Editor's note: This story has been modified to provide greater context to the nature of Bell's show "United Shades of America."
Racism is everywhere. It is time to recognize it.
This was W. Kamau Bell’s high-energy message in which he jokingly claimed to “end racism in an hour” on Wednesday evening in the Moss Arts Center’s Anne and Ellen Fife Theatre. Under dim lights, the well-known comedian poked fun at everyday instances of what he believes are racism in everything from clothing advertisements and professional sports team names to People Magazine rankings and politicians’ statements.
“We only want to talk about it when we are forced to,” said Bell, who was the keynote speaker for Virginia Tech’s celebration of Martin Luther King Jr. Day.
Bell’s appearance is one of numerous university events planned in the next two weeks to spotlight King’s legacy.
Bell is host of CNN’s “United Shades of America,” a travel documentary series that tracks his journey around the country exploring race-based subcultures. Last year, the show won an Emmy Award for Outstanding Unstructured Reality Program.
The California-based Bell also is author of “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.”
He has been nominated for multiple NAACP Image Awards. Conde Nast also named Bell to its Daring 25 list for 2016.
For his CNN show, Bell seeks out and profiles people who have vastly different experiences compared with his. Episodes have included interviewing members of the Ku Klux Klan; Richard Spencer, a white nationalist and president of the National Policy Institute; residents of neighborhoods in cities such as Los Angeles and Chicago; members of the Inuit tribe in Barrow, Alaska; and residents in an eastern Kentucky town.
“We have to be able to do that with people who are different from us,” Bell told the crowd of Virginia Tech students, faculty, staff, and community members. “You have to have these productive conversations.”
Some viewers have asked Bell why he doesn’t react negatively to his interview subjects.
“It’s my job not to react,” said Bell, during a question and answer session on Wednesday after his keynote talk. “My job is to sit there and listen and to put out the questions I think people want to hear.”
Bell lauded today’s black leaders, including Colin Kaepernick, a former quarterback for the San Francisco 49ers who made news when he kneeled for the National Anthem to protest police brutality and racial inequality.
“The legacy of Martin Luther King is honored by pushing the conversation forward,” he said, calling Kaepernick a “modern day civil rights leader.’”
Before Bell’s talk, Kimberly Williams, who is assistant director for the Black Cultural Center at Virginia Tech, implored the audience to use the comedian’s words as inspiration.
“I hope as we sit here together, we reconsider our relationship to time and healing,” she said.
“How are we actively engaging justice?”
Bell ended his speech with a similar charge for the Virginia Tech community.
“Racism is not over,” he said. “Just kidding, that’s your job.”
Photos by Ray Meese
Written by Jenny Kincaid Boone