The deaths of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor and Ahmaud Arbery haven’t just triggered a wave of protests calling for an end to police brutality and racial injustice. They’ve also prompted many Americans to confront their own biases, pursue uncomfortable truths and embark on raw, sometimes heated debates about thorny topics like white privilege and systemic racism. One young black man is here for those tough conversations.
Nisa Kaniga, a 20-year-old literature major at the University of Texas at Dallas, has been inviting passersby in Dripping Springs, Texas — a Hill Country town outside Austin with a population of just a few thousand people, less than 1 percent of whom are black — to pose their questions about race and the current state of the world. “Ask Me Anything — Make Yourself Uncomfortable,” reads the sign carried by Kaniga as he stands at an intersection in town for hours on end despite temperatures often in the high 90s. Two side panels feature sample topics up for discussion, including: “Black Lives Matter or All Lives Matter?” “Why are people angry and rioting?” “Why is everything about race?”
Though he studies in Dallas, the college student has been living with his parents at their Dripping Springs home since the coronavirus pandemic shut down campus and caused his job to be furloughed. He’s now using his time to respond to questions he feels are better addressed in an open, in-person dialogue rather than over Twitter.
“People want to be right on the internet,” Kaniga tells Yahoo Life, adding that social media debates can be “antagonistic” and driven by ego. “At least with having the discussions in person, it’s kind of hard to be, like, a jerk to someone who’s trying to respect your views. Because that’s really why I’m out there. I’m not here to argue, I’m not here to prove anything. I’m just here for discussion so people can ask me those hard questions.”
A few days in, he says that the community response he’s received has been “overwhelmingly positive” so far, with many folks approaching him to offer their support. But he’s also experienced some frank, at times combative interactions — challenges he welcomes.
“Some people are coming in to be confrontational about some of the questions that they’re asking, like, ‘How come they’re not talking about black-on-black crime?’ ‘How come you’re not saying All Lives Matter? ‘How come they’re taking down the Confederate statues?’ — those kinds of questions,” he says.
“I think most people would say, ‘Oh, those are bad questions, you can’t ask them.’ I say, ask those questions. If somebody wants to know, telling them that they’re a racist or a jerk for asking those questions, it doesn’t bring them any insight into anything. It just digs them even deeper into that hole. I think I’ve reached out to a lot of those people and opened their eyes on some of the stuff. [The conversation] might start shaky, but it usually always ends up good.”
But one of the most striking questions he’s been hit with isn’t about race per se; it’s about his age. Kaniga says he’s often asked how old he is, a question that prompts him to reflect on what change may come over generations.
“I’m 20,” he says. “I’m very self-conscious that I don’t have the life experience of most of the people coming up to talk to me. But I think that question is meaningful because I’ve talked to a lot of the older people coming out. They’ve told me their life stories and their experiences of being a racist and dealing with racists themselves. And where they grew up, and how they grew up, and how they were raised, and how they raised their kids.
“One day I’m going to be that age and we’re going to reflect on all of this and ask ourselves, did we make a difference?” he adds. “That question just kind of makes me self-aware of how much things can change over a lifetime. I had one older gentlemen who came to me and he was like, ‘Back in my day, y’all were n*****s, straight up.’ It didn’t shock me; I’ve heard that word plenty of times. And he said that after that, ‘I’ve changed my way of thinking. I no longer think that way. I just want to know how we can do better, and I’m sorry. And I’m going to continue doing better.’”
That’s just the sort of candid dialogue Kaniga feels is important to acknowledge to push through real progress; turning the other cheek, settling for complacency or sticking to so-called safe subjects does little to effect change.
“It’s important to recognize biases and uncomfortable questions because if we’re comfortable as a country, nothing is going to change, right?” he says. “If we’re like, ‘Oh, I don’t see color, I don’t see race’ — well, that’s a problem because you won’t see racism. Right now we have half the country that wants to acknowledge the racial issues going on in America, and they want to talk about it. And we have another side [that doesn’t] want to talk about racial issues because it makes them uncomfortable. Or, you know, ‘talking about race divides us.’ But if you don’t talk about it, how about all the other people who are dealing with racism, who are dealing with injustice and who want to talk about it and want to be heard and want to be acknowledged? To put it on the back burner, I feel like it’s only going to widen the gap. So we have to all talk about it and acknowledge it, so we can move forward.”
Obligations like homework and, yes, social media — where he’s now fielding requests to engage in discussions from those outside his Drippings Springs community — have forced him to take some breaks from his curbside chats, but he plans to keep the conversation going “as long as people keep coming out to talk.”
“Every single day I talk to multiple people with different viewpoints and different beliefs,” he says. “I don’t have all the answers, but I’m just here to share my perspective. I’ll keep going out as long as people are curious and want to learn.
“Change doesn’t happen over a night, but it can happen over a lifetime. And I’ve still got lots of time.”
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