Led by a president with questionable intentions, the horizon for the US remains foggy at best. But one person through it all continues the good fight. Comedian and TV show host of the CNN program United Shades of America, W. Kamau Bell. He is intent on inviting everyone to the table even if that means disagreement.
Whether it’s Richard Spencer of the alt-right, the Klu Klux Klan, the Sikhs, people of Appalachia, native Hawaiians and so forth. There is nobility in his actions, rather than just shutting down voices who think they aren’t being entertained, he wants to give a platform to everyone including the disenfranchised, in the hope we can all find common ground.
As the United Shades of America enters into the third season of its politically charged tenure, we chat with W. Kamau Bell about why shouting has taken precedence over reason, his thoughts on the ‘new guy’ that white intellectuals are getting behind and what it’s like being a black man in America in 2018.
Now that United Shades of America is heading into its third season, what would you say you have you learned about your own identity in 2018?
Defining myself as a black man is basically something that was assigned to me. If I had grown up in a bubble and never saw other people I wouldn’t think of myself as a black man. It’s a very complicated identity, part of which is about you embracing the complications of the identity. In America, the reason why I refer to myself as a black man is because it’s become a very politicised and criminalised identity. And if you don’t find some joy in the middle of that, your life is going to be miserable.
I think that’s a lot of the challenge of being a black person, but specifically in my identity as a black man, it’s about finding joy in an identity that this country really has no respect or time for. Unless we’re singing, dancing, throwing balls, catching balls or running fast.
Do you think there is enough scrutiny amongst peoples own community about how they behave?
I think that there’s this talk of basically in-house conversations versus out-house conversations. I think that black people are very used to the fact that this is a conversation that we’re having amongst ourselves that we don’t share with the outside world.
Black Lives Matter is a great example of that. Black Lives Matter is basically saying to the outside world, you don’t respect black life enough, and we need you to respect black life more. Saying it only in America, I want to be clear about that.
Having said that, people criticize Black Lives Matter and say “how come you don’t care about black on black violence?” We already cared about that, we’re already working on those issues. If you want to help us work on those issues, do, but people like to pretend like we can’t have those two conversations at once.
"It’s about finding joy in an identity that this country really has no respect or time for. Unless we’re singing, dancing, throwing balls, catching balls or running fast."
We’re living in an age where rationality doesn’t seem to be working, where brute force and extreme dogmas seem to have become more popular. How do you square those two when you’re out in the world doing your show?
I think I square that by the fact that I believe this is something that develops over an infinite timeline, over the long tale of history, that American society here, and certainly it’s true of England too, becomes a more inclusive and progressive society. It happens in fits and starts, but it happens.
So right now we’re going through a jagged process, where we take two steps back and maybe one step forward, and I think you’re doing some of that in England, but it doesn’t mean that you can’t get three steps forward at some point in the future. I can prove that because I’m a black man who’s free. We’re not that far away from slavery.
It wasn’t that long ago in this country where we were debating whether or not to give women, basically white women, the vote. So if you look at history as a long tale, I believe that we will win, as the chant goes at rallies. I might not get there with you, but we’re going to get there. You also have to think, we may not get there soon enough for the people who need it the most right now, but we’re going to get there.
So my job is to work out who are the people who need the most spotlight, who are getting the shortest end of the stick, and go and sit down and have conversations with them, even if those people say “what are you doing here”, which happens quite regularly.
Harrison, a city in Boone County, Arkansas
W. Kamau Bell visits San Quentin prison
It feels like there is an absence of any centrist movement amongst all of this, do you know what I mean?
Yeah I mean America is a country that operates in extremes, that’s sort of how our history has worked because we’re a very young country and therefore that means that a lot of what we do is done in a very immature way. Many Americans in power think that America has the right to do what it wants as if it’s been here forever.
I think that there are people, as I say speaking for America who for years felt like their voices weren’t heard at all. And so now, if you talk about the trans community, or if you talk about openly gay people, that movement is fairly young. Openly gay people can’t be openly gay all over America, still.
So when some groups do get the microphone, they think they need to say everything. They think “I can’t just have a measured tone because somebody might eventually take this microphone from me”. Do you understand?
Yes, but it does seem that the world has become more fractious and everyone is hiding within their own echo chambers. Jordan Peterson is an interesting guy he discusses this idea that our fight for total equality will eventually lead to dark times.
Again, I would say that history is a long line and it might be a little loud during your era of history, but if we process that information correctly, it will evolve through the next era of history.
I feel like sometimes people get so focused on “everybody is so divided right now”. But if we deal with this right way and allow more patience with each other, then we can evolve to the next thing.
Especially because you have the ability to Tweet at anything in a moment, and that thing gets shared around the world. On some level, I think if it’s shared enough you feel like you’ve won the day.
Referring to your point about Jordan Peterson and the world becoming more fractious, I actually watched that Jordan Peterson interview on Channel 4. All I can say is I don’t have a wide berth of knowledge about Jordan Peterson but I did watch that, and my first impression was “this is the new guy”.
"The power is in the silence."
What does that mean, “this is the new guy”?
Sort of as a voice for white men. Now he may not define himself that way but the way in which he speaks and the ideas that he puts forward I imagine a lot of white men line up behind him and go “yes, finally, yes, you” in a way that Richard Spencer was trying to become the voice of some white men. Steve Bannon in America sometimes is, Donald Trump is actually the voice of a certain aspect of white men right now.
So you really think Jordan Peterson is in the same league as those people?
I’m saying that I see white men lining up behind these people. Now, these may not be the same white men, but I’m saying that I see white men online going “yes, finally, somebody who speaks for me”.
I don’t think the Jordan Peterson person is also always the Donald Trump voter. I think there is some overlap, but again this is not in any way an indictment of Jordan Peterson. In the same way that for a couple of years Ta Nehisi-Cotes was the “voice for black men”. That does not mean that I agree with everything Ta Nehisi-Coates says but I do have to reckon with the fact that this is the “voice of black men”.
Cornel West was America’s voice for black men at one point, Malcolm X was. Basically what I’m trying to say is that Jordan Peterson is the Martin Luther King Jr. of white leaders, … That’s a joke! But within all of this, sometimes I feel like it’s not up to white people to decide when everybody else is ready to move through their identity.
I guess where I’m trying to get to with that is that we’re all shouting in the theatre, we’re all screaming.
But I think again if you look through history there are times where that’s happened before in some way. Look at the Tower of Babel. There are times where history heats up to a froth.
I think that in America when you’re saying we’re all trying to put down our guns and create a more equitable and inclusive society, that’s not the case right now. There are margins of America who are not trying to put their guns down and we’re having that debate right now.
But that’s everywhere.
The only way those things happen I think is if they’re messy.They have to be messy for a while before they get clean because I think what’s happening is that there are people who forever have been holding themselves back, or holding themselves in, or being told it’s not their turn yet and now everybody is saying “I’m just going to take my turn”.
At this moment, this is what I believe for the United States, the power is in being quiet and having patience. So if I sit across from Richard Spencer and I say “hey man, just explain this whole thing to me”, and get quiet and don’t focus on trying to call him out on every point he’s wrong about, or don’t focus on yelling at him, what happens is that he gets to speak and everybody who sees that goes “huh, I didn’t realize that about him”. So for me, the power is in the silence.
You’re absolutely right. There are two additional things here that I want to throw into this discussion as well, this idea that technology has become the most invisible but divisive tool there is and the other is why the whole world has become so obsessed with America.
I would agree, I have a six and a half-year-old, I have a three and a half-year-old and another baby on the way, and I feel like my kids when they’re my age are going to say “you guys really fucked up that internet thing didn’t you”. Right now, we think we’re living in the future but the future is going to look at us and think “you really got that social media thing all fucked up didn’t you”.
I just think that we’re the cavemen who discovered fire and we just think that it’s cool because it keeps burning.
If my kids say that to me when I’m older, I’m going to say, “hand’s up, it was the greatest experiment ever and no one at any point had any control over it”. That’s if we’re not being run by robotic overlords by that point.
But then at that point, we can just relax so we don’t have to worry about it.
Exactly. What would you say the purpose of your show is?
I think that if anything I hope that the show changes people’s conversations. I feel like as an artist, I think about musicians, like when Bob Dylan sits down and writes ‘The Times They Are A-Changin’’, he’s sort of in some sense hoping that the song changes the times. But at the end of the day, the song can actually provide people with a way to get through those times.
In America we don’t sit around talking about native Hawaiians ever so if we do an hour of television about native Hawaiians, maybe those of you who watch it will go to work the next day and say, “hey, isn’t it weird that Hawaii is a State?” and then you’ll have some information to talk about. I hope that people who watch the show, specifically Americans, understand that this idea of America as a solid immovable object is not true and we have to keep on evolving it and changing the idea of what America is.
"Jordan Peterson is the Martin Luther King Jr. of white leaders."
But do you feel there is a new plurality that is starting to emerge in the world, not just in America?
I think there’s a possibility of that but I can’t say that’s happening while Donald Trump is in office and the country’s government is controlled by people who are talking about making America great again, by taking America back to the past. That’s why I live in Berkeley because here I feel a sense that we can create an equitable society and an inclusive society.
Right now there’s some statistic that there are more black women running for elected office in America than ever before in history. That’s great, but they’ve got to win. And then they’ve got to win again, and then they’ve got to move up an office, and then there’s got to be a thing where we say “man, there’s four black women running for President and I don’t know which one of them is going to win!” And we’re far away from there. We’re still at the point where it’s probably going to be a white man next time, statistically speaking.
It’s interesting to see the type of reception you get out there, when you appeared on Joe Rogan, a lot of those comments post-show were so nasty, I just wonder how you as a high profile host with a politically charged show cope in a very sensitive socio-political environment?
I get plenty of heat as it is, my wife gives plenty of heat to me, we very actively don’t put our kids’ faces out in the world because when we have done that they’ve got heat as well. We live in a very heat-filled environment. There have been times when we wonder “can we go to that public event or is it too public?” or “is that event going to attract the wrong people?” We’re definitely living in an era where we think about our safety way more than we would have if I wasn’t doing the job I have.
For me, all I’m going to do if I read those comments is think “that’s nice I’m glad those people liked me” or “these people hated me, why are they being so mean? I know my teeth aren’t crooked!” Why do I need to take that energy with me?
The bigger thing is that if Joe wants me on the show, I’ll come back on the show any time because that’s the relationship I’m trying to nurture there. If he thinks I’m valuable in some way to his audience, good. I’ve brought people on my show in the same way. Basically, I’m the Richard Spencer for Joe’s show.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity purposes.