Thanksgiving is approaching, but according to one new study, we’ve been spending less time with each other over turkey and mashed potatoes. The reason why might shock you: Americans are avoiding Thanksgiving with family because of political differences.
W. Kamau Bell doesn’t think that’s a good thing, which might be why he’s carved out an unusual niche for himself on today’s polarized social and political landscape. He’s a comedian with real moral seriousness, a black man who reveals the lives of people who hate him, and a social commentator who tries to tear down barriers rather than build them up. Through his autobiographical stand-up specials like Private School Negro and best-selling book, The Awkward Thoughts of W. Kamau Bell, he’s explored how social forces have shaped his personality and life. Through his CNN series United Shades of America, he’s encouraged extremely diverse groups of Americans to speak for themselves and explain their own lives, decisions, and values.
Unlike many peers in comedy, Bell isn’t bombastic, and he’s relatively unsarcastic. Instead, he’s created a persona that is self-deprecating, modest, patient, compassionate, and curious—all qualities he brought to bear in this conversation with Greater Good about the place of gratitude in a divided America.
Jeremy Adam Smith: What are you grateful for these days?
W. Kamau Bell: I’ve got three kids. They’re healthy. I’ve got a seven year old, an almost four year old, a twelve week old. I’m grateful that my oldest likes school. I think it’s a gift to not look at school as a burden but as a fun place to go to. Grateful that my wife figured out how to have the 12 week old and have a job at the University of San Francisco teaching, and figured out how to hold it down while my work takes me on the road constantly. And I’m grateful that we just moved my mom from Indiana to up here in Oakland, so she can see her grandkids whenever she wants to.
Last year, when I won an Emmy, I was like, “What? Excuse me?” I didn’t expect to win an Emmy, because that was not on my list of things to do. When my wife and I were on the plane coming home, I said, “We should just email all our friends and see if they just want to come over and take pictures with the Emmy,” because it’s just this thing, this physicalized example of your success. My kids call it a trophy. I feel super grateful about it. I know that it means something, if it means people in my industry think I’m doing good work. It also means that if my show gets canceled, somebody will give me something else to do because I won an Emmy! I’m grateful that it’ll help me provide for my family.
But I also think it’s silly. I wanted my friends to be a part of this, so we invited them to a playground across the street from our house. They were like, “Can I touch it?” And I’d say, “Yeah, you can touch it, take a picture with it.” All these people took pictures with the Emmy. That helped me feel grateful, because I wasn’t thinking, “It’s my Emmy and nobody else won this Emmy but me.” Instead, it’s like this: “These are the people in my life who have been around to help support me as I made this long march toward this career.”
JAS: What do you find people thank you for?
WKB: I feel like the thank you’s I get the most often are people who are fans of either United Shades or my stand-up, or any entertainment media stuff I’ve done. They’ll say, “Thank you for exposing me to stuff that I had no idea of,” or, “Thank you for highlighting a community I’m a part of that never gets highlighted…” Those are the two big ones. I hear them in airports, because I get stuck in airports a lot. That’s my number one recognize location.
JAS: Yeah. I’d probably thank you in an airport, too.
WKB: Sometimes they say, “Thank you for your bravery,” which I think is overplayed. People think I’m braver than I am. Like, “You really went to that place to do that thing.” But yeah, I get thanked for that.
JAS: Do your wife and your kids and your mother just grunt at you and never thank you for anything?
WKB: No, they say “thank you” all the time. It’s a big priority in our parenting. When I put the kids to bed, some nights I’ll go, “Okay, tell me three things you feel gratitude about today.” We taught the girls gratitude at an early age and what it means. Just put that idea in their head that you have to be grateful. I also have a thing I say to my daughters: “You can’t say thank you enough to somebody.” They know how to say thank you, but sometimes they forget or they’re too quiet about it. I’ll remind them: “Say thank you.” They’re like, “I did.” And I’ll be like, “Say it again.” Nobody gets annoyed about somebody saying thank you too often.
JAS: That’s pretty interesting that you try to cultivate some gratitude at home with your kids.
WKB: Yeah. My oldest daughter, who’s seven, was born right before I got my first big show-biz opportunity—my first television show. She has grown up with me being on TV and being around celebrities. We travel a lot, and she sees people stop me in the street. I feel a big pressure to make sure she doesn’t think this is normal. My career gives us access to a lot of people and places and things, and I just think that it would be really easy, if my career continues on this trajectory, to raise privileged assholes. So, I’m just trying to actively not raise assholes. My kids aren’t assholes, though. But I feel a big pressure to make sure our life doesn’t go to their heads. Gratitude helps us all keep our feet on the ground.
JAS: On United Shades of America, you’ve hung out with spring breakers and retirees in Florida, Klansmen, prisoners, Indigenous Alaskans, Latinos in Los Angeles, hippies and survivalists living off the grid. Do the people you’ve interviewed express gratitude? What for?
WKB: As we’re shooting it? Yeah. We’ll hear from people, especially when the show first started—people didn’t really know what they were getting into. Like, “Oh, it’s a black man shooting a documentary series, this comedian, but I don’t know who he is. All right, let’s give it a shot.” Then usually after the interview, when they realize I’m usually making them laugh and I’m not making fun of them—they get to have fun with it. Then they get to make me laugh, and then a lot of times people are like, “Oh, that was fun. Thank you.” It’s important for me and the crew to make the experience fun and easy for them, because then that will make them better on camera, and then also the more relaxed we are, the better the whole thing goes.
We did an episode about the Sikh community, and they were really grateful, as a group. They said, “Thank you for doing this. We’ve never been featured that way.” I met a couple Sikhs after a show one night, and one guy gave me the iron bracelet they wear around their wrist, which is something they’re supposed to have on all the time. He took his off and gave it to me and said, “You understand how important this is.” That blew me away. I get blown away all the time by how important the show is to people, and how important it is for them to show me how important it is to them.
JAS: I’m curious if you recall if the Klansmen or [white supremacist leader] Richard Spencer thanked you when you shot their episodes.
WKB: Yes. I would say Richard Spencer thanked me in the way that you would thank somebody after a business meeting: “Thank you, this was good.” He enjoyed his time in the interview; I just wasn’t as argumentative with him as other people will be. I probably thanked him and the Klan for their time. Some of that is me performing, like, “Oh, thanks guys, see you later,” which is what you do when you’re trying to get out alive. But with Spencer and the Klan, we didn’t leave in a tense, rough situation. It felt friendly. I definitely felt like ... it’s weird. I feel like with some of these Klans members, I could come back tomorrow and be like, “Hey guys, I just came to hang out.” And they’d be like, “Oh, good to see you again.” Of course, I didn’t want to test that theory.
JAS: How did it make you feel when Spencer thanked you? Or did you feel anything?
WKB: It felt like this is what you’re supposed to do. I pushed back on things, but it didn’t get tense in any way. Spencer likes to be the friendly, charismatic white supremacist. So, it’s part of his thing to say, “Well, thank you for talking to me. Yes, see: I don’t hate you. I’m not mad at you because you’re black,” or whatever. But I didn’t think, “Man, he was so much nicer than I expected.” It just felt like, “Yeah, this is what the guy’s supposed to do. He’s the kinder, gentler white supremacist.” At least that’s how he’s marketing himself. Later, he tweeted at me, and I felt like, “I don’t need to go back tweeting back and forth with Richard Spencer like we’re friends.”
JAS: Do you think of Donald Trump as a grateful person?
WKB: No. That’s probably one of his biggest problems, that he’s filled with not-gratitude. I think that you can’t get to be the guy he is and the way he performs himself in the world without having a lack of gratitude.
JAS: Well, I did some investigative reporting in preparation for this interview. I went to Donald Trump’s Twitter feed, and I counted his expressions of gratitude since July 1 of this year. I found 60 expressions of gratitude. Then I went to the Twitter feed of another reality-TV star, W. Kamau Bell…
WKB: Uh oh.
JAS: ... and I found just 27 expressions of gratitude, many of which were actually sarcastic, in the same time period—less than half of the president’s expressions.
WKB: It’s funny, I don’t think of Twitter as being where I go to express my gratitude.
JAS: Right. I think of Twitter as being the most anti-social place in the world.
WKB: Yes. And professions of gratitude on social media is often performative.
WKB: You’re doing it so other people see it. You’re so, “Hey, everybody ...” And also, I wonder how many times Donald Trump was thanking somebody for saying something nice about him, or…
JAS: Oh yeah, almost always.
WKB: ... being with him or defending him. You know what I mean?
JAS: Yeah. Your perception is correct, at least for the period I looked at.
WKB: I talk to my daughters about this: “You can’t say ‘thank you’ for quid pro quo. You can’t be thankful with conditions.”
JAS: On Twitter, Trump often scolds people for being ungrateful and almost always, they are people of color—often black athletes or black people associated with athletics. I think the most striking example is when the president of the United States called LaVar Ball “an ungrateful fool.” What do you make of that?
WKB: I’d like to ask Trump, “Okay, how do you define gratefulness?” Because I think how he defines it is not the way that most of people I know define gratefulness. When he’s saying LaVar Ball’s an ungrateful fool, he’s basically saying that, “Somebody created your success for you, and you’re just there to witness your own success. Not about you working hard or you being savvy or you being intelligent. It’s about the fact that you lucked into the fact that you’re LaVar Ball, when it’s like, you don’t luck into that.” I’m sure, and whoever he needs to be grateful to, has nothing to do with Donald Trump.
JAS: Trump seems to weaponize gratitude. It’s something he uses to elevate his friends and attack his enemies.
WKB: If any black person of any note says something good about him, then he’s like, “Thank you.”
JAS: Yeah, he retweets it.
WKB: He’s saying, “This one is doing it the right way. The rest of you are wrong.”
JAS: In United Shades of America, you’re going out to all parts of the country and talking with many different kinds of people. Do you feel that our society is really as polarized as it seems to be, if you’re looking at Twitter or Facebook?
WKB: No, because I think a lot of times—and again, we’re talking about the performative nature of social media—people will say things on social media that they won’t say to each other when they’re standing in the same room. They might say it if they’re in a crowd and the other person’s in a crowd, or you’re in a crowd and the other person’s by themselves—then it can be performative. But a lot of times, if you sit down with these people and go, “Okay, let’s do this,” animosity starts to melt away. I think that a lot of social media is like team sports, where you just ra-ra your team and you shit on the other team. Nuance does not enter into that context, which is why I think a lot of people have started to leave Facebook, because it’s like, “This is just too much. It’s all dragging me down.”
JAS: You seem to believe that social media is a force for polarization.
WKB: I think the algorithm is pushing us towards polarization. I think that’s what it is. Sometimes we think of social media as the power company or the cable company, or some sort of benign force. “I would like cable in my house,” or “I would like electricity.” But these things are owned by people. Do you know what I mean? You think of the water company as there for the public good, and every house gets water no matter what is happening, and we think of social media as being somehow part of the public good—and it’s not. Social media are corporations owned by people with very particular agendas. I think social media could be changed so that it was leaning more towards being a force for good. But right now, we need people who want to use it as a force to good, to work to push it in that direction, because it’s not going there on its own.
JAS: Based on this experience with United Shades, what do you think is going bring us back together?
WKB: I believe that if we look at where America started at versus where America is now, we can see that the country always moves in a more open and equitable direction. Sometimes, it moves slowly, and sometimes it takes steps back—and right now we’re in a step-back era. I don’t think we’ll continue to go back, but it takes the work of many, many people to get going again in the right direction. We didn’t just get this Civil Rights Bill of 1968 because it was gonna happen. The Civil Rights Bill happened because Martin Luther King was like, “Go out in the streets, black people,” and other people joined them.
“The work has to be done. I come from a line of people who did the work. Even though I'm just a simple comedian, it still feels like if I'm not involved in making the world better somehow, then I'm wasting my time.”
The work has to be done. I come from a line of people who did the work. Even though I’m just a simple comedian, it still feels like if I’m not involved in making the world better somehow, then I’m wasting my time and slowing progress down. I try to do the work onstage and offstage and with my kids. It’s this multilayered attack. In my work, I try to pull in the direction I think is a better direction, and I believe I should take some of my resources to actually help people, now that I have some money and some privilege, to actually help elevate people. At home, it’s like, “Kids, let’s talk about gratitude before you go to sleep.”
JAS: Moving forward can involve conflict. When you feel yourself to be in conflict with people, it’s hard to be grateful, if only because the stress makes you a lot more self-focused. And we at Greater Good hear from people who argue that gratitude breeds complacency: The more grateful you are for what you have, the less likely you are to act to change it. Is that something you’d agree with?
WKB: No, I don’t think gratitude breeds complacency. I feel like it’s quite the opposite. It’s a lack of gratitude that breeds complacency. To me, if you’re truly grateful for what you have, that means you know that on some level, you don’t really deserve it—and therefore, if you don’t deserve it, you should probably try to create a lot more gratitude in the world so that everybody can be grateful. You know what I mean? I think that true gratitude, as I understand it, is to feel lucky and to feel like, “Wow, this is so cool this happened.”