Embracing Awkward Conversations About Racism With Comedian W. Kamau Bell

Renowned comedian W. Kamau Bell fearlessly challenges societal norms and amplifies underrepresented voices, sparking conversations on race and identity in America. W. Kamau Bell shared his journey of self-discovery and growth. From childhood dreams of becoming a superhero or entering show business to finding his voice as a comedian. Kamau's path reflects the universal quest for identity and purpose. His decision to use the initial "W" in his stage name was a tribute to the wide-eyed kid within him, aspiring to be in show business.

As he delved into the world of comedy, his experiences and interactions with diverse communities expanded the scope of his storytelling. Kamau's commitment to addressing issues of race, identity, and social justice through his unique brand of "social political" comedy reflects his desire to spark meaningful conversations and bring about positive change. His journey from coffee shops and bars to hosting thought-provoking shows on CNN underscores the power of embracing uncomfortable dialogues and seeking understanding in a divided world. Through humor and introspection, Kamau invites us to ponder life's complexities and embrace the value of engaging in open, honest conversations.


About W. Kamau Bell

W. Kamau Bell, a renowned filmmaker, comedian, and the former host and executive producer of the Emmy award-winning CNN docuseries United Shades of America, brings a unique perspective on race and identity in America. With his recent HBO documentary 1000% Me: Growing Up Mixed, Bell delves into the complexities of growing up with a mixed-race identity, shedding light on the experiences and challenges faced by individuals and families in the San Francisco Bay area. His insights on underrepresented communities and productive conversations provide valuable and thought-provoking content that resonates with diverse audiences. Kamau's ability to tackle sensitive topics with humor and authenticity makes him an influential voice in the realm of race relations and social issues Explore Kamau Bell's inspiring journey into show business and how it shaped his perspective on race and identity. 


  • Understand the importance of embracing awkward conversations about racism to foster meaningful change and understanding. 
  •  Discover the power of using humor as a tool to facilitate constructive and engaging conversations about race and social issues. 
  •  Learn about the significance of highlighting underrepresented communities in media and the positive impact it can have on society. 


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What's your why is brought to you by Wyoming Humanities. Our mission in this podcast is to inspire, engage and inform, bringing you relevant, timely topics about our shared human experience. Welcome. My name is Emy Digrappa. My special guest is W. Kamau Bell        


W. Kamau Bell, who I met when he was doing a performance here in Jackson Hall, Wyoming, at the Center for the Arts. His performance was called W. Kamau Bell curve ending racism in about an hour. Kamau is a filmmaker, comedian, and for seven seasons he was the host and executive producer of the five time Emmy award winning CNN Docuseries United Shades of America. Recently, Kamau directed and produced the HBO documentary 1000% me growing up mixed.         


In this film, he tackles the joys and challenges of growing up mixed race through conversations with kids and families in the San Francisco Bay area, including his own. He recognized that his children, born to a black father and white mother and growing up in a country still deeply divided by race, will have very different experiences in America than he and his wife did. And I quote from Kamau, making this film, I learned that while being mixed is a loaded identity, it doesn't have to be so loaded. If we just let mixed folks speak for and define themselves. The kids in the film don't see themselves as being half one thing and half another thing.         


They see themselves as both. As ten year old Myles puts it in the film, I'm 100% African American, 100% Filipino, and 1000% a person. Kids say the least racist things. So listen and learn about his journey and inspiration.         


Welcome, Kamau. Thank you. So we want to get to know you today. We want to find out what your passion is and why you do what you do. And the first thing I want to know is why W.         


Kamau Bell. When I was a kid, since I was a little kid, there was two things I wanted to be, either a superhero or in show business. At the time, I would have been an actor. But then I realized later I wanted to be a comedian. And my dad's name is Walter, so I'm Walter Kamau Bell.         


He's got a different middle name, but I always went by Kamau. But I thought for some reason, as a kid, I thought Kamau Bell sounded too plain for somebody in show business. I don't know why. It's not like Kamau's already in it. Kamau's already a pretty interesting name.         


So as a kid, I remember seeing A. Whitney Brown on Saturday Night Live. He was a comedian, or as a comedian, he was on Saturday Night Live. And I thought, oh, you can do that. You can have an initial. And so as a kid, I thought, if I'm ever in show business, I'll be W.         


Kamau Bell. And so really, it's like a total tribute to the kid in me who wanted to be in show business. Oh, that's great. And it's great you had that dream way back, right? Yeah.         


Yeah. So I think for me, it's like, that's how you keep the dream alive, by holding on to the w, how I keep the dream alive. And so how did you actually get. Started in show business? It's funny to call it show businesses, because when you start out, you're not in show business.         


You're in coffee shops and bars and nightclubs and eventually comedy clubs. And I signed up to go do an open mic. That's where every comedian starts, is at an open mic. And you sign up to open mic, they give you five minutes or less, and it either goes well or it doesn't, and you either keep doing it or you don't. And so I kept doing it.         


And that was in Chicago. And then after three years, I moved to the Bay Area because I needed more. I felt like there wasn't a big comedy scene of stand up in Chicago at the time. Now there is, and I felt like I needed more opportunity and a place to grow. And so I moved to San Francisco and have basically been out there in the Bay Area ever since, except for the two years I lived in New York, where we did the tv show totally biased.         


And when they call you a sociopolitical comedian, how do you define that? What do you think that means? For me, it's like I'm the one who came up with that distinction because people were calling me a political comedian, and I felt like it didn't fit. There's a great tradition in this country of political comedy, and I'm a fan of political comedy, but for me, there's sort of an expectation I would do a lot of shows where I'd be late. They do, like, come to this political comedy show, and there's an expectation of what political comedy is.         


And I didn't like being defined by that. So if you put social political on it, and I knew the phrase social political, and I was like, oh, were you talking about sort of like politics, but also identity politics and culture and movement? And for me, that was a much better label. So I may be the first self described social political comedian, but it just, for me, it feels like that gives me the ability to talk about racism in all of its forms, not just how it affects politics. And is your focus on race primarily because you're a black man and you want to make a statement on that, or is it all races?         


I mean, I think it started out comedy. Every comedian uses comedy as a way to figure out themselves in the world, and it's just about what they're doing with that. Whether it's observational comedy, like Jerry Seinfeld, where you're really always looking about the outside world, or it's like George Carlin, where you're talking about America, what defines America? Or you're talking about Jim Gaffigan, who's a lot of it's about food and being a dad. So everybody has things that they're interested in, and they use their comedy to sort of help figure those things out.         


So for me, growing up as a black man in America, that's the thing. I was trying to figure out whether or not I was a comedian or not. And then once I started to do comedy and moved to the Bay Area and met lots of different types of people and got to hang out with lots of different people, then the scope became much bigger. So I talk about lots of things that aren't just being a black man now. I probably spend more time talking about being a black man because I'm still trying to figure that one out.         


But I certainly have, like in my last comedy special, which is on Showtime, called semi prominent Negro, there's stuff in there about gay marriage. There's stuff in there about transgender people. There's stuff in there about, I'm trying to think about my kids, and some of that is race related and some of it's not. And so I'm just talking about the stuff that I care about and stuff that I am curious about that's really. Interesting because of our political climate right now.         


And I think a lot of people are trying to figure out how they feel about race and how they connect with other people. And so I'm interested to hear about your program that is called ending race in 1 hour. Is that what it's called? Yeah. The full title is the W.         


Kamau Bell curve ending racism in about an hour. Yeah. Because the title can't ever be too long. And so just give me a snippet. Of how you end racism in 1 hour.         


I mean, the big thing is that the show sort of revolves around, we have to have more awkward conversations about these issues. There's a lot of stuff in the show that is sort of about current racism and about history, and there's a lot of stuff about my personal life, but really the whole thing is we have to start having more conversations about these things. And I think that with everything going on in the country right now, the only way you figure it out is to have a conversation. And a lot of times people stand on their side of the thing and go and just sort of yell across. Sometimes you have to yell to be heard.         


So I think when oppressed people yell, that's protest. When the privileged class yells, that's oppression. So I feel like, for me, it's like we have to figure out who should be yelling and who should be listening. And then understanding that just because maybe you feel like you're being yelled at, it doesn't mean that person's wrong. It just means that person hasn't been heard in a long time.         


And I know when I say that, then you get some people, white people, who feel like, but I don't. And I never owned a slave. And there's all this sort of like, wanting to defend yourself from being lumped in, being sort of affected by racism in this country. And the fact is that no matter where you come from, the minute you step into this country and the minute you sort of decide to live here, you are linked to a whole tradition of race and racism in this mean, you know, I think about it, and this has happened more than once, but a lot of many Africans who move to this country from nations in Africa, they come here and they don't think of themselves as being black Americans. But the police don't look at them as know.         


They don't look at them as from Ghana or from Senegal. They look at them as black Americans because that's what you are in this country. And so I think a lot of people, you certainly have pride where you come from, and you can self identify yourself, but understand that the minute you step into this pool, whether or not you define yourself. And this is know if you're a white person who goes, well, I'm really italian and Polish and German. Well, once you're in this country that ends up being white.         


That's an identity that was created in this country, was white American. Oh, wow. That is interesting to look at it deeply like that. I just finished a program called 500 years of latino history in the United States. And it is that same thing that depending on where you're from and what side of the country, if you're from the east, then anyone who speaks Spanish from the east is Puerto Rican.         


Or if you're from Florida, everybody speaks Spanish, is Cuban, and just those same California, you're Mexican. Exactly. And it doesn't mean that you have to decide, well, I guess I got to be cuban if you're not cuban. But it does mean you have to be aware that the race is a social construct and the people in charge are the ones who get to decide who's who. And it doesn't mean it changes who you are inside, but it does mean you should be aware of who you represent when you're in the world.         


Right. What is your passion and goal in doing this? Talk about ending racism in an hour. What do you want people to walk away with? I mean, to me, I'm a comedian first.         


Well, I'm probably a black man for that. But if people don't laugh in the show, then the show is a failure. So for me, it's like, how can I take these difficult subjects and make them into bite sized nuggets that then people can laugh and then have something that they take away from the show? Hopefully many things that they can then start a dialogue with somebody else that maybe they wouldn't have started know. So I think that's the goal, is to get people to talk about the things they saw, even if they don't agree with me, even if they're like, I don't agree with any of that, then go talk to somebody about it.         


Don't tell me on Facebook or Twitter, go talk to somebody about how you saw this show and you didn't agree with any of it. And maybe they'll go, oh, I agree with you, or maybe they'll go, I agree with some of it, or maybe they'll go, no, I think you're wrong. Have a dialogue. And I think that especially with everything going in the country, white people have to be prepared to have that dialogue. And I mean, I'm talking about the white people who would identify as being on the left or good or who aren't voting for Trump, or those people have to be ready to have some difficult conversations in the same way that as a man, I've had times in my life where women have had difficult conversations with me about sexism and what they've perceived as my sexism.         


And it would be easy to go, no, and I've done them. I don't think you know what you're talking, but then you're sort of cutting yourself off from growth and also cutting yourself off from a friend. Right. And that's true. Being able to have an open mind and have a friend who's different from you.         


Yeah. And being able to have your course corrected. If your friend says your friend or your wife, in my case, goes, I think you think you're doing this right, but you're not doing this right. Yeah. And I think people get caught up in not wanting to be embarrassed or not wanting to feel shame or guilt.         


And I feel like, what's wrong with those emotions? Embarrassment, shame, and guilt are great fuel to change and to make things better. I like the way you think about that. And so going from your political career and launching into your television career with the United shades of America. Correct.         


How did you start that show, and what is the purpose of that production? The idea is the, what they call the elevator pitch in show business is that CNN sends a black guy to places that you wouldn't expect a black guy to be, or you absolutely think a black guy shouldn't go. So in the first to. I went to Barrow, Alaska, which is the northernmost tip of North America. You can't go further north without being on the water.         


And that's a place you just don't expect black people to be there. There are black people there, but you just don't expect them. So part of it was, like, me learning about Barrow, Alaska. And then also I hung out with the Ku Klux Klan, which is a place you don't think a black guy should go. And I live to tell the tale about both places, so it's really about getting outside of my comfort zone and also then on tv, having awkward conversations with people about their experience and my experience and sort of coming to some new conclusions.         


Has that been popular? Yeah, the show has been a quote unquote hit, whatever that means, in the 21st century. And CNN has really gotten behind it. And I've had a lot of great experiences, and it started a lot of new conversations through the show. Like, when the show airs, I generally live tweet it, and I get to have conversations with people about what they're seeing.         


And not everybody agrees with everything that happens in the show, and I don't agree with everything that happens in the show. Even some things I did. I'm like, yeah, I wouldn't do that again. But it's sort of a model for how to have productive conversations, is what I feel like. And at the same time, it's funny.         


And we try to make sure that people get to enjoy the ride. It's not just about shoving medicine down your throat. It's about doing so in a way that you enjoy the fact that at the end, you go, I think I might be smarter. That's weird. I didn't realize that was happening.         


Do you have an opportunity to write some of your own scripts and things. Yeah, I'm involved in all that. Luckily, I'm an executive producer on the show, so I'm involved. Nothing that comes out of my mouth doesn't have me look at it or rewrite it or write it from the ground up. But if we move forward to the second season, which I hope is going to happen, looks likely, I hope to get even more control over that stuff.         


With United shades of America. How do you see yourself going forward in your career? Where do you see yourself? I'm pretty lucky right now that the show came out and the show has done well and that it looks like we're going to need a second season. And so I just want to do more and better and everything we did in the first season, I just want to do more and a better job of and push myself to go to places know we did the Klan in the first season, where it's like, then the question goes, where else can I go that is that extreme and where I can engage people in conversation.         


So I hope to do an episode at the know. And when I say the border, obviously in America, we mean the New Mexico. I mean the mexico american border, not the border. I mean, there's a border there, too, but, yeah, hope to do something at the border and engage with people down there, and I've been there once, but I'd like to do something more down there, and there's lots of other places where I haven't been and also other communities that we'd like to feature. Hopefully something with LGBTQ community.         


Obviously, that's a lot of different groups when you say LGBTQ, but there's maybe several episodes involving that and also something with Muslim Americans. Everything that sort of is in the news and all people who are in the news for, I feel like the wrong reasons or aren't getting a fair shake of the news are people I'd like to talk to. How do you experience success in terms of, how do you know you've changed someone's life or their mind or opened their mind, especially because being a performer, you kind of sit apart from people. I mean, you have your material and people come to your shows, but when do you experience that feeling of gratitude?         


I put the work out there. I feel like I keep my ear to the ground to hear how it's generally resonating. I think you can't pay too close attention to that because if you do that, you're going to be pushed back and forth by each person who goes that was great. That was bad. That was great.         


That was bad. But just generally get a sense of what's going on also, am I proud of the work? I think that's important, too, if people love it, but I don't like it. I don't think that doesn't feel like success to me. So for me, it's about, like, do I really feel like we did something new here?         


Do I like the work that we put out there? And are people receiving it well now, as far as changing people's lives, I think I can't get caught up in that because that's an impossible goal to attain. What I can do is get caught up in, like, I think this is a new narrative that I've put out there, that these narratives aren't out there. Not new to me, but these narratives aren't out enough in mainstream media. I think we did something good.         


Like, we did whole episodes in San Quentin with inmates who lifers in prison. And I felt like I haven't seen this on mainstream television before, sort of really going, is it okay for these guys to be in prison for their lives, considering what their crimes are and how long they've been in prison and how much they've rehabilitated themselves? And that was something I was like, I don't think I've seen that before. And we showed it at San Quentin so the inmates could see it, and they loved it. And they've invited me back to do other programs there.         


And I just feel like, to me, that feels like I'm not going to sit here and I changed somebody's life. So I feel like that did what I wanted it to do. But, yeah, I think you always have to be sort of pushing for more and better and stronger and faster. Like, you can't get caught up in the success thing. I have two young daughters, so until they can pay their own rent, I don't think I'm going to consider myself a success.         


They still need me to be out in the world making things happen. Oh, that's wonderful. Well, I have one more question. I want to know, who are your heroes? Who inspired you to speak out about not just being a comedian, but being a political sort of activist in a sense?         


I mean, these labels are sort of hard to sort of hold onto, because for me, it's like I think about my tax form, says comedian. It doesn't say like a political activist. And people have put those labels on me, and I appreciate them. But I also know that activists is a full time job, and I know people who are activists, and I don't want them. I would hate.         


I sort of always cringe around activists listening to me talk and going, oh, you think you're an activist? Meanwhile, they're out in the streets, I understand, or getting up at five in the morning to get flyers together and organizing online campaigns. So I feel like I'm an artist who cares. At one point in my bio, a publicist put activist in there, and it was out there for several months. I was like, I don't like that.         


I mean, I'm proud of the work being used for activism, and I'm proud to align with activists. And I feel like if activists want to call me an activist, that's fine, but it's like, you can't award yourself a black belt, is how I feel about it. Right? So I say that to be like. But as far as being vocal and speaking out, I feel, like, very comfortable about that.         


My mom is where this starts from. My mom is a person who, I felt like always said what was on her mind and always had strong opinions. And if people didn't want to hear those opinions, and after she tried to speak out about them, she was like, she would move to the new place. She was like, all right, well, I'm not going to waste my time. Just a.         


That all comes from my mom. And then also, my dad is a great example of being a person who was born into in southern Alabama in absolute poverty, and just sort of, like, willed himself. He still is in Alabama, but willed himself into not absolute poverty, like, it has worked with a Fortune 500 company and had a very successful career in insurance. And I got to see that over my lifetime. From him go to a guy who sort of was semi employed, to a guy who's like, I have to lift myself up by my bootstraps and not take no for an answer, and then not take yes for an answer.         


If you say yes, say more. Yes, say yes again. So I think my parents certainly are part of that. And then there's any number of people who, if I start naming people, there's so many people I'll leave off. But Muhammad Ali was always important to me as I grew into manhood.         


I mean, knew who he was as a kid, knew he was a hero. But then, as I read more about him and the struggle and giving up three and a half years of his professional career for the movement, whatever we think about an athlete being a hero now, like LeBron James is great, but he's not giving up three and a half years of his career for a movement. And I'm not trying to insult him. I'm just saying that Ollie's the only person who's ever done that.         


And then you have, like Malcolm X. When I read the autobiography of Malcolm X, I feel like that book changed my life. So certainly Malcolm X. But then there's many comedians who I sort of look at and like, Chris Rock was a hero of mine and then I got to work with him. So there's any number of people who, over the course of my career, who either have personally done something or just by the example they put out in the world, sort of give me something to look towards.         


Wow. It's been great getting to know you well. Thank you for having me. Thank you. Thank you for being here.         




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