Comedian and TV host W. Kamau Bell* unpacks his long relationship with race and racial justice, from childhood to fatherhood, in his new memoir. “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” was released via Penguin Random House imprint Dutton today (May 2).
As the title suggests, the ”United Shades of America” host’s book explores his growth as an anti-racist comedian while developing an intersectional perspective, often via uncomfortable moments. Each of its 10 chapters feature two sections: one chronological narration of a stage in his life (“My Awkward Youth,” “My Awkward Blackness”) and a reflective essay on a topic of contemporary or personal relevance (“Awkward Thoughts about Sports, Awkward Thoughts about the Democratic Party”).
The following excerpt comes from his essay “Awkward Thoughts about White Guys.” In it, Bell describes his chaotic start in showbusiness and the nuanced racism he has encountered from some White men. Read the excerpt and find out more about the book here.
I have worked with this White guy three times. Well, I’ve worked with this White guy at least three times in showbiz. I have met with this White guy. I’ve been promised things by this White guy. Now, let me be clear: these are three seemingly separate White guys. They have different lives and different names, which I won’t be using because that would create the impression that these issues are only related to these three White guys. But as you read I hope you understand that this is a part of much bigger issues. This White guy is everywhere. He is literally unavoidable if you want to succeed in this country. I have worked with him three times in less than four years. And it always begins the same way. …
He always pitches himself as the “perfect White guy”… at least the “perfect White guy” for a Black guy like you. OK, he doesn’t say the words “perfect White guy” exactly, but the pitch makes that clear. This White guy has told me in detail that he totally gets me and that he gets what I am doing. And more than that, he gets the elusive “it.” The sacred mix of racism, oppression, racial justice, White privilege, sexism, ableism, ageism, homophobia, Islamophobia, transphobia, phobia-phobia, all the phobias—from arachnophobia to zoophobia—that I am railing against. This White guy tells me that he’s not like the other White guys. He voted for Barack Obama twice. TWICE! And he reads The New York Times…including the articles by Charles Blow. (But not the Roxane Gay ones, because she’s a little extreme.) This White guy bought Ta-Nehisi Coates’ book “Between the World and Me.” And he’s going to read it soon. Very, very soon!
This White guy has even worked with Black comedians before. Famous Black comedians. Black comedians who are just like me! Black comedians who are also committed to the cause. In fact, this White guy wrote a lot of those Black guys’ “classic” bits. In fact, if only that Black guy had listened to this White guy more, he would have been even funnier. This White guy is so glad to be able to work with me because he knows I “get it” even more than the other famous Black comedians. Together, we are going to team up and get rich…. Oops, he meant to say, win lots of awards…. Oops (that ain’t it), he meant to say, CHANGE THE WORLD! Yeah, that’s it. We’re going to change the world.
This White guy can relate to me because he’s been around Black people his whole career, and/or because he’s married/dated [insert non-White race here] before, and/or he’s actually a member of an ethnic group that is—according to him—adjacent to Black people in the struggle Olympics, and/or this White guy grew up in Nu Yawk Siddy, so there’s literally no way he can be racist! This White guy is older than me, so of course that means he knows things about the world. He says he can help me avoid the pitfalls and dumb moves that other people before me have made. He is happy to be my mentor… OK, not my mentor, if that word rubs me the wrong way, but he will be able to mentor me…when I need it. He’s happy to do it!
He says he’s happy to do it, but when I call him to tell him that Chris Rock has contacted me and wants to see a video of a show that I did that I know this White guy has, this White guy stops me from talking and says, “Well, wait… What’s my percentage in this?” I recoil, shocked. We had dealt with money before, but it was money for services rendered. I had paid him for his work before. And I had even set up a deal for him to teach students of mine, which brought him more money, so I wasn’t avoiding the money conversation, but I was feeling weird about it suddenly being all quid pro quo: “You let me know what percentage of your career I own, and I’ll give you the footage of you that I have sitting on a shelf somewhere collecting dust.” I was stunned. And I also immediately knew that we were done working together. I didn’t tell him that at the time, which may sound cowardly. But I didn’t because I really didn’t think I owed him that. We had only been working together for about a year, on and off. And I was pretty far along when I met him. He was Mr. Miyagi, but I wasn’t Daniel-san. I had had many mentors in my life at that point and none of them were asking about percentages when I called to tell them Chris Rock had called. They all were just excited. I should also mention that the majority of them were not White men. They were Black people, mixed-race people; many of them were women. And my East Bay lesbian friend-collaborator Martha, who had the biggest claim to everything that was working for me at this point, just had a “Let me know if you need me” vibe. I suddenly really appreciated that. And later, I would run to my “in case of emergency” lesbian activist in a glass case and break the glass.
All my collaborators of various levels knew that if there was a spot for them, I would hold it for them. But at this point there were literally no spots that existed. It was just that Chris had called me with a little interest. The show that I would produce with Chris, “Totally Biased,” was more than a year away from happening. This was about asking this White guy to help me keep the conversation going. But he turned it into our last conversation ever. His choice, not mine.
But exit that White guy and enter a new White guy. But don’t worry. Meet the new White guy, same as the old White guy.
Excerpt from “The Awkward Thoughts of W. Kamau Bell” by W. Kamau Bell. Reprinted by arrangement with Dutton, a member of Penguin Group (USA) LLC, A Penguin Random House Company. Copyright © 2017 by W. Kamau Bell.
*W. Kamau Bell is a former board member of Race Forward, the organization that publishes Colorlines.