WASHINGTON – W. Kamau Bell wants you to feel uncomfortable — and laugh while feeling that way.
As host of CNN’s “United Shades of America,” he travels around the country to explore issues of race, ethnicity and identity. The journey has taken him to Indian reservations, San Francisco’s Chinatown, and a nervous nighttime back roads rendezvous in Arkansas with a white-hooded imperial wizard of the Ku Klux Klan.
“I want to show people who watch this TV show to know what’s going on in America outside of their comfort zone and outside the bubble they live in,” Bell said. “Or I want to show people in this community what their community looks like from a different perspective.”
In a recent episode of the podcast “Majority Minority,” the Emmy Award-winning comedian discussed race relations, the intersection of activism, and some of the criticism that he gave white nationalist Richard Spencer and members of the Klan a platform by interviewing them on his CNN show.
Bell said his comedic mission is to shine a light on what’s going on in America, even if it means focusing on controversial groups and figures such as Spencer, who was barred earlier this month from speaking at a conference held at a federal building in Washington.
“I feel like me talking to the Klan on ‘United Shades,’ me talking to Richard Spencer, I’m always like ‘The racists are coming! The racists are coming!,’ like I’m black Paul Revere over here,” Bell said. “I’m to talking Richard Spencer and he’s saying he wants to bathe in white privilege. There’s a part of me that’s, like, ‘Keep talking, keep talking.’ ”
Bell endured blowback for those episodes from people on the political left who accused him of giving hate figures free television time to spread their views.
“Maybe you don’t like how I’m doing this, maybe you don’t think I’m funny, but this thing is still happening in America,” Bell said. “This is really a part of this country. Whether you like how I approached it or not, you still should reckon with the fact that this is real.”
Bell is a podcast triple threat, sharing his thoughts on politics, entertainment and culture on “Kamau Right Now,” “Denzel Washington is the Greatest Actor of All Time Period” with co-host Kevin Avery and “Politically Re-Active” with fellow comedian Hari Kondabolu.
He’s also the author of “The Awkward Thoughts of W. Kamau Bell: Tales of a 6’4” African-American, Heterosexual, Cisgender, Left-Leaning, Asthmatic, Black and Proud Blerd, Mama’s Boy, Dad and Stand-Up Comedian.”
He says his comedy and social activism are intertwined to the point that he ignored the advice of friends and joined counter-protesters who rallied against white nationalists as they tried to march in Berkeley, Calif., in August.
“I feel it’s important for me to show up, to be seen,” he said. “I would hate for my kids to be like, ‘What happened, where were you and mama when that day that big rally happened in Berkeley and we’re like, ‘Well, we took the opportunity to go to this beautiful bed-and-breakfast in Sausalito.’ People told us not to go to the rally, people said ‘You’re too public, you’re going to targeted, Kamau.’ I just felt like I can’t not be there.”