Comedian W. Kamau Bell on Making Sense of America (ep. 60)

August 15, 2019
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This week's guest is W. Kamau Bell: standup comedian, prolific podcaster, and host of his own show on CNN, "United Shades of America." He's known for his incisive socio-political commentary and activism, including on behalf of the ACLU, where he serves as an artist ambassador for racial justice. He joins At Liberty to discuss race, his show, Anthony Bourdain, parenting, and more.

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EMERSON SYKES
[00:00:04] From Oakland, California, this is a special episode of At Liberty. I'm Emerson Sykes, a staff attorney at the ACLU and your host.

Today's guest is none other than W. Kamau Bell, standup comedian, prolific podcaster, and host of his own show on CNN, United Shades of America. He's known for his incisive socio-political commentary and activism, including on behalf of the ACLU where he serves as an artist ambassador for racial justice. He's a person who doesn't need much introduction, and we have lots to discuss, so we'll dive right in. Kamau Bell, thanks very much for having us. Welcome to the podcast.

W KAMAU BELL
Thank you. That was a very professional intro by the way.

EMERSON
Hey, thanks. You know, we’re trying to keep it pro.

KAMAU
That was good. It was good. I felt like I heard that like news song from like “de de de de de de de de de de de. Welcome to At Liberty.”

EMERSON
That's what we're going for.

So Kamau, we have a lot of things we want to cover. But with all the talk about going back to where you came from and going back to Africa, I actually want to start by giving you props for the best back to Africa line I've ever heard. So, we're here in Oakland, my wife's hometown, but you recently, last year you were in Kenya, another place I've spent a lot of time. You were there with Bourdain and you arrived in Nairobi surrounded by people every shade of Black.

KAMAU
Yeah.

EMERSON
And your response was, “Anthony, this is what I thought Oakland was going to look like when I first moved there.”

KAMAU
That's right. Yeah. Yes that's true. That's true.

EMERSON
So that was a beautiful connection between two places that I love in Oakland and Nairobi. But I'm wondering, what has stuck with you a year later from that trip, especially as regards to race and its experience here and there and all over?

KAMAU
[00:01:49] The big thing I felt when I was there is like, “I gotta get my kids here as soon as possible.” And by “as soon as possible” I mean when they can take a 10 hour flight, you know, I have almost a 14 month old and a 4 1/2 year old and an 8 year old. And so I was like, “We have to figure out how to prioritize this,” because, you know, I' grown ass man who should have gone a long time ago but also just didn't live a life where that was going to be, like, international flight was possible. You know, I was trying to be a comedian. All these kind of things; there are lots of reasons why I didn't do it, but feeling like, “I gotta travel more around the continent.”

So, I mean, I certainly feel like, I gotta make West Africa a priority, you know, cause that's where most of my DNA comes from. But really trying to figure out how to get my kids there, you know. The big thing I've learned from being a parent is that the more you sort of, your kids experience travel and see the rest of the world, the less weird they think new information is.

EMERSON
Totally, totally. Well, there's one other moment that stuck out to me from your trip to Kenya. There was a time when you were visiting Kibera, a very famous slum in the middle of Nairobi, and you're sort of local guide was telling you, “You know the Mzungu, they come here, they film for a few days and then they leave and we're left as we were before.” And you turned to him, and you said, “Wait, am I the asshole?”

KAMAU
Yes. I think I said, “Are we assholes?” because I was pointing at Bourdain, too.

EMERSON
Exactly, exactly.

KAMAU
Yeah. I was really happy when they left that in the edit. Because that felt very me to me, like a lot of the episode was me sort of learning how to hang out with Bourdain, and “Are we really--are we becoming friends? Is this just a gig?” And so that was a time I felt really like, relaxed and was like, “I can say this thing I would say on my show,” you know, “Are we the assholes? And the fact that Bourdain laughed really hard and everybody else laughed made me feel, like the point was made and, you know, everybody got it. Yeah.

EMERSON
Well, it was very you, and I think it also sort of captures something that you share with Bourdain, which is sort of an openness, and when you're encountering these new people, being willing to be self-reflective and think about, “Okay, how do I fit into this situation?”

KAMAU
Yeah. I mean, for me also, it's just something that white people don't really realize: that me going to Kenya, Kenyans don't look at me and go, “He's one of us.” They may go, “He's a--a Black American and we want to connect with Black Americans,” but nobody thought I was Kenyan.

EMERSON
Right.

KAMAU
And so in in Kibera, I was in some ways as much of an outsider as Tony is.

EMERSON
[00:04:00] Right.

KAMAU
And so, it was really important to me to not act like, “Is Tony the asshole? Are the white guys holding the cameras the assholes? Like, are all of us collectively the asshole?”

EMERSON
Right. And that seems to tie really closely into your own show, United Shades of America. Can you just tell us, there's a lot of stuff going on, you cover a lot of different topics. Can you just tell us what’s the mission behind United Shades of America?

KAMAU
It's funny, every year, I sort of have this talk with CNN about what the new season is going to be or what the --It's-- And a lot of that is the mission of the show, and it has changed, or it’s just sharpened since the first season. The first season, I think, it was a lot about like, fish out of water, like, you know, “What is this Black guy going to do in Alaska?” You know, you know, like, “What is this Black guy going to do at spring break with all these white kids?” you know.

And that was all fine. But for me, it's really about a Black American comedian trying to understand America, you know. And so it's like as I'm traveling around, I'm trying to like understand how this thing works together and how it does not work together. You know, right now we’re caught up in the 2020 election. When you sit down to talk to people, if you don't bring up Trump or if you don't bring up, you know, left-right politics, that stuff doesn't come up. It's about like, how do we make this community stronger, you know? I feel like it's a thing where every week we're basically going, “See? If we all pull together, we can do this.” Like every episode is saying that same thing over and over again and every every season I'm like, “Didn't we learn last season, if we all pull together, we can do it?” You know, so. I feel very lucky that, like, I dropped out of college, and I really feel like I'm getting that sociology degree I should have gotten in the first place.

EMERSON
I'm sure you've also learned quite a bit throughout your travels. What stuck with you in particular?

KAMAU
There's a couple episodes I think about when I think about the episodes that had the biggest impact on me. So with the first season, the episode that had the biggest impact on me was the one in San Quentin prison. I had never been inside a prison before, and I-- and I had a real limited sort of, like, you know, like that “Lockup” that prison quote unquote “documentary reality show” where they show you the worst parts and everything, and so I was like-- I was really sensitive going in there, “I don’t want to make one of those things where we just show the, sort of, the most salacious elements of a prison and go that's what it is.” And so I was nervous going in there. And also, I was like, “Why do these guys want to talk to me?” you know.

[00:06:05] And in that episode, you can see the moment where I sort of like opened up. I had just walked into the yard with the deputy warden and he asked me, like, “How do you feel right now?” And I was like--And, it is the yard which which actually looks like the yard from every prison movie: divided a lot by race and activities. And he said, well he's like, “How do you feel right now?” And I was like, “Well, I feel like a little bit like I'm walking into a neighborhood I don't know.” And then one of the guys in the prison goes, “Like your comedy, bro.” And I was like, “Oh, I feel great” And it was just that moment that I sort of opened up. It was like, “I can just hang out and talk to people.”

EMERSON
These are people.

KAMAU
Yeah, yeah. And also that they're-- all of my prison knowledge comes from things that were sensationalizing and, you know. And so even though intellectually I could realize that, I didn't--on a heart level I didn't know it. And so then, the episode we did in Season Four, I believe it was, with the Sikh community. Which started because Harpreet Singh from the Sikh Coalition, I think was watching the show we did about Muslims in Michigan. And he reached out on Twitter like, “You should come to Boston. Do an episode of the Sikh community.” And I said, “Yes.” And because it went through the Sikh Coalition and they had a buy in early on, it just became a really interesting, informative and really felt like they were invested in us doing it the right way.

And so now, I hear from people all the time how they are able to use that episode as a teaching tool. And it also helped sort of reaffirm the thing that I know already is like, “It's OK to be corrected, we make mistakes.” Because we screened one of the episodes in front of a small community of Sikhs in New York through the Sikh Coalition, and afterwards they wrote saying, “Oh we like this part, we like this part.” And one guy, who is a journalist from Vice whose name I can't remember right now, sorry sorry, sir, uh he was like, “Yeah it was good, but you could fix your pronunciation on some of those things.”

EMERSON
Nice.

KAMAU
And it was going to--it was going to air that Sunday and I was like, “What?” And so thankfully to the production company, All Three Media at the time, we went back in and re recorded some of the things. I'm sure it's still not perfect. And so from that point forward, whenever we have episodes where there was like a language that I feel uncomfortable pronouncing or words like we did-- the Hawaii episode was like that, too. We've brought people into the VO to just listen and to help me work through pronunciation because it means a lot.

EMERSON
[00:08:02] Well, so you've done four seasons and now you're working on the fifth, I guess.

KAMAU
Yes. You guess correct, sir.

EMERSON
Well, what topics have you not addressed yet that you're really hoping to or looking forward to?

KAMAU
I would love to be able to go back to some places like, I really feel like we owe Puerto Rico a Part 2 of our Puerto Rico episode, for a lot of reasons. But one, we went before Maria. And also I’ve--I've connected more to people from Puerto Rico since that episode. And also, I took my whole family to that--to Puerto Rico. I don't always travel with my family but when there are places where it feels like they should go, we go. They didn't go to Arkansas to meet the Klan but they did go to Puerto Rico. And I fell in love with Puerto Rico, and was really like, “Man, I just would like to spend more time there.” So there’s things like that: I wish we could double back and go see some people cause people kind of think that like, there's a Facebook group somewhere where all the United Shades people are hanging out. And they go, “How's that guy doing?” And I'm like, “I don’t know.” And there's some of them I do.

And I do try, now, to keep in touch with people. With the first season, the producers of the show really were sort of treating it like it was a reality show, so I didn't have a lot of direct contact with the people off the camera, and over the last few seasons I’ve really pushed that thing aside and like--.

EMERSON
Cool.

KAMAU
Like with the episode we did in Jackson, Mississippi, I’ve stayed in touch with a lot of the women from that episode, the one about reproductive justice.

EMERSON
Right. Right. Well, clearly race is a central theme, if not the central theme of the show.

KAMAU
Of my life, yes.

EMERSON
Of your life. Of life.

KAMAU
Yeah.

EMERSON
But I'm really interested in the way you, balance getting to know folks, putting yourself in their shoes, the interpersonal aspect of race and our society, but also really trying to pull back the focus to the structural policy level things. I'm thinking, for instance, about the episode you did in Milwaukee around “Living while Black” where you talked about all these incidents of interpersonal racism, but also, you took a lot of time to talk about redlining and structural racism and those types of bigger picture things. And I'm wondering how you think about balancing those big picture ideas. Obviously, the show is supposed to be also funny.

KAMAU
[00:10:01] Some more than others.

EMERSON
Right. But it's supposed to be funny, it's supposed to connect with people, but also you're trying to make a bigger picture commentary, so, how do you juggle those those multiple jobs?

KAMAU
I take the lessons I learned from child on Sesame Street, that you can talk about big issues and also be entertaining and education doesn't have to be boring, you know. And also, I like learning these things so that when I learn them I like sharing them with other people. And I like figuring out a way to like make it go down in a funny or more powerful way. You know, whether it's Sesame Street or I also grew up during 90s hip hop and edutainment, you know like-- So, you know, Malcolm X was hilarious. Like it-- for me, like, there's just all these examples of how humor helped the message go down. And so, uh and I mean Malcolm X the person, the movie in parts, but Malcom, if you--

EMERSON
That’s definitely the pull quote from this interview. “Malcom X was hilarious.”

KAMAU
Yeah. Like, and so for me, I mean all of these--any sort of compelling civil rights leader has been a little bit funny.

EMERSON
Right. You gotta have charisma.

KAMAU
You got to have charisma. And you know and you've got to keep the people paying attention. And then the people can sit and look at you. But if you-- the only way you know if they're paying attention is if they laugh or if they respond to what you're saying.

EMERSON
Well, “bamboozled” is a funny word.

KAMAU
“Bamboozled” is one of the great words. You know a lot of the stuff I like to take in is like that. And so I'm just sort of, you know, I was, you know, I used to sit on my then-girlfriend, now-wife’s couch in Oakland, Rockridge-- to be clear, for people who know-- and watched Anthony Bourdain on the Travel Channel and I'm like “How do you do that?” Or Morgan Spurlock films or Michael Moore films, where it's a big personality who's learning with you, also wants to teach you something but also wants it to be entertaining or else you're not gonna get the message, so.

EMERSON
It strikes me that one of the newest features of the mainstream discussion on race is the presence of the issue of reparations, which obviously is not a new issue but it has a new political resonance.

KAMAU
It’s one of America's original issues.

EMERSON
But it does seem to be entering the debate in a new way. And for me, as someone who grew up thinking of this as sort of a pie in the sky thing that radical black folks discussed--

KAMAU
Me too.

EMERSON
[00:11:57] Right. But now it seems like people are starting to reinterpret the term and put some meat on the bones of the idea, and I think it is getting at this connection between interpersonal stuff as well as systemic racism. Like reparations might mean finding people who are redlined and helping them with their home loans and that kind of thing. And I'm wondering, if any of these sort of innovations or new topics also play into your understanding of of how we tackle these big picture issues?

KAMAU
Yeah, I mean I think that one of the jobs of the show is to stay ahead of the conversation, or also see where people are going to be talking about in a year or so because that's, you know, we sort of start working about a year before. Well, not a year but like eight or nine months for it airs. And so, like when I hear people talking about reparations or I see presidential candidates sort of like raise their hands you know, or the bills, H.R. 40, I think it is, with the bill with the talk about reparations.

EMERSON
Yeah.

KAMAU
If I'm wrong, it's fine, I dropped out of college. You’re--you’re a lawyer you can fix that later. But it's like when I see people talking about that, I'm like, “Let's see if we can do an episode on that.” So to me, that's the same thing with like the reproductive justice episode we did, like hearing what people were talking about, go, “Oh, we need to be there when people are ready to have the conversation.”

Sometimes, it seems weirdly perfect when our episodes come out when something breaks in the story in a big way. So, so yeah, I feel like the job of the show is to stay ahead of that and not to sort of like get there a year too late, you know. So for me, I know that like one of the core viewers of CNN are older white people who might think they're liberal but aren't as liberal as the white people I know, you know, in Oakland.

So they see me as some sort of Berkeley-Oakland-East Bay socialist, whatever. And so my job is sort of like, bring them to the table and do it in a way that--that feels 101 but is actually getting to a higher level of the discussion. So like the episode you talked about with Milwaukee, we had talked about racism on the show for years, and I realized, “We've never actually defined the word racism on this show.” And I know that's a challenging idea. The definition of racism is defined by, you know, academics and organizers and activists, not by the dictionary, generally. But I was like “We're gonna figure out how to sort of throw this in here.” And and I know that for some of the people in the audience, they’re going to be like [grumbles]. But now you're wrestling with this idea, you know.

[00:14:03] So reparations is one of those things that like, we've talked about that as an idea for the show and like, how do you show it, you know? We can't just do an hour-long discussion with people talking about reparations. How do you show it? I think that's a lot of times, if we don't crack stories it’s because we, yes, we could make a YouTube video that explains it. But how do you show it over-- compellingly over 44 minutes.

EMERSON
Well as you said, you're trying to be entertaining but it also sounds like you're both trying to inform but also activate, and I think one of the interesting things about the reparations discussion, at least as it is now, is there's a lot of focus on commemoration and memorials, whether they be Confederate or new ones for overlooked folks. And the tension or the balance between this commemoration and sort of, it seems analogous to me to the role of the artist, kind of showing a mirror, making sure people understand what's going on around them, versus really trying to get them to do something in particular.

KAMAU
Yeah.

EMERSON
And when you have these “101s” or you do these informational type of episodes, do you also have a pretty clear action that you're hoping people will take or or a policy they'll consider?

KAMAU
I mean, more since--the more, the more we do the show the clearer I get on the idea for the show. Also the more that America also gets clearer. There’s just a sense of like I think, you know, when the show first aired, it was Obama's last year in office, and “There's no way that Trump could win,” was the general conversation. If Hillary;s votes had counted, let's just say it that way, we would be in a position where maybe the show would be doing different things. I think it would have affected what we're doing. But the mission of the show is much clearer now in, in the era of Donald Trump, or the error of Donald Trump, whichever way you want to pronounce it. So from what I see people in streets, they're like, “I love your show. What do I do?”

EMERSON
Right.

KAMAU
So the “What do I do?” part is the thing that I try to be, that I'm more focused on now than I was before. A lot of that can't happen in the show. But I can say, “Here's example of ways people are doing in this community.” And then I engage a lot on Twitter and then I can push out those resources, like, for the people who are like really want to know more, and I often hear from people like, “What do I do? Who can I talk to?”

[00:16:04] For most of us, we feel like, “I know I can vote in the 2020 election, but what can I do up until then?” Because a lot of this stuff now is just like, you know, it's bread and circuses. “What can I do right now?” So I try to focus people on things they can do now and that's why I partner up with like, Donors Choose which is about raising money for public schools, putting money in teachers hands to-- to accomplish things in their schools that they shouldn't have to take on themselves.

EMERSON
Right.

KAMAU
So for me that's the thing I'm more aware of now is like, how do I-- and how do I more effectively move people to action. And the show is a piece of that, it’s just not the final piece.

EMERSON
Got it. No, that’s really interesting. I mean you brought up the president so I guess we gotta go to white supremacy now, and white nationalism.

KAMAU
It's a hoax. I just saw on Fox, Tucker Carlson said it's a hoax.

EMERSON
Oh.Good to--good to know.

KAMAU
We can move on to something else.

EMERSON
I feel much better now.

KAMAU
Yeah, as long as long as we stay in this room and pull the shades down, we’re fine.

EMERSON
Well so you're a racial justice ambassador at the ACLU and I'm a free speech attorney at the ACLU. And those issues, they’re not always in conflict but sometimes there's some tension between them and I know my predecessor was on your podcast to talk about Charlottesville.

KAMAU
Yeah.

EMERSON
And it's something that you've thought an awful lot about, but you also have a really interesting perspective on these things, right? Like the ACLU defends the speech of people we like and people we don't like. We've been doing it for 100 years. And, you know, we have to defend that and explain that and I'm happy to do so.

KAMAU
And I, and I, you know, as somebody who is associated with the ACLU, sometimes I have to defend it and explain it, and honestly sometimes I throw my hands up like “Ahhhhhh.”

EMERSON
“It’s Emerson’s fault.”

KAMAU
Yeah, it’s Emerson’s fault.

EMERSON
Which I’m happy to take those calls if you forward them along, but it strikes me that even myself, you know, I'm a First Amendment attorney for the ACLU, I'm what some people might consider a First Amendment purist. But even I have not taken the time out of my day to go sit down with people like Richard Spencer to see--

KAMAU
How far you want to push this? How committed you are to this cause?

EMERSON
[00:17:56] Right. And I think, you know, when I talk to students or activists and I say, “Look free speech doesn't mean that you need to have you know civil dialogue with everybody. It means that you have the right to speak back against these people.” But I--I know that you, on a few occasions, through United Shades, and through other things, have gone out of your way to really speak to people that, you know, you probably couldn't disagree with more.

Is it just good TV or is it because you have that deep belief in the power of dialogue?

KAMAU
First of all, let me be clear like if I sit down and talk to somebody I disagree with, no part of me is trying to convince them of my side of the argument.

EMERSON
Interesting.

KAMAU
I think people want that and I feel like, “Didn't we already live through like the 90s talk show era of Jerry Springer” and like, you know, “You’re a racist, you're a..” Also Geraldo. There's multiple ways to attack these problems, is how I feel about it. So no part of me sits down with Richard Spencer going,”How can I convince him.”

EMERSON
Right.

KAMAU
The thing that I am trying to do, that many people don't appreciate in those moments, is like, keep talking, say all the things you want to say and just say all, every aspect of it.” And often those people get to a place they didn't expect they’re going to get because they're waiting for me to fight back.

EMERSON
Right.

KAMAU
And here's the thing: I don't support anything you're saying. So I don't really need to feel to fight back. So the Richard Spencer thing was funny because at some point he said something like, “I don't mean to offend you.” I was like, “Go for it man. Like, say all the things. Like, yeah try it. Let's see what happens.” Because I don't buy into this. I mean, here's the thing: I do have a feeling of being in this room surrounded by all these people who think this way. I would like to leave as soon as the cameras turn off. And we had a lot of talk on the crew that day, by that point in the show we had more people of color. So, there was definitely like a people of color meeting after that and the white crew members understood.

EMERSON
Like, “How do we feel about that.”

KAMAU
You know, “We just need-- we just need to talk about the white men for a little bit. I love you, white crew members, but we gotta.” So, this is the thing I hear when I do that. So there's some aspect of the audience that goes, “How could you put him on TV.” And there's some aspect that goes, “I had no idea that people actually still felt this way and saying things out loud.” And so there's this tightrope I have to walk of like, is it worth the pushback I might get from people who I like or admire who think they like me and decide they don't like me? And, is it worth the fact that Paste Magazine is gonna say “Kamau Bell should have punched Richard Spencer in the face.” And I’m like, “OK, person who wrote this who probably has never punched anybody in the face. That's what I should have done?

[00:20:06] And so I had to do that calculus, and so, we don't do as much of that as we used to because I think we're a little bit beyond that. Like some people are like, “You should try to get Trump for an interview.” What would be the point of that? I think we have enough tape on him to know how he feels and thinks. I feel like a lot of the show's been this warning, like we did with the KKK episode, we taped it in August 2014, it didn't air until 2016. People are like, “Why are you putting the Klan on TV? That’s not a thing.” Well guess what? Within a year those ideas were clear. Like they're not all wearing the costumes anymore. But those ideas were clearly in the White House, you know. So, you know, I'm not trying to fight with them. I'm not trying to change their mind.

This is the thing people don’t understand. The show is a TV show about a guy making a TV show. So when I'm sitting there, I'm going to prod and ask questions, but I'm not going to try to convince you that that love is love is love is love, you know.

And there are people sometimes who you do see them go just through the nature of conversation that they sort of come to some new understandings, but it's not like I'm sitting down going, “Today I'm going to convince a white supremacist not to be white supremacist.” People want to think that the world is that movie American History X. Where Ed Norton and Joe Tory like, you know, because they did clean laundry together, suddenly Ed Norton is not a white supremacist anymore.

EMERSON
Right.

KAMAU
And it's like that's not the world. You know. I'm not trying to win these people over, I'm trying to alert the people who are like, “I don't know, it's probably not as bad as I think it is. And I go, “No it's--Yeah. You need to pay more attention.”

EMERSON
Well, it struck me, as a Black man making a show about a Black man making a show, you are putting an awful lot of trust in the power of cameras, right? Because you're in this room full of these people who literally hate you and wish you didn't exist or would at least go away. But one--

KAMAU
I think more “Go away” because I feel like the thing with the Richard Spencer thing is everybody--

EMERSON
What would they do without us.

KAMAU
Like, there would be this thing where they would like sort of circle me and sort of like, it's like it's sort of like, it was like, it's like, like they were just like these fish they're sort of circling me. And sometimes one would walk up and try to like “Huh huh What do you think about all this?” Like, “It's fine.”

EMERSON
Yeah.

KAMAU
“Oh OK.” Like there's-- Yeah there's there's--Yeah-- it’s more of a fascination. Which they-- “We were going to have a whole white supremacist fun party until you showed up.”

EMERSON
[00:22:06] Well, I mean the power dynamic is strong. But you have the camera and so you know that's a huge safety valve and a piece of privilege that you're trying to use to expose--

KAMAU
Wouldn't walk into those rooms without a camera crew. Wouldn’t--Not encouraging other people to do it without a CNN camera crew. I'm not you, know, I'm not--This is not--I'm not Sacha Baron Cohen. I'm not trying to like, this is not a stunts and pranks. And also, the other thing is like, the more it’s gone on, I also have a family and I got, you know, I've got a wife and three kids and they have to pay for whatever I do on some level, you know. And we also have to figure out how to make sure that they don't have to pay for as much as somebody would like them to pay for it, you know. It affects the life and safety of my family. So, I take it very seriously. So it's like, despite the fact I'm a comedian, as I've written on Facebook my bio is like, “I tell jokes but I'm not kidding.” You know, so I'm like “This is real life.” So I'm not not trying to be stunty, you know. And sometimes the show sort of veered into that, and I've pushed against it.

And so, the other thing about the Richard Spencer thing specifically that, it's funny that I get asked about him a lot even now, even though I feel like time has proven that he's a paper champion, I guess I’ll say. Doesn't mean the ideas aren't dangerous. But he specifically is a paper champion. Is that people-- will watch the commercial for the show, and Chris Rock told me this years ago, and not watch the show but then have opinions about the show.

So a lot of people, I think, believe I had a 45-- hour long interview with Richard Spencer that aired live, you know. When in reality, he was like eight minutes of a show that was about refugees and immigrants and how this country needs to treat refugees and immigrants better. And I really feel like, the thing I feel that we that sort of failed about this show is that the Richard Spencer part of it was pushed so much that a lot of people never engaged with what the show actually was about, which I think about which was like if he's in there for eight minutes, then it's you know then it's 36 minutes minutes of hearing stories from refugees and immigrants and how this country needs to do a better job of supporting refugees and immigrants.

[00:23:58] You know, this is, as I as a person who grew up with a mom who was born in Indiana in 1937 which is basically like being born in Alabama in 1962 and who remembers “separate but equa”l and she was bused to school, and and whites only this, and black people sit in here and all this kind of stuff, who saw that, and then and then before I was born, she was almost a Black Muslim. She went through all the phases of Black people at that point the country, you know. Founded a Black literary journal. And so like--

EMERSON
Names her kids African names.

KAMAU
Yeah, gives her kids African names. Yeah, she was an early adopter to that. You know, nd then went to Africa, and you know. So all these things, and I was an only child so I was a with her a lot in places because she didn't have child care, single mom, and I would hear these conversations and so, I've been hearing these conversations my whole life.

My mom just reminded me yesterday. She was like, “Do you remember when you met Toni Morrison?” And I was like, “I thought that was Alice Walker?” She's like, “No, you met her, too.” So like that's my mom. Like you know, she wasn't friends of these people but when they came to town, she would take me along. So that's my DNA too as much as, you know, West Africa. Those conversations and, and talking about and trying to figure it out and try to figure out how to be a part of this. How to, sort of, be a productive part of this struggle.

EMERSON
Well, I guess one note I wanted to hit, maybe we can end here, you talked about the influence that your mom has had on you, and how you were raised and now, you know, you're a parent. I'm also a parent. We got these kids coming up in this crazy time surrounded by this crazy news, can't even turn on. I grew up listening to NPR over breakfast.

KAMAU
Yeah. Yeah. Yeah. Nope.

EMERSON
NPR is not playing over breakfast in my household.

KAMAU
Nope. Just the part that goes “baa baa baa baa baa.” Now turn it off.

EMERSON
Yeah, exactly. But I'm interested in hearing how you do approach, you know, these are big issues that you think about in your work, in your life. You know, how do you come home, kiss your kids at night and you look in their eyes and tell them everything's okay? And once you figure it out can you help me? Because I don’t know how to do it.

KAMAU
That’s what I was gonna say, first of all. Do I do that? I mean I think I do.

[00:25:56] I think, I mean it's funny, me and my kids talk a lot about gratitude. We talk a lot about and not even privilege in a racial way but like we have been-- we have a lot of things that people don't have, based on the fact that they happened to be born once my career started going better. “Those lucky lucky little kids, if you'd only been here 10 years ago. “

Yes. So like, you know, we talk about safety and we talk about, you know, where we are in the world and we talk about, just the other day with Juno, we were suddenly in a conversation about race, and she was like and, Juno, my 4 year old, is--will be able to pass. White people will think she's white, Black people aren’t gonna--.

EMERSON
Same with my five year old.

KAMAU
So, and so we talked about how she's like, “I'm,” she's like, “I'm Black, but I'm also white.” And I was like, “Yes, but you does-- like it--but you are a Black person. You are half-- you are half white because of Mama. But you are a Black person.” And she was like “OK,” you know what I mean? So like in their way-- they know Trump is the president. My 8 year old knew we wanted “the lady” to win. So there's all these things that like they're aware of. She may know Clinton's name but at the time I heard to say “the lady.”

But, you know, like every school has active shooter drills, like you know. like the older kid, like sort of like, if a bad person comes in the school. I don't want to shield them from all of it because it just-- it doesn't feel--Let’s let’s get into another non-controversial subject. It's like not vaccinating your kids. Like they need to know what's out there and that the wor--and that we have a great life and we do great things and we have a lot of fun. Also, you know, this is Donald Trump, and this is what he's saying and a little bit, I feel like a little bit of news is good. A little bit of like, of like, what's going on there and me explaining to them, is good. We don't leave CNN all, all day, but sometimes in the morning I'll turn it on, and, you know, sometimes it is a little bit like, “Whoa,” but like I feel like a little bit of news is good because it lets them know that there's a bigger world out there, and as good as you're having it, not everybody's having it that good.

EMERSON
And they’ll, they'll be curious one way or another if you ignore it and you don't say anything, they’ll still be wondering.

KAMAU
I think that's--I mean, you know, I'm not trying to put too fine a point on it, but I think it's negligence, like, as I put a fine point on it. You know, you can not feed your kids vegetables and your kids will be fine probably, you know.

EMERSON
[00:28:04] Ish.

KAMAU
Yeah. But it's also like hand them a carrot every now and again. I feel, I feel the same way about the news as I feel about carrots. Every now and again I just hand my kids carrots for no reason. Just because it's like it's not-- it's not lunchtime, it's not time to eat. “Here's a carrot. Just eat a carrot.” And so I feel the same way about that. I feel the same way about Motown. “Listen a little Motown just cause I don't want you to be the Black kid who’s light skinned and don't know Motown. Also Donald Trump’s the president and he's trying to stop people from coming into this country, even though our country is supposed to be uhh, you know, uhh “Give us your huddled masses yearning to break free.”’ So yeah we're, so, all of that.

EMERSON
Our family is, “Daddy has brown skin, Mommy has white skin and Donald Trump is not kind.”

KAMAU
Oh that's good. I like that. It sounds like a country song.

EMERSON
Kamau Bell, thank you so much for taking the time to speak with us. We really appreciate it.

KAMAU
Thanks for having me.

EMERSON
Thanks very much for listening. Be sure to subscribe to the podcast, rate us and tweet “@ACLU” with feedback. We appreciate your input and will be sure to read every message.

‘Til next week, peace.

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