A person who has spent most of his career “being anonymous, or nearly anonymous,” W. Kamau Bell is still adjusting to the attention that his CNN unscripted series United Shades of America has brought him. Beginning his artistic journey as a “live performer [and] podcaster, working on lots of small things,” Bell is now a two-time Emmy winner and five-time nominee, who has traveled the country with his latest series, offering nuanced discussions of such complex topics as racism and incarceration.
In the fourth season of United Shades, the host has looked to get smaller and more specific with his show, branching out from more general issues to cover a wide array of fascinating topics, while putting a lens to sections of the U.S. population that are lesser-known and little understood. Investigating megachurches in Dallas and the various facets of body politics, Bell also met with gun-toting liberals protecting themselves and their communities from the alt-right, as well as Hmong Americans, who were brought to the United States after being expelled from their home country, following the tragedy that was their “Secret War.”
On his tour of the U.S., Bell has oft observed “this weird excitement to be divided”—which, he makes clear, is not something he wants to take part in. In the work he’s undertaken on United Shades, Bell never claims to have all the answers, instead choosing to cast his spotlight on a tangled web of interconnected issues. Attempting to recognize and reconcile many conflicting definitions of America, Bell does hold out hope that a larger reconciliation will come.
“The thing I sometimes recognize is, as much as we think America has been here a long time, it ain’t been here that long. And we have to also recognize that countries are temporary, in the long scheme of things,” the United Shades host says. “I don’t know what the future holds, but if things end up being better and there’s more justice and more equity, I don’t really care what it looks like and what it’s called. I just want it to be better.”
Up for Emmy consideration as the host and executive producer of the CNN series, Bell also will look to contend with Private School Negro, his fourth comedy special and first on Netflix. “When I got the Netflix special, I’m like, ‘Oh my god,’” the comedian reflects. “’I’m finally doing the thing at the place where the thing is to be done.’”
What was on your mind, going into Season 4 of United Shades of America?
Every season, I’m trying to push to make it smarter and more inclusive, and to get more specific about what we’re talking about. A big part of that was, we had a thing this year that we’ve never had before called “Shades Camp,” where we brought in outside consultants—Jamilah King, who’s a journalist at Mother Jones, Eve Ewing, who’s a writer, poet, activist, and awesome comic book writer out of Chicago, Rembert Browne, a journalist who has written for The Ringer and Time Magazine, and people I knew through social media and had talked to a little bit, [but hadn’t] met in real life. It was all black people who I was wanting to bring in—not even just for the black stories, but for a stronger journalistic voice—and just people who I know are smarter than me, without a doubt.
How did you arrive at a list of topics and subcultures to explore?
Usually, I come in with a bunch of them, but this year, I didn’t have as many as I’ve normally had, which makes sense as the show moves forward. So, we sat in a room for a few days and everybody gets to pitch ideas. That’s how we got the idea of the Hmong American one in Saint Paul. I never would have pitched [that]; I didn’t even know the Hmong story, so that’s the great thing about the show. One of the things we do really well is, when I go in, as somebody who doesn’t know anything, or very little…I’m reasonably intelligent, so if I don’t know anything, there’s probably other people out there who don’t know anything either.
We had a lot of producers who were there early and pitched ideas, and then CNN also weighs in sometimes, so it was really a group effort. It wasn’t really like in previous seasons.
In the past, you’ve described United Shades as an independent ethnic studies major you wish you were getting credit for, and you’re clearly a very inquisitive, engaged person. Where do you think your curiosity about the world came from?
I think it’s just how I was raised. I was an only child, growing up with my mom, so I spent a lot of time by myself, watching whatever. I never had to share the TV with anybody; we had two TVs, and I’m good company for myself. So, I was the kid who would read the back of a cereal box, or whatever. I think I was just always sort of in my head, on the sidelines, looking at things.
And I moved around a lot. I’d live in Boston and they’d be like, “You’re going to Alabama for the summer? Why would you go to Alabama?” And I’d be in Alabama: “Why do you live in Boston?” So, I think I was always aware that there were multiple Americas out here. Then, touring as a comedian is the same thing. You play places that you would normally never go to, potentially, but you’re going there to tell jokes. So, I think it was just sort of natural.
Having toured around the country for years, what observations have you come to about America?
You know, it’s funny that if you don’t talk about politics, you can actually have a better connection with somebody. I think right now, people are very excited to not be connected to people by talking about politics. They almost want to talk about politics so they can fight, and I don’t really have a lot of interest in that.
Somebody the other day was like, “You don’t talk to enough black conservatives on the show.” I was like, “You have no idea how many black conservatives I’ve talked to on the show because I don’t ask everybody who they voted for.”
Sometimes on the show, people are mad that I’m not being more divisive in talking to people and I’m like, “That’s not what I’m here to do. And if you don’t like what I’m here to do, then I’ll move on.” But I’m here to sort of figure out, “How can we actually figure out a way to make this work better?”
Your fourth episode, “Body Politics,” couldn’t have been arrived at a more appropriate time, as reproductive rights are being stripped across the country. Did you have a sense of how timely the piece would become? What did you take away from that episode?
Certainly, nobody could know that it was going to align with what happened in Alabama, and in fact, I pushed for it to be the season premiere because I was just really excited about it. No matter when it would have come out, it would have felt relevant, but it just happened to feel more relevant because of Alabama. Clearly, I can’t predict the future, but that’s happened with our show more often than I realize, that things come out when they’re supposed to come out.
We did an episode in Alabama, where my dad lives, last year, and I was like, “We need to do more things in the South,” because I just felt like that’s an area of the country that America still doesn’t understand. Then, at the same time, I now understand what I was talking about was reproductive rights. At the time, I didn’t know that phraseology. I was saying, “Let’s do an episode about abortion.” So then, through the process of talking about those things, one of the producers—Jill Jones, who’s on the episode—discovered that Jackson, Mississippi has the last abortion clinic in the whole state.
Then, at some point, I was talking to Kelly Rafferty—who works with me separately from the show on lots of other things—and she was like, “Is this episode that you’re doing on reproductive rights, or reproductive justice?” And, I was like, “What now?” [laughs] She’s got a PhD in Women’s Studies, so she knows a lot more than me. So again, I like to surround myself with people that are smarter than me, and from that point forward, it became clear to me that I didn’t really know the nuances of this, and if I don’t, other people probably don’t know—and the people who are working in this stuff would probably like it if this information was out there.
I think I was really scared that the episode was going to be sad or feel like it was needlessly incendiary, like were trying to have a clickbait episode. But then I got down there, and the people we talked to—mostly women of color—were like, “Yes, we’re in this fight. It is hard. But we are fighting it every day.” And they were all sort of in good spirits; you have to try to stay in good spirits, because otherwise you’re not going to be able to do the work. So, we laughed a lot and I learned a lot, and I got really excited about how fired up being in Jackson, Mississippi made me feel.
How do you understand history, and the way in which we can move forward? In history class, you hear that if you don’t know history, you’re doomed to repeat it. And yet it seems that in America, we keep making the same mistakes, again and again, to the point of negating strides that have been made over the last 50 years.
The thing that helped me understand America’s history better is Kimberlé Crenshaw’s idea of intersectionality. You can’t look at slavery [as] separate from immigration…It’s not like there was slavery, and then there was Reconstruction, and there was Jim Crow, and then Obama was President, as if these are separate things. And you also can’t look at America’s relationship to Mexico, Central and Southern America the same way that you look at America’s relationship to native people, and America’s relationship to black people. These are all connected, and the more you look at them as connected, the more you’re willing to stand up, even for people who aren’t necessarily on your block or in your corner.
So, for me, that’s the thing that I think we’re missing, and we’re missing it because we don’t really teach it that way in schools. We teach history like it’s chapters, instead of like, “No, this stuff is all connected.” And we’re seeing some of this stuff happen: Marijuana is legal in certain states now, and then people are like, “But wait, what about all these black and brown people in jail for low-level marijuana possession? Oh, oops!” Then, some states go, “Oh, we should probably let them out of jail, since the thing they’re in jail for now is something that is not illegal.”
So, I think [change will come] the more we can connect all the discussions, and the more we have the appetite to connect all the discussions—because it is a lot, and it does get exhausting—and also then elect people who are interested in connecting all the discussions. I think that’s what has happened with this new wave of Congress, women mostly—AOC, Rashida Tlaib, Ilhan Omar.
To me, so much of United Shades is about the power of language. In your episode on the Hmong people, you suggested that we need to reevaluate buzzwords like ‘patriot,’ ‘immigrant’ and ‘refugee’—terms we all think we understand, and that we take for granted—which, these days, are frequently politicized and misappropriated.
I didn’t do high school debates, but my best friend Jason was in high school debate, and I used to hang out at the meetings because I had nothing to do. And the thing I remember is that you can’t engage in high school debate unless you and the person you’re debating have defined the terms. And I feel like basically every flame war on the internet is about the fact that nobody sat down and said, “How are we defining this thing so we can discuss it?”
[In] an episode coming up this week about Milwaukee, and how it’s one of America’s most segregated cities, I’m like, “You know what we have never defined on this show? The word racism.” So, it was like, “Let’s actually define it.” And in defining it, I even talk about how I think I’ve used it incorrectly in episodes of the show, and we have a flashback to it—in the Klan episode, how I used it incorrectly.
For me, it’s like, “If you want to talk to me about racism, this is how I’m defining it. If you want to sit down and define it that way, we can talk about it. If you want to define it a different way, then we’re talking about something else.”
So for me, there’s been a definition of terms. Again, this stuff is in every high school debate team in the country, so when we talk about these things, let’s have a shared definition. Maybe not enough of us do high school debate. We just sort of go, “I have my definition of this, and you have your definition of this. Let’s argue about it and get nowhere.”
It would seem that many people aren’t as open-minded as you, and have much more rigid notions, when it comes to the subjects you’re investigating. How do you negotiate a conversation with people who aren’t willing to at least re-evaluate their beliefs?
Well, I’m basically only interested in two different types of conversations, and this is quite true in life—conversations that are productive and/or fun. So if it becomes clear to me that you’re not interested in getting to a place where we can discuss, “Well, what are we talking about, and how are we defining this?”—if we’re talking about something big, and you’re just interested in attacks or cool burns that I don’t think are very cool or funny—then I’m not interested in talking to you.
For me, it’s like we don’t have to get everybody. We have this idea that we’re going to change everybody’s hearts and minds, but we just need to change enough hearts and minds that we re-establish what justice and equity is in America.
United Shades of America is produced by Main Event Media, an All3Media America Company. The executive producers are W. Kamau Bell, Jimmy Fox and Layla Smith for Main Event Media, an All3Media America Company and Amy Entelis and Lizzie Fox for CNN.