W. Kamau Bell is a crowd-pleaser, first of all.
His one-man show, “The W. Kamau Bell Curve: Ending Racism in About an Hour,” played to nearly nonstop laughs in the crowded Douglass Ballroom on Friday evening, part of UR’s first-ever “Color Cannot Divide Us” week.
But on the subject of racism, Bell is never just joking. Under every quip is a kernel of truth and a call to action.
Bell is a “socio-political comedian and dad” whose dabbled in many media. He’s hosted CNN’s ongoing “United Shades of America,” as well as his own show on FX, “Totally Biased with W. Kamau Bell,” and he’s an accomplished stand-up comedian and podcast producer.
“The W. Kamau Bell Curve: Ending Racism in About an Hour” plays mostly at colleges, where Bell says students are “always looking to push peoples’ boundaries and expand peoples’ ideas.”
“Actually, these days it may take two or three hours,” he joked.
Bell was outspoken about the current state of U.S. politics, calling Donald Trump’s presidency “pre-apocalyptic” and saying, in a bit on the irony of U.S. Census race categories, that he was thinking of “proposing a new census category: Orange-American.”
Bell threw a photo of Trump on the screen behind him, then followed up: “Just kidding, white people, he’s yours.”
Throughout the evening, Bell put much of the onus for ending racism on white Americans.
“The good thing [about Trump’s presidency] is we’re talking about this stuff in ways we haven’t before,” he observed in an interview with the Campus Times before his talk. “White people who wouldn’t have considered themselves to be right-wing or Republican or racist in any way now suddenly realize if their voices aren’t heard more clearly, and if they aren’t taking more responsibility for the white people who are like that, then we’re doomed.”
“If there’s anything to prove that inaction leads to evil, it’s Donald Trump,” he added.
He also said that racism has become more open and acceptable since Trump’s November election. He pointed out the rise in public consciousness of American neo-Nazi Richard Spencer, tracing a connection from Spencer, through the right-wing Breitbart News, to Trump aide Stephen Bannon and the White House.
Bell’s barbs weren’t limited to politics, though.
He discussed Colin Kaepernick’s kneeling during the national anthem, and pointed out the hypocrisy of separating sports from political and racial issues.
“I can prove racism in two words: Cleveland. Indians,” he said.
He had another bit on the two things “to never, ever ask a black person about their hair.” (Number one, “Can I touch it?” and number two, “How do you wash it?”) And he expanded on why it’s not alright to ask those questions, as well.
“Ending racism is not about satiating your curiosity,” Bell told the audience, to applause and murmurs of affirmation, “it’s about respecting people’s boundaries and letting them live their lives.”
Issues of everyday inequality and racism were also on Bell’s agenda for the evening.
He lampooned a Spanish-language Republican party website, whose picture of “Hispanic children” turned out to be a stock photo of Asian kids, and the casting of white actors in Hollywood films such as “The Last Samurai” or “The Great Wall.”
He noted, too, that activism has the power to change this—he attributed the diversity of the current slate of Academy Award nominees to the “#OscarsSoWhite” movement on Twitter.
“If we can’t talk about this racism,” Bell said of this type of casual discrimination, “that’s why we can’t talk about the bigger racism, where life and death is involved.”
From the beginning of the evening, Bell joked that “when I criticize white people, I don’t mean the people here. You’re some of the good ones, you’re not like the rest,” adding in jest, “You speak so well.”.
But he pulled no punches when discussing those who respond to the “#BlackLivesMatter” movement with declarations that “All Lives Matter.”
“We can’t say ‘All Lives Matter’ until we get black lives to matter,” he declared, to applause from the room.
Toward the end of his talk, Bell urged the black members of the audience to take pride in the accomplishments and history of African-Americans.
“You know how much of American popular music black people invented? All of it” Bell laughed.
He also had a message for white audience members.
“You need to be fired up,” he said, urging them to take back “white pride” from the likes of neo-Nazis and the alt-right, the white supremacist strain of nationalism that became a topic of conversation in the 2016 campaign.
And to everyone fighting against racism and discrimination, Bell urged: “Make sure that in between fights, you’re also nourishing your soul.”