W. Kamau Bell on America’s Racial Tourette’s
Words by Vincent Girimonte
W. Kamau Bell reassures me in our conversation last week that yes, I read the fine print correctly: if you bring a person of a different race to his show, The W. Kamau Bell Curve: Ending Racism in About an Hour, slated for two performances Aug. 20, 2010 at The Comedy Spot, you will be rewarded with a two-for-one discount. This bargain first struck me as some sort of revealing trap, or maybe just a joke I wasn’t quite in on–“people are so cynical.” My next question: who’s in charge of this…profiling of a racial nature?
“We have a strict ‘don’t ask, don’t tell’ policy at the door,” says the San Francisco-based comedian, who, in addition touring with the Curve, released his second stand-up album, A Face Full of Flour, earlier this year. “You don’t want to put some door person at the forefront of telling somebody ‘you two are the same race!’”
The show’s moniker is as unambiguous as Bell himself, a “race-ist” commanding attention through a blunt dialogue on our racial States, and his build even–6-foot-4 with an afro. Digital slides, video clips and various other media are used as part of Bell’s shtick, striving to stimulate and invigorate the atrophied, “post-racial” conscience, white, black, brown or Polish (remember: no asking or telling).
It seems as though your show employs some didactic techniques; are you giving us a race lesson, in a sense?
I definitely like people leaving the show thinking “I didn’t know that,” but it’s a comedy show. If people want to learn, there are people way smarter than me to learn from–it’s not a funny lecture. I’ve always liked comedy that left you with something afterwards, though. I’m a big fan of Bill Hicks and Lenny Bruce, people who were comedians first, but also want to change the way you think about things, change the air in the room a little bit. I’d be stupid to compare myself to two of the greatest comics in the history of mankind, but I think that’s the school of comedy [under which I perform]. I think that’s also true of Chris Rock; he wants you think differently when you leave the room.
How did race first manifest itself in your material?
Like a lot of things, it’s the fault of your parents. My mom was a Ph.D. student at Stanford back in the ‘70s. She was trying to get her degree in African-American literature, but at that point Stanford didn’t consider African-American literature to be a field of study. She withdrew from the program rather than take a Ph.D. in a program she didn’t want…so that’s my mom. My dad has always been the kind of black person who was either the first or “I’ll be better than everyone around me.” He’s been a super successful businessman because he refuses to be defined by his race. Being raised by those people sort of puts you in the way I see the world. I’ve always struggled with how the world sees me versus how I see the world.
You spent much of your youth in Chicago. How did your time there influence your views on race?
Chicago is one of the most racially segregated cities in the United States. There are probably still places in Chicago where black people shouldn’t go. The difference in Chicago is they might tell you when you walk in, “Oh no, black people shouldn’t be here.” Oh thanks, I’ll see you later. Coming out to San Francisco, which has the reputation of being super liberal, there are places where black people shouldn’t go, but they just don’t talk to you. That’s true of every racial group–I’m only speaking from the black perspective. The racial dialogue in San Francisco isn’t usually talked out loud, because people think we solved it by virtue of our area code. In Chicago, I feel like you can tell somebody, “You’re being racist,” and they’d be like, “You’re damn right I’m being racist,” which is a different problem. In the Bay Area it’s, “What? How could I? There’s no way. I have a black friend. I order my burritos in Spanish.” I think living in San Francisco is what pulled the show out of me.
You’re a language guy. Give me an accepted word or phrase pertaining to race that you find annoying.
We’re two years into the era of the first black president, and there’s still this debate about whether or not we’re living in “post-racial” America. That was solely an invention of the media. It doesn’t even make sense. I looked it up in the dictionary and found out it’s not in the dictionary. It doesn’t mean anything. In the show I talk about how I can disprove the idea of post-racial America in two words: Cleveland Indians. I show the logos for the Indians, for the Redskins, the Braves: We still have sports teams named after races of people.
The last six months of news has been fraught with racial tension–I’m thinking Shirley Sherrod, the Tea Party, Arizona SB 1070. What did happen to that “post-racial” society of November 2008?
When I started doing this show, people thought this guy Obama could maybe be vice-president for Hillary Clinton. How quickly things changed. It’s interesting to me, because America having their first black president has become a lightning rod for racists. It’s almost like having racial tourette’s. And the right has done a really good job of making people believe that their problems are the fault of [Obama]; not that we, the rich people, have destroyed the economy. It’s easy to blame the black guy. I’m also not there to cheerlead Barack Obama. The show is hyper-topical; there are things that come in and out of the show based on how topical they are.
Why can Americans laugh about race but not talk about it seriously?
Well a lot of race humor–and this is what I try to steer clear of–is just making fun of other races. A large part of humor settles on making fun of people; not that there’s anything wrong with that, but it’s not the same as when Chris Rock talks about race, or Dave Chapelle talks about race. The thing I’m trying to do with the show is use jokes to indict stuff I don’t like, but I’m not just making fun of it. It’s easy to make fun of other people, you know, “That’s true! Chinese people do blah, blah, blah.”
Catch The W. Kamau Bell Curve: Ending Racism in About an Hour at The Comedy Spot, Aug. 20, 2010 playing back to back at 8 p.m. and 10 p.m.