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Entertaining Anti-Racism in About an Hour

Personal disclosure: this guy is my first cousin. Which in no way invalidates what I’m saying below.

OK, so like many of you I’ve done my share of “diversity workshops”. Which were mostly, I have to admit, pretty good — generally because they were long enough (several days) to dig deep; hands-on and interactive; integrated into everyday practice thereafter; and run by extremely patient/knowledgeable workshop facilitators. This is one of the benefits of working in education versus the corporate world; most educators don’t expect to tackle a complex and emotional subject in a quick soundbyte.

That said, I have done some diversity workshops that reached fathomless depths of assitude. There was the one run by a very young, white, self-identified heterosexual and Christian, visibly anxious facilitator who gave me a blank look when I asked a question about privilege. (I didn’t bother asking any more questions after that; spent the rest of the session working on a short story.) There was also the one in which, after a fellow black woman shared a painful and powerful anecdote about being on the receiving end of some blatantly racist treatment as a college student, a white female participant shared her feelings about being so, so sorry “on behalf of white people” and then broke down crying, at which point everyone in the workshop started comforting her. (Except me and the other black women, who shared a deep spiritual eyeroll.) And then there was the diversity workshop that lasted only one hour out of a six-day, 48-hour training session. No matter how good that workshop was, the amount of time devoted to it sent a message on behalf of the trainers: reducing harm to non-privileged people means so much to us that we’re going to spend 2% of our time on it. Go us! (Yes, go. Please. Really.)

These kinds of workshops are a waste of everyone’s time — no, worse. They make the privileged participants feel better about themselves (for completing the workshop) without actually challenging their privilege, and they make the rest of us feel very fucking tired.

But I want to spread the word about the best short anti-racism workshop I’ve now seen: comedian W. Kamau Bell’s “Ending Racism in About an Hour”.

It’s not a comedy show. (As my aunt, Kamau’s mom, has very emphatically informed me.) It’s a solo theatrical performance… which just happens to be funny as hell. Kamau is the latest of a wave of black comedians who do more than merely exaggerate stereotypes and “keep it real”, whateverthehell that means; he openly confronts the issues of power and the status quo, and the LogicFails that allow racism to perpetuate itself. (I’ve been avidly following another comedian who does this too: Elon James White of This Week in Blackness.) Here’s an example of Kamau in action:

In his latest show, Kamau does everything I’ve ever seen in a good anti-racist workshop: he explains privilege and the power dynamics of racism; gives examples of aversive racism, objectification, and stereotyping; and doesn’t pull punches about the life-and-death impact racism has on politics, economics, health care, and more. But he does all of it without ever using the terminology, and without losing his audience. (Yeah, including Angry Black Women.) Well, scratch that — when I attended his performance on Saturday, he mentioned that a white guy once walked out on him, complaining of guilt. But one out of thousands ain’t bad.

Anyway, I’ve said all this to note that Kamau is in New York City this week for a limited run, as part of NYC’s International Fringe Festival. Most of the shows are already done — sorry, but I wanted to see it before I blogged about it, and I’ve been crazy busy lately — but he’s got one last NYC performance coming up on August 29th at 5 p.m. The one I attended was standing-room-only, so you might wanna buy tix early. If you can’t catch him in NYC, though, he’s a regular at the Punch Line in his adopted home of San Francisco (where he’s Best Comedian of 2008 according to SF Weekly).

Oh, yeah — and if you bring a friend of a different race, you get a free gift! (So if you’re stuck being somebody’s Special Black Friend, bring them to this show so you can get something out of it for a change.)

ETA: OK, I screwed up — posted a clip from a 4-year-old performance of his, which contained some problematic remarks about Condoleeza Rice. I don’t know if he’s repudiated those comments since, but I think he’s grown up a lot since then (as I have, since I started blogging here; once I would’ve found that joke much funnier than I do now). Hell, I’ll ask him. Until then, replaced the old clip with a more recent one, from the actual show. Should’ve done that in the first place. Sorry for inflicting that on ya’ll.

9 thoughts on “Entertaining Anti-Racism in About an Hour”

  1. Rose Fox says:

    Wow, I hope his anti-racism show doesn’t include a lot of jokes about ugly women. That part of the video was pretty painful to watch.

    1. nojojojo says:

      Hmm — I should’ve considered that before posting this particular video. I tend to think Condoleeza’s ugly myself, though mostly because of her beliefs and who she associates with, and also her choice to wear her hair relaxed when it doesn’t suit her — some women look good straightened and some really need to be natural. But in the context of racist jokes about her looks I can see how that would be a problem.

      But no, no jokes about ugly women — no negative comments about women at all, actually. My personal belief is that Kamau has refined and focused himself a lot in the last few years (remember, this video is 4 years old), and that includes looking at power structures in general, which made him ready for doing anti-racism. But that doesn’t show here. -_-

      Hmm. Maybe I should put a different video in. Yeah, I think I will.

      1. Rose Fox says:

        Okay, the new video is awesome! I can definitely see why you’d recommend his live show.

  2. W. Kamau Bell says:

    No, it doesn’t include a lot of jokes about ugly women. It actually doesn’t include ANY jokes about ugly women. That clip was from 4 years ago, and I have evolved as an artist since then.

    I’d like to think that my show is anti-hate in general. Specifically, anti-sexism. anti-homophobia, and of course anti-racism.

    Check it out for yourself and see. My last show in NYC is Saturday the 29th.

  3. Isabel S. says:

    I love what I see on the video, and I’d love to see if your cousin could come to Chicago for my big May event. Can you give him my contact info?

  4. Emily says:

    Didn’t get here until after the video changed, and DUDE! Country music = the blues – racism nearly killed me. Plus it’s making me want to go look up information about black cowboys. :) Very sad I can’t make it to NYC for this! Thanks for posting about it!

  5. Jackie M. says:

    Oh, man, I live in Phoenix. Land of McCain voters and guys who show up to protest Obama’s speeches with assault rifles on their backs. How do I see this man perform? I DEMAND YOU PROVIDE WITH TICKETS TO SAN FRANCISCO.

  6. Melinda Bishop says:

    Hmmm…I’ve never been to a “diversity workshop”.

    As a young biracial woman, however, I have been in college classes where I felt completely alienated. One white female professor was visibly shaken by the fact that I attempted to talk about women of color. Not in a “on-behalf-of-ALL-WOC” way, but in a way that hopefully would encourage open dialogue. It was a Women’s Studies course. I wanted to know how feminism benefits people like me…does it really?

    You mentioned the black woman who shared her painful experiences with racism, then having those experiences basically dismissed because some random chick is overcome with “white guilt” and starts to boo-hoo. Seriously. People were there patting her on the back?!

    Not to be mean, but somebody should have said: “It isn’t about YOU, honey”. Did she expect a cookie or something? I hate it when some people attempt to divert attention away from the issue at hand by pretending that they’re oh-so-sorry. How does that help the situation?

    The whole notion of white guilt is ridiculous to me. I respect people who actually are willing to hold a real conversation about race without getting all weird about it.

  7. Katie says:

    LOVE THIS MAN. Please come to DC, Mr. Bell!

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