens the front passenger door, kneeling down in a non-confrontational stance, asking the man to repeat the slur again. After they refused, Lipscombe asked why they had made such a remark towards him. Once again they refused to provide a rebuttal. The front passenger slammed the car door, and while driving away continued slurs were hurled at Lipscombe from the car.
Lipscombe posted video of the incident on his personal Facebook account, and the clip spread like wildfire—being shared thousands of times and viewed over a million.
“I shared the video, and it was probably in two hours my wife and I both realized that it is something that’s taking off with a lot of energy and steam,” he says.
Lipscombe was flooded with interview requests, and was contacted by Mayor Don Iveson to discuss ways to positively capitalize on the publicity.
“It felt like an opportunity to do something with it more than just a one off interview and let it disappear,” he explains. “Julia and I went to Don [Iveson]’s office right after he gave us a call. While we were sitting there, Julia came up with the hashtag, #makeitawkward.”
Since the campaign’s launch, the Lipscombes have seen the hashtag used on social media hourly, and they are proud to be “behind the wheel” of positive social engagement.
Lipscombe has started speaking at schools on a semi-regular basis—around two to three times a week. The #makeitawkward campaign has received thousands of messages and handwritten letters from children describing how the campaign has validated their stance against racism in their lives.
“I have heard such good feedback—particularly from students—who have heard Jesse’s message and are making it awkward and demanding better of their peers,” explains Mayor Iveson. “The campaign is having a lasting effect, one that Edmontonians can be proud of.”
But the campaign has come with some personal tribulations. The Lipscombe family has received hateful comments, but Jesse is trying to let it roll off his back and press on.
“There’s death threats, there’s horrible racial comments and threatening things to my family—online and emails. There are some levels of stress that come with taking this head on. It’s not a fight I’m going to stop fighting.”
The next step for #makeitawkward is expansion—envisioning other Canadian cities having the opportunity for a similar program. Edmonton’s branch is currently setting up the foundation so that similar ideals and messages can be plugged into other large sectors.
“What I see is a campaign that’s working. I see some feathers being ruffled and some conversations being started.” Lipscombe says. “The core of the #makeitawkward campaign is literally to start conversations and communicating our way respectfully to a better world.”