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We Talked to the Guy Who's Mastered the Art of Talking Race with Racists

W. Kamau Bell advises on how to not punch a white nationalist.

Rajul  Punjabi

Rajul Punjabi

Donna Ward / Getty Images

Remember that viral video of ol' boy punching white nationalist and coiner of the term "alt-right" Richard Spencer in the face? It was so satisfying. What a great release of anger and frustration. A therapeutic jab, if you will, for all non-racist humankind.

Allow me to kill your buzz real quick. Some people have to sit and have an actual conversation with Richard Spencer and not punch him in the face. One of these people is the socio-political comedian and TV host W. Kamau Bell. His CNN show, United Shades of America, which focuses on race, garnered a lot of attention when he wandered into KKK territory last year to discuss race relations with some hooded delights in the middle of the forest. And just a few weeks ago, he interviewed Spencer at an alt-right conference where the Trump-riding parasite broke down some stuff that his followers believe—like how the history of immigrants is "kind of lame," and how women "are more suited to maintaining the household."

I respect Bell's journalistic prowess, as well as his team's willingness to spark uncomfortable conversations that need to happen. But there is no way I'd be able to do his job without some serious daily time in psychotherapy, clutching a teddy bear and spooning a bottle of Jack.

Seriously: What does having difficult political conversation for a living—and sometimes joking about the sad state of race in this country—do to one's mental health?

"I'm not here to have my own real experiences. In my own real experiences, I would walk in [to the conference], I'd look around for a little while and then I'd be like 'okay, that's enough of this nonsense,' and I would leave," Bell tells me. "But here I'm making a TV show. So whatever I can do to make this TV show better, I lean in that direction."

Bell's memoir out this week, The Awkward Thoughts of W. Kamau Bell, echoes this idea of martyrdom: that you sometimes need to have awkward, challenging conversations in order to move forward. Some of mine are with my conservative great uncles. His are with other confused people, and are televised weekly.

In his book, Bell also discusses his solid support system, his views on law enforcement and politics, and of course, comedy. In an interview, he talks to me about his wildly intersectional career, seeking therapy, and how he wanted to "pull a Dave Chappelle" after a previous show got cancelled.

What type of mental preparation did it take to interview Richard Spencer for United Shades of America?
The producer of the show, Donny Jackson, also happens to have a PhD in psychology and was a practicing psychologist at one point. He literally sat us all down together and was like, This is what's going to happen today, we're going to do this thing, we're going to be excited about it. And we all talked about it and he gave everyone a chance to say something. This never happens in another TV situation. And I don't care about it happening in another TV situation—where there's a talk about your feelings. He said, If anyone needs to take a walk or needs to take a breath and step outside just let us know you're doing it so we know where you are, but we understand. We need to not look like we're somehow having an emotional response.

It was great to hear. At the same, I knew I can't be taking breaks. If the camera's rolling, I have to stay in the room. Unless something happens traumatically. So we get there and ... it's funny, it's not until I saw the show that I saw what the look on my face was. I thought I had a better poker face.

It kind of looked like that mafia movie smile where you're grinning from rage.
A little Joe Pesci from Goodfellas?

Exactly. I'm sure it's not just Spencer that has tested you.
There is a side of this that's like, "don't let them see you sweat." A couple of times there have been people that were literally trying to push my buttons. I took martial arts and there's this sense of using their force against them or letting their force pass through you. [It's how] I sort of stay cool and collected.

Also as a six-foot-four, 250-pound black guy—which I've written about a good bit about—I know that people want to try me sometimes. But I also get the [reaction] where people are like, 'Whoa, he's way bigger than I thought he would be.' Which really gives me some protection. People see me on the screen and think, he must be six inches tall. And they walk up to me—and I can look down on most people—and if you're smiling when you're doing that, it really puts you in a position like, 'I'm not worried about anything.'

You said in an another interview that you've built up a pretty good tolerance to things that are politically incorrect. How'd you manage to do that?
It would be kind of hard to be a comedian and walk out the room every time you heard something that was politically incorrect. I'm not saying that's a good thing or a bad thing, I'm just saying that if you're literally in mainstream comedy clubs, you're going to hear a lot of crazy things. Sometimes [being] politically incorrect is a way to satire things that are politically incorrect.

Comedians are in the business of crossing lines. And sometimes those lines are political lines and sometimes they're just like, who can say the naughtiest thing? And I like that about comedians and I get that. Even about things I don't agree with.

Tell me about what you went through when Totally Biased was cancelled. You said that if it weren't for your family you would have "pulled a Dave Chappelle."
So even if you love your job in show business it's like any job; you have good days and bad days. The thing about show business is if you're having a bad day at work you can tell everyone at work you're having a bad day. But when you're where I was–the leader of a TV show, you can't show that to everybody. You have internalize it. Then on top of that, you have to go on TV like, "I'm having the greatest time ever."

And when it was clear to me the show wasn't performing as well as I wanted it to, and I could feel like I wasn't performing as well as I wanted to, and that my friends who I hired on the show were having a hard time, the blame has to fall on me. So that was just really hard. If I didn't have a wife at home, and a two-year-old, I think it may have been like, 'Kamau didn't come to work today.' And if I had known people in South Africa, I could've...what I'm saying in that moment is that I understand what he went through now. Dave and I know each other but I wouldn't say we're friends. But I just know that lots of people from the outside, when that happened—and I was probably one of those people—were like how could you leave 50 million dollars? I totally understand. At some point there's not enough money in the world, for some people at least, to make you put your head down and be a good soldier.

After the show was cancelled, were you vocal about being depressed? Did you use the actual word?
I'm sure me and wife had many conversations, so whether that word was used or not, it was clear what was happening. I'm not afraid of the word "depressed," I'm only saying that I don't know if I said that [word]. I know I felt super sad. I know I wanted to be in bed all day. I know I wanted to eat and watch TV and not leave the house and turn off all the lights. I hear those are hallmarks of depression. But I am getting out of bed. The fact that I have a kid and wife, I am motivating myself to do these things even if I feel sad as I do it.

Your book touches on why awkward conversations are sometimes necessary. Can talking about depression still be awkward?
It is awkward. I will say this. I had some troubled times when I was a kid and I did see spend time in therapy. And as an adult I've spent time in therapy and around the show, I've been spending time in therapy even as it was going on. So I am a person who believes in therapy. I am not afraid of sitting down with somebody and talking about my problems, which is a testament to my mom. My mom was in therapy when I was a kid so there wasn't a real stigma around the idea of it. It was just about finding the right therapist.

As a teenager when I first started going to therapy my mom took a recommendation and I sat in a room with some black man and he was like, 'Are you doing drugs? Are you doing drugs? Do you have friends who are doing drugs? You do? Then you must be doing drugs.' I was like, 'No I'm not doing drugs man, I'm just sad.' Then I finally found a therapist who talked to me like I was an adult with real feelings and not just a black kid on the south side of Chicago who was doing drugs.

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