“Humor is the best way to communicate any message, because if people are laughing, you know they’re paying attention.”
W. Kamau Bell, the towering 6’4” writer and stand-up comedian best known for his now-defunct show Totally Biased with W. Kamau Bell, says he can’t be sure I’m actually listening to him when he’s talking — except that I laugh when he says that, letting him know that I’m “probably paying attention a little bit.” (I was, I promise.)
Based on the steady stream of laughter, gasps, and guffaws — responses which, combined with a handful of awkward silences throughout the evening, Bell called “the second show” of the night — the packed crowd at the Athenaeum on Monday was, indeed, probably paying at least a little bit of attention to his presentation, “The W. Kamau Bell Curve: Ending Racism in About an Hour.” Bell’s interactive talk covered everything from redlining policies to Kim Kardashian’s ethnic background and his own experiences with racism in the liberal enclave of Berkeley, California; each topic transition leveraged humor — not always feel-good humor so much as challenging gut-punches — to connect Bell’s underlying argument about pervasive racism with deadpan criticisms of the poor likeness between Kanye West and a series of white men who donned blackface to imitate him on Halloween.
In his segment on “White People and Halloween,” Bell began by describing a Texas mayor whose husband dressed as a Klansman on Halloween as a “prank,” and concluded by projecting the photo of two white Claremont students dressed in stereotypical Mexican outfits, captioned with a warning of the impropriety of “Mariachi Face.” (“Good thing I Googled this college” was his lead-in.) “There’s this idea that Halloween is this get-out-of-racism-free card,” he quipped, ending the segment with a set of three rules for the acceptable use of blackface, the first of which was simply “NEVER.”
In a conversation before his talk, Bell explained that “when people laugh at something, no matter whether it’s political or not, what they’re saying is: I understand what you’re saying. It doesn’t mean they agree with you, but … that’s the first step to communication: I understand what you’re saying.”
Bell’s take on the utility of humor in building understanding and fostering communication offers an inroad to something that Laverne Cox, the black trans actress renowned for her role on Orange Is the New Black, emphasized when she visited the Athenaeum in December: the need for what Cox called “difficult conversations across difference” — discussions that confront profound political or ideological disagreements with the hope of approaching mutual respect and increased understanding.
When I asked Bell about Cox’s recommendation, he recalled that “when I started doing the show [The W. Kamau Bell Curve], the idea was that if you brought a friend of a different race, you got in two-for-one, which was my way to mix the room. Because I was like, if we’re going to have a conversation about racism, we need to have everybody in the room.” In doing so, he hoped to get attendees thinking about their social circles — if you realize you don’t have friends of another race, questioning why that might be — in addition to exposing people to his show who might not otherwise have been in the audience.
When it comes to actually having these “difficult conversations across difference,” Bell advised that “you’re going to make mistakes,” but you need to accept that, and “dust yourself off and start again. You can’t go, ‘We tried to have a difficult conversation one time and it didn’t work, so we won’t do it again.’” That said, he noted a few ways he thinks these talks often go wrong. “People who aren’t directly involved in the conversation need to allow the conversation to happen without their input,” he noted, comparing a white person’s role in conversations about racism to his duty to listen before talking in women’s conversations about sexism. Likewise, he advised, “you have to be okay with the fact that everything doesn’t involve you” in a lot of these discussions, and “be comfortable with shutting up.”
Bell also suggested taking a backseat in order to put someone else’s experience first, explaining, “Let your friend, or the person you want to be an ally of, talk about their experience, and just listen — even if you don’t understand, even if you have feedback, even if it makes you angry. The most valuable thing you can do is listen to somebody else’s experience,” Bell continued.
“I think we spend a lot of time waiting for our turn to talk in these discussions. Like, ‘When you said that, here’s what it made me feel.’ When it’s like, well, your feelings aren’t always the most important feelings,” he added. “In any conversation, it’s not always your feelings or your feedback that’s the most important.”