Comedian W. Kamau Bell says we’re all just waiting for ‘the straw that breaks the racist camel’s back’
The ‘United Shades of America’ host has thoughts on Starbucks, Rage Against the Machine and comedic journalism
Comedian W. Kamau Bell’s Emmy-winning series, United Shades of America, recently returned to CNN. The show, which airs Sundays at 10 p.m. ET, follows Bell around the country as he has conversations with all sorts of people, from doomsday preppers to residents on both sides of the U.S.-Mexican border. Usually he’s in the role of curious everyperson, asking questions to get us better acquainted with all the folks who make up the country.
But recently, Bell found himself in the position of expert when it came to the matter of two men who were arrested and removed from a Philadelphia Starbucks for being black and not purchasing a drink. Bell was the target of a similar slight in 2015. He was at an outside table at the Elmwood Cafe in Berkeley, California, with his wife, who is white, and her friends. According to Bell, an employee saw him as an unwelcome interloper and told him to “scram.”
I spoke with Bell about the renewed relevance of that incident, along with the latest season of his show, which includes episodes about historically black colleges and universities (HBCUs), Gullah Geechee culture and the border.
This interview has been edited and condensed for length and clarity.
Do you think there is a heightened understanding of racism since the election? The Starbucks incident not only turned into a multiday news story, they’re shutting down 8,000 shops for racial sensitivity training.
You think about all the racist things that have happened to black people — and I’m just focusing on black people for the sake of this conversation — in the history of this country, we don’t know about, like what percentage do you think we know about? You have all of the racism from like, even this morning, I was walking out of my kids’ school and this white woman I don’t know goes, ‘Mr. Michael!’ Mr. Michael is a black man that plays guitar for kids at the library who is shorter than me, has a full beard, doesn’t wear glasses, there’s like all sorts of different ways I’m not Mr. Michael. And I go, ‘Nope.’ And she goes, ‘Oh, I thought …’ and I just kept walking.
I was like, ‘Should I tweet this?’ No, because I’m going to have Twitter all day going, ‘Everything that happens to black people is racism.’ We don’t tell our friends and family about it because then somebody will talk about it all day long. The thing that happens when someone looks at you weird on the subway instead of sitting down next to you. You don’t tell those stories to everybody.
Black people in this country have been waiting forever for the straw to break the racist camel’s back so that America can finally confront its legacy and present, future of racism. So every time that something like this happens, we get excited. Maybe this is it. Maybe it’s not Stephon Clark being shot in his backyard. Maybe it’s these two black men at Starbucks being kicked out.
You’ve said that you think comedy can fix creative issues but it can’t fix real-world issues. But your show spends quite bit of time in the real world.
Yeah, we do, but I think that what I’m doing in the real world is highlighting those issues, but I’m not fixing them. I’m just sort of going, ‘Hey, look at this thing.’ That is either something you should know more about or something that’s really bad that we’ve gotta fix. But I’m not, I can’t think of myself as, the actual fix of the issue. At the best, I’m like the doctor that diagnoses you and then walks out of the room and says, ‘I hope another doctor comes.’ I think that comedy is great with lubricating the conversation or getting people to pay attention. I think the arts are great for that in general.
One of my favorite bands is Rage Against The Machine. Now, you know, Rage Against The Machine has some great songs that are about political activism and about responding to oppression but they’re not actually political activism. They’re just songs.
I try to do things to help people out and highlight black voices and support causes, either through my privilege or through money. But I know that’s different than making a TV show. When people say the show’s either a tool of activism or education, then I feel like I’m doing a good job.
Do you feel like that’s enough?
No, it’s not.
Over the course of several years, I had to sort of convince people, producers on the show, that it’s not enough to just talk to somebody who’s an activist. We actually have to say what organization they work with and actually say in a way that people can hear it so they can Google it later. You know what I mean? Or be clear about where the agenda lies. And go, ‘Oh, and I went here where people are allowed to volunteer.’ You make sure that that is part and parcel of the thing, encouraging people to get involved.
I can’t waste time convincing people of how I want the show to be done at this point. It’s got to be done the way that I want it to be done, which is certainly pointed and clear. I want it to be relatively easy for teachers to use it as a tool for education and/or activists use it as a tool for activism. If it’s not entertaining and doing that, then it’s not the show I want.
Now that you’re in your third season, do you feel that you’ve worked out exactly the way you want it to be?
I’m never satisfied, so I still look at every episode like, ‘Why did we do this?’ ‘I should have done that better.’ ‘Who let me wear that shirt?’ The show is still a work in progress. I still watch [Anthony] Bourdain’s episodes and think, ‘Jesus, how did they do that?’ There’s still a goal, and I’m not trying to do Bourdain’s show, but it feels like that is a pure expression of him. And I feel like with my show I’m still working on getting it to be the pure expression of me.
That’s hard with television no matter what you’re doing.
That’s why I still do stand-up comedy, ’cause I can step up on stage, just sort of think of a thing, say the thing, see what people react and then say good night.
A bunch of comedians are doing some marriage of comedy and news, such as Wyatt Cenac and John Oliver and Samantha Bee. There’s this overlap with journalism because they’re both in the business of seeking truth. Or truth-telling.
I think they’re both in the business of trying to explain the world. And I think we certainly know journalists who explain the world in a way that is not truthful. And we know that there are comedians who explain the world in a way that is not truthful. So that’s the one thing I would say, we’re both trying to explain the world. But then it’s about what our agenda is in trying to explain the world.
Do you think comedians are more effective at delivering truth?
I think comedy is always the most effective way to deliver truth, not just through comedians but comedy in general. Every public speaker in the world is trying to open on a joke. It’s the first thing they tell you in public speaking. Everybody who is a good public speaker is using humor. Martin Luther King Jr. used humor. Malcolm X used humor. Maya Angelou could be funny. It doesn’t mean they’re cracking jokes, but they’re using humor to sort of get the message across. I think comedy is the most effective way to communicate anything because if somebody laughs at what you say, you know they were paying attention. It doesn’t mean they agree with you. It just means you know they were paying attention.
It makes sense that the comedians that America always elevates to be the best examples of the art form are the so-called ‘truth-tellers,’ people who are politically minded, whether it’s Richard Pryor or George Carlin or Lenny Bruce, Chris Rock. Those are the people we put as the best versions of the art form. Margaret Cho, Joan Rivers. There’s a lot of comedians who are funny, that make a lot of money, but we don’t at the end of the day put them on that Mount Rushmore of America’s stand-up comedy heroes.
I see you’ve got an episode on Gullah Geechee culture, and you’ve got an HBCU episode. Are you planning to sue Beyoncé for stealing all your ideas?
[Laughs.] We do mention Beyoncé in the Gullah Geechee episode. Lemonade certainly came out before we did that, but she did the Coachella thing, and we can’t re-edit that episode. Beyoncé, give me a heads-up next time! You’re making me look bad, Beyoncé! I thought we had something. No, I didn’t. She doesn’t know who I am.
The thing that’s possibly good is that it helps people come to those episodes with a little more knowledge. Maybe they’ll be more excited about our episode. I can’t promise that our HBCU episode is going to be as good as Beyoncé’s Coachella performance. I’m not prepared to say that as much as CNN might want me to say that for headlines: ‘Kamau Bell says his HBCU episode is better than Beyoncé’s Coachella performance!‘ But I do think it’s a good companion piece.
Is there anything you regret about sitting down with white supremacist Richard Spencer?
That it didn’t happen closer to the time it aired. That’s the only thing I regret. People were asking me questions about things that hadn’t happened yet. ‘Why didn’t you punch him in the face?‘ First of all, I wouldn’t have, because that’s not how I do it. Second of all, he hadn’t been punched in the face at the time I sat down with him. I would have asked him about it. I regret that we didn’t tape the episode and air it a week later. But that’s not how our show works.
The thing we didn’t do this season is we didn’t interview any sort of quote-unquote obvious TV villains like Richard Spencer or the Ku Klux Klan because I was tired of it and I didn’t want people to think it was my go-to move. I don’t want people to predict what I’m gonna do based on, ‘Oh, he’s gonna find some white supremacist somewhere and sit down across from him.’ I feel like I got the white supremacists’ voice in the show and also America runs on white supremacy, so we don’t have to go find a person. It’s there; it’s always running on America’s computer. That did maybe hurt CNN’s ability to put out a clip of me sitting across from someone who wants to kill me and certainly that gets us good headlines and things. But I feel like I’m tired of it and I think America’s probably tired of it, too, because we are always sort of talking about the divide. We’re going to talk about the divide but we’re just going to focus on the part of the divide that I think needs to be focused on.
I don’t need to do an episode about HBCUs and go across from somebody who’s like, ‘I don’t think there should be HBCUs.’ We hear that every day.
You have an episode in Alabama this season. How did spending time in Alabama when you were a kid influence your adult life?
Every year of my life I would spend nine months with my mom in, like, Boston, and then I would go to Alabama for three months for every summer. And the worlds couldn’t have been more different. And then eventually I traveled back and forth so much that people in the North would go, ‘You sound like you’re from the South’ and people from the South would say, ‘You sound like you’re from the North.’ And so I was always like an outsider wherever I went. It taught me how to travel. It taught me how to go anywhere and be portable, how to talk to people wherever you go, and that’s what I do now. I travel all over the place. I’m portable and pretty good at talking to people no matter where I go. It also proved to me at a very early age that there wasn’t one version of America. I knew there was two: The North’s version of America and the South’s version of America, and then when I got older I found that there was even more than that.
It taught me from a very young age that a lot of people thought they knew what America was. But no, there’s a lot of different Americas out here.