“When we talk about race, we tend to use words that make us comfortable,” comedian W. Kamau Bell told a crowd assembled at John Carroll University. “Words like ‘minority,’ ‘Caucasion,’ ‘colorblind.'” He paused. “We won’t be using any of those words tonight.”
Dressed in a button-down shirt and dark pants, Bell paced leisurely in front of roughly 200 students, community members and administrators as he presented “The W. Kamau Bell Curve,” the keynote of the university’s Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. celebration.
His talk — subtitled “Ending Racism In About An Hour” — was born of frustration in 2007. Bell’s comedy career was stalled, so he rented a theater in San Francisco to present a one-man show. It would be easier, in Bell’s estimation, to talk about race in a theater than a comedy club. His show caught comedian Chris Rock’s attention and landed Bell a show on FX, with Rock as executive producer. Totally Biased with W. Kamau Bell ran 64 episodes before its cancellation in 2013.
His “Bell Curve” show may be more than seven years old, but the material is still crisp. Bell sprinkles in breaking news and fresh controversies, making his remarks zing.
Born in Palo Alto, California, Bell moved a lot as a child. His reluctance to make new friends (he figured there was little point) helped him become comfortable being by himself. Young Kamau would immerse himself in comedy specials by his idols, including Eddie Murphy. Building off such influences and adding his own physicality, Bell carved a niche in political comedy, a space he doesn’t always claim as his own. “If you’re black and have opinions and those opinions don’t rhyme, then you’re political,” Bell told Buzzfeed in a 2013 profile.
At six-foot-four, Bell was described in Buzzfeed as “a born sloucher.” In truth, Bell writes in Vanity Fair, he slouches to make himself appear smaller and less threatening.
Now in his early forties, Bell’s humor is piercing and current. Performing less than 15 miles from the spot where police shot and killed 12-year-old Tamir Rice in November, the comedian said “I was excited to see my black president say something. He hasn’t stepped up the way black people would like him to. But it doesn’t matter because we have to defend him due to the racial attacks leveled at him.”
On the John Carroll campus, Bell swung from topic to topic, riffing on diversity in Congress and secret black people meetings (“Don’t worry,” he told a couple black women in the front row, “I won’t tell them where the meetings are.”) He was quick to feed off crowd reaction, and to experiment with new jokes along with the tried-and-true.
Midway through his set, he listed racial words that are too soft, taking particular offense to the word “post-racial.”
“I can disprove the idea of post-racial in two words — Cleveland Indians,” Bell said to applause. “Do Native Americans get any benefit from that? Do they get 10% off tickets? No? Why can’t we just be respectful?” He added: “We wouldn’t name a team the Golden State Arabs . . . Wow, look how quiet it got in here.”
Bell’s take-home: American demographics are changing rapidly, and it’s time to get real about racism. “By 2050, the U.S. will be 30% Latino,” he said. A sole Latina clapped enthusiastically in the back of the auditorium. “That’ll be a lot louder in 2050,” Bell quipped.
Bell ended the evening by transitioning his set to his own family. He told the audience that his two children have given him a fresh lens through which to view himself. “When I first saw my daughter, I knew it was the first time somebody looked at me and didn’t think of me as black. I was just dad. Or, the one without the milk.”