W. Kamau Bell Kicks It with Klan Members & Shines A Light on Race and Equality Issues on CNN’s “United Shades of America.”
Comedian and podcaster W. Kamau Bell is going on a cross-country trip across America and you’re invited along for the ride. Bell’s new docu-series “United Shades of America” debuts at 10pm ET/PT this Sunday, April 24 on CNN. In the eight-episode series the socio-political comedian travels from the deep South to San Quentin prison and all points in between to shine a light on the many shades of American culture.
In the premiere episode Bell travels down south to meet a chapter of the Ku Klux Klan eager to discuss their rebranding efforts. That’s right, even hate groups need some public relations magic from time to time.
We spoke with Bell as he prepares for the launch of this insightful series. Find out his thoughts on race, gender equality, and which CNN anchor he’s inviting to the cookout.
What was the inspiration behind “United Shades of America?”
W. Kamau Bell: I’m a person who believes in the power of the awkward conversation to initiate important social change and political change. You have to start at a real small level to make things better. When you talk about policies and protests – and both are super important – but at some level it starts out as two people sitting down and having an awkward conversation and exchanging ideas and learning things about each other that they wouldn’t have learned if they hadn’t agreed to share a space.
When the show was brought to me it was initially called “Black Man, White America” and was about a Black man traveling to White places. I was like, “Is this set in the past!?” I feel like in America currently we realize there’s so much more than Black and White America. It’s not just a White/Black problem. Its about Latinos, its about Asians, it’s about disabled, its about a lot of things. I can’t just talk about White people. That’s ignoring the people who need the most attention in this country, so I would like to go to more places. That’s when the show shifted to “United Shades of America.”
But if we are going to talk about White America, I want to talk to the Klan. I want to talk to a tea party member. I want to go to a country club. Let’s go to Whiteness in its most critical and glaring place – the Ku Klux Clan. And a lot of White people said, “I didn’t know the Klan was still a thing.” For me that’s one of the most important parts of the episode – to show that the Klan IS still a thing. It’s not a relic of America’s past. It’s a part of America’s present.
Do you think people think about diversity and racism only in terms of Black and White?
W. Kamau Bell: I think that’s less and less. I think social media has really helped in that more and more people are talking about other issues. But I do think America’s first racial problem was between Whites and Native Americans, but those White people cleared out most of the Native Americans so that problem became less and less significant. But America’s first racial problem that it had to deal with in any sort of real way was that we want all these Black people to help us and build this country for free, but we don’t want to deal with their humanity. That’s the cornerstone of America’s race problem.
It also happens that there are times when you can solve a Black/White problem and it can sort of trickle down to the other races and ethnicities, though that’s not always true. That’s why we did a whole episode of the show in East LA about Latino Americans.
For me it was a very glaring example of how their issues aren’t the same issues as mine. As a Black person in this country, I often feel like I don’t know if I’m being awarded full citizenship, but nobody is saying I’m not a citizen. So you can’t just think that if you solve the Black/White problem that you’re going to solve the White/Latino problem or the White/LGBTQIAA problem or the White/Disabled problem – You can’t solve all those problems just by focusing on the White/Black problem.
What do you hope to accomplish with United Shades of America?
W. Kamau Bell: If there’s something in each episode where people walk out talking about it and are curious about it and that takes them to Google, then mission accomplished. If the next day they talk to somebody about something they liked or hated or were confused by, then mission accomplished.
Sometimes when you watch TV and it ends, it immediately leaves your brain. Then there’s some TV you watch and when it ends you’re like, “I need to talk to people about it.” Right now, every time I watch an episode of The People v. OJ Simpson I’m like, “I wish I was with a group of people I could talk with about that episode.” I think that’s the best kind of TV – the kind that initiates dialogue and conversation.
Speaking of The People v. OJ Simpson, in the Mark Furman episode Johnny Cochran is excited that America will hear on tape how police can often treat Black people. But 20 years later Black Americans like John Crawford, Tamir Rice and Eric Garner are being killed by police on videotape and no one is convicted. Do you feel like these same issues keep going around in circles? Do we ever make progress on race in general?
W. Kamau Bell: There’s kind of two ways to answer that question. One, over an infinite timeline America becomes more liberal and progressive. If you look at where America was at its founding vs. where it is now, there’s no way you can say it’s not a more liberal and progressive country. We’re always moving in that direction, but it’s certainly a one step forward, two steps back, then two steps forward kind of thing.
For instance we’re re-legislating the abortion issue but it’s like, “We solved that in the ‘70s!” So we have to stay woke. We have to stay aware of the world. We can’t ever think that we’ve won the war. We may win a battle, but we haven’t won the war. So yes, in the macro things get better, but they only stay better when we’re working in the micro to keep them better.
I’m old enough to remember when the Rodney King thing happened and we thought, “We have the evidence! We have it on film!” Well now we know it doesn’t matter if you film it if the grand jury doesn’t indict the police officers and send them to trial. But even then it doesn’t matter if you send them to trial if its an all White jury who think the police do no wrong. Eric Garner, John Crawford, Tamir Rice, even Sandra – not that she was killed on camera – but if she had been a White person that cop would’ve been like, “You’re acting like a jerk. Here’s your ticket. Go on your way.”
So I think we have to keep fighting and stay in the struggle. More of us have to stay in the struggle than we thought. We thought it was just the Civil Rights people, but we all have to own that piece of that mantle. But even with the OJ thing they were saying, “We have the proof to get him off,” not “We have the proof that he’s innocent.” Those are two separate things! That’s the thing we need to find – that thing that will convict these (police who kill unarmed people). Because what we think is proof is not proof to the criminal justice system.
What are some of the things you hope will change as your children grow up?
W. Kamau Bell: I would hope everybody would be able to use whatever bathroom they choose to use that they feel one serves them the best. It seems weird to me that the bathroom is the new battleground. It’s sort of where the people who are anti-transgender focus on bathrooms. To me that is one of the most ludicrous things that I have ever heard about. So I hope that by the time my daughters grow up we figure out this whole bathroom situation.
I’m helping raise two mixed race daughters and my 5-year-old is super excited about learning. She’s super excited about science so I feel like it’s a very critical issue to empower that excitement. Because at some point she’s going to encounter a situation where people say, “You shouldn’t be excited about science because you’re a girl.” I just feel like it’s my #1 job to beat down all the barriers around her so she can take that science excitement as far as she wants to, whether she ends up being a scientist or not. I don’t want her to lose her excitement about learning because the system says you’re not supposed to be excited about these things.
Was there anything in the first season of “United Shades of America” that surprised you?
W. Kamau Bell: I think my favorite episode of the season was Episode Two where we shot in San Quentin. I went into that situation having never spent time in a prison on either side of the bars. San Quentin is a prison that houses lifers who will probably be in there for the rest of their lives or will be up for parole, but won’t get it because states don’t like to parole lifers even if those guys have done things to rehabilitate themselves. But San Quentin is a place that offers a lot of rehabilitation programs. I never imagined I would go in there and meet so many cool dudes and then come out feeling sad.
It’s a very big indicator of how much wasted potential exists behind the walls of prison because no politician wants to be the politician who says, “I paroled more inmates than any politician in any other state!” Because we view the criminal justice system as being purely punitive, there are generations of men and women who have been thrown away in prison. By the end I was sad to leave because I’m never going to see these guys again unless I come back here. Like I’m not going to run into these people in the streets. I was really surprised by how much I was changed by that episode.
Now that you’re in with CNN, who’s coming to the cookout: Anderson Cooper or Wolf Blitzer?
W. Kamau Bell: (Laughing) I’ve been around Wolf once, but I’ve been around Anderson several times and that dude is a straight G! That dude is cool. He’s like the Jay Z of CNN. Everybody wants to be around him. He seems to be everywhere at once. He drops a smoke bomb and disappears. That dude is super cool. It’s like how when people say Bill Clinton is talking to you and makes you feel like you’re the only person in a room. That’s how Anderson Cooper rolls too. I’m going to get that AC360 tattoo soon!
“United Shades of America” premieres Sunday, April 24 at 10pm ET/PT on CNN. For information on W. Kamau Bell and his upcoming stand-up appearances, visit his website at www.wkamaubell.com or follow @wkamaubell on Twitter.
Photo Credit: CNN