Podcast: W. Kamau Bell on Awkward Relationships and Bridging Divides

Comedian W. Kamau Bell discusses the challenges of finding common ground, even with people in your own family.


W. KAMAU BELL: My wife’s grandfather, when I first met him like I’d heard about him a lot he was this powerful patriarch of the family, the family all sort of swirled around him. Everybody loves him. He’s so funny. There was this party, and so he was cooking on a grill he was also the cook of the family. Melissa brought me over and he looked up and said hello to her and they kiss and then she sort of like said, “Oh and this is Kamau. My memory is that he didn’t look at me. And then he cast his eyes away. And Melissa sort of like tried to give him the benefit of the doubt and kept saying, “This is Kamau.” And then eventually he just walked away. And I knew immediately what had happened. I was like, “Oh! Yeah. This is why I was nervous about this because tell me a 70 year old white man that his his white granddaughter is dating a Black guy. This is still America.

DACHER KELTNER: W. Kamau Bell is a comedian and the host and executive producer of ‘United Shades of America,’ an Emmy Award winning CNN documentary series exploring race and culture in America. He’s also the 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.” The book explores everything from race to relations and law enforcement to fatherhood and interracial marriages.On each episode of our show, we have a Happiness Guinea Pig try out a research-based practice to boost happiness, resilience, kindness, or connection. Kamau is our Happiness Guinea Pig today. Kamau, thanks for joining us on the Science of Happiness. I love you work Kamau

W. KAMAU BELL: Ah thank you!

DACHER KELTNER: Seriously man. So I want to talk to you about United Shades of America when you visited San Quentin. And I was just astonished at your visit. What got you there and what did you make of it?

W. KAMAU BELL: That was the first season of the show. We didn’t initially have that on our list of things we were going to do. And so whenever they had pitched the prison episode I was like, “I don’t want to do a goofy episode about prison.” I also don’t want to do something where we go to prison to sort of show like there’s that show Lockup on MSNBC where it just sort of goes to the worst and most salacious elements of prison.

And I always think about that with United Shades. I have to be able to walk the streets of my community after I do this show. So I can’t go as a Black man and go to a prison where it’s mostly Black men and sort of like show the worst elements and make fun of those like a goofy comedian. Also I also had never been in a prison before. I never visited anybody so I was also just afraid of like, we’re going to be filming in a prison? You know what I mean?

DACHER KELTNER: Yeah, no. Absolutely. What do you learn about race when you go out there?

W. KAMAU BELL: To San Quentin?


W. KAMAU BELL: It’s just very clear that racism is real when you’re in a place like San Quentin, because there’s not evidence that Black people commit crime at a higher rate than White people or Latino people commit crime or that Native people. But we’re certainly overrepresented in these populations. And then it becomes about, well, why? And then you go, well unequal application of the law, all this stuff that you sort of think about in theory is in front of you, you know, so and not proper representation and also just that you know like the idea of it, like that cocaine is one sentence, crack cocaine is a much harsher one. You know so all those things are right in front of your face and I feel like if more, I feel like this with United Shades a lot, if more people could get could get to those places that I’m at, you’d be like. And so hopefully through the show some of that can happen.

DACHER KELTNER: It was an amazing episode. So you got three daughters. How old are they?

W. KAMAU BELL: Four months, four, and seven.

DACHER KELTNER: Yeah. And they have this interesting ethnic racial life. What do you think what kind of jokes are they going to be telling? What kind of shows would they do 20 years from now?

W. KAMAU BELL: Well the two oldest ones are very clear that they don’t want to be comedians even though they’re both very funny and I tell the stories that they do. I tell things they say on stage often. I mean that’s you would say what inspires me like kids like a lot of the things about their perceptions of the world are very interesting to me.

W. KAMAU BELL SEMI-PROMINENT NEGRO STAND-UP: If you don’t have a mixed race kid, get you a mixed race kid. Here’s the true part of this whole thing, here’s what I realized when I had my daughter, my first daughter. I realized that there was a hidden benefit to having my daughter that I wasn’t prepared for. It meant that every time I went to my in-laws house I could bring a black person with me. You know what I’m saying? I created my own ally. Do you understand what I’m saying? Like a witness just in case shit went down weirdly.

W. KAMAU BELL: I think the funny thing is I just. Me and Sammy. Sammy is the oldest one who is Sammy is like a classically mixed girl looking like her her hair and her skin. She’s very caramel colored. Juno, her younger sister, is much lighter and her hair is a lot more wavy and really I think that she will have times in her life she will pass for White.


W. KAMAU BELL: And so which isn’t. I’m not. It’s just the reality.

DACHER KELTNER: Yeah. Interesting.

W. KAMAU BELL: But we had to explain Sammy had to explain her that she was indeed Black even though she looks at her skin and doesn’t see it as as black or brown and it’s just interesting to have to do as a parent to sort of go yeah I know does that make sense. Ta da! Because I’m Black, you’re Black. That’s just how it works. And then the new daughter who is actually darker than both of them, I’m like to know that you’re going to have to raise your kids. And also that they’re all going to have three separate versions of identity that they’re not just a mix of like they are sort of like my wife’s brother and sisters like her she’s taller brothers her sisters are short. That’s where it ends the differences. But with these kids their, a significant part of their identity is going to be about the color on their skin. You know and and we won’t be able to parent them all the same way around that.

DACHER KELTNER: Yeah that’s right. Because you turn them loose into a society.

W. KAMAU BELL: You turn them loose into society. So I think that whatever whatever they are telling jokes about. I think that there are a lot of it’s going to be about their very different version of their very different experiences. Once they’re, sort of get older and really experience it and feel it. You know I would imagine that will be a big part of what they talk about.

DACHER KELTNER: Each episode we have we put people in the position of guinea pig be the master experimenter, I guess. And you’ve chosen this shared identity Exercise and I was just thinking about doing this myself last night. And it’s tough. It’s got a few different steps. You know in the social scientific literature you know and this is obvious, but one of the barriers to all the good things about human beings is when you feel like you’re a different tribe you know and there are literally studies that show like if I see somebody suffer, compassion regions of the brain light up. If that person’s different than me, not so you know. The you know a lot of the work, other kinds of studies are really interested in how you know various kinds of things like mixed classrooms make kids have more sort of shared identities and promote prosocial behavior so it’s a good thing to be thinking about. So let’s walk through this together.

W. KAMAU BELL: Sure. See how it goes. Yeah. Let’s do it.

DACHER KELTNER: All right. So the first thing is for you to think of a person in your life who seems really different from you and this is like your whole show and your whole life. And they might have different interests or religious or political beliefs or life experiences. And it may even be somebody you have a conflict with and or who belongs to a group you have a conflict with and obviously you know, when you think about all the experiences you’ve had. African-American identity. There’s a lot to bring forth here. Who comes to mind?

W. KAMAU BELL: The first to answer is my wife’s grandfather although he passed away very not that long ago so and also by the time he passed away we had resolved a lot of it and a lot of it had been resolved. So he was an older, an Italian and had been born in this country but really identified as an Italian in a way that like it was its own ethnic group like not like I’m not a White guy an Italian. But never, clearly, never imagined his daughter, his granddaughter, or any of kids with a Black person. I was sort of mad at Melissa like we were, our age differences, like she was 23, I was 30. I was like, “Why did I let this young girl tell me that her grandfather was going to like me? I’m a grown man! I know how the world works.” Where, I could have predicted this. And then every time I was around him I was just like you know I was nurturing this hatred and sort of like you know you get high off hatred and stuff. Like really it’s sort of like oh yeah it’s sort of like proudly not talking to him so I was pretty it was pretty dark and I’ve talked to my parents about it and talked to. And my dad was like you know you should be the be the bigger man and shake his hand.


W. KAMAU BELL: And my mom was like you know screw him. My parents have very different ways to handle the world. It was a lot. And I was I really nurtured that hatred for a long time in such a way that I never thought I would have come through it.

DACHER KELTNER: So next stop make a list of all the things and this may be a historical exercise for you, where you share in common with this person. And then you know is it same work, same company, same school, you have children, maybe you both had heart your heartbroken at one time, we’re all part of the human species. So things that you share. So what would those be?

W. KAMAU BELL: We were both really committed family men. I think he recognized that in me the more the way that he knew me like when Melissa, when we started having kids. Like he could tell that I was like out there working hard to be, to provide for my family. So both fathers obviously. Both funny. He was like the funny grandfather.

DACHER KELTNER: What else? How else do you resemble this grandfather?

W. KAMAU BELL: Strong willed certainly. I mean he was strong willed in a Fox News way and I’m strong willed and in a, “Why can’t we be friends,” way. It is sort of like, can’t we hug it out? Can’t we make more space for more people? But certainly I think we both had strong wills and also really care a lot about my wife, Melissa. So that was another thing that like our issues came from both of us probably caring, not too much, but just caring so much about her. And finally what happened is that Thanksgiving was coming up one year. And I was like, “Well, I won’t be going because I don’t go to those.” And she was just like, “Enough!” And she, I think she sent him a letter or called him. And it really laid it out like, “You have to stop doing this.” Like basically, “You will not see me and Kamau at Thanksgiving or whatever events again.” And that really struck him. And I think he called her like totally broke down and was just like, “I’ve been foolish.” And it was so simple, like we went to Thanksgiving. We walked into this house and he just sort of like said to Melissa, “Hey, hi, good to see you,” and give her a kiss and said, “Happy Thanksgiving,” to me. We shook hands. It was like, that’s it. And it didn’t all immediately change, but it was very, that was when things changed. But then by the time he passed away it was like I was one of the pallbearers at his funeral, because I was one of the grandsons at that point.

DACHER KELTNER: Wow. So you went from avoiding each other to being a pallbearer at his funeral. That’s very humbling. So the final step in the Shared Identity practice is this: reflect on the commonalities you’ve identified with this person. How do they make you see him in a new light?

W. KAMAU BELL: He was really always pride to find himself as a family man first over everything else. And and and really wanted the best. Even if he didn’t know how to get there. You know what I mean? Knowing the impact he had on Melissa, knowing the impact it had on my two youngest, my two older kids. And also like having had moments with him. Towards the end it was like we’re like in the last few years where he would call me his grandson. It sort of showed me the power that people can be, you can redeem a bad relationship.

DACHER KELTNER: Well Kamau we wanted to thank you for being on our show. Your work is transformative and it is the kind of conversation we need about race and shared identity. And I want to thank you for your brilliance and your wisdom and that big laugh and your generosity for being here today. Thank you.

W. KAMAU BELL: I’m happy to do it. It makes me feel good to talk about this stuff and it’s always helpful to me to the thing about the stuff in new ways.

DACHER KELTNER: Thanks. We’ll talk more about the science of the shared identity practice, after a short break.

If you’re a fan of The Science of Happiness, please consider making a donation to support our work here at the Greater Good Science Center. In fact, if you donate now through the end of the year, your generosity will be doubled: A major donor will give us a matching gift to help us create a new series of videos to go along with this podcast. Please go to greatergood.berkeley.edu/crowdfund

We all know the strength of group identities. We gravitate towards people who are more like us, who have the same political views or taste in music. These group identities can give our lives meaning, but they can also create really intractable conflict, division, and discrimination against people we see as “outside” our group.

I love how Kamau’s story shows that we can reconfigure our group boundaries, so that people who we once saw as part of an “out-group,” unlike us, can actually become part of our own “in-group” once we find a shared identity with them, things we have in common.

The Shared Identity practice can help us make these kinds of connections with people who we might otherwise see as outsiders. But it’s not the only way.

Temple University psychologist Kareem Johnson’s has carried out research showing to overcome some deeply rooted biases: cultivating positive emotions.

KAREEM JOHNSON: What we did was try to manipulate people’s moods, we put people in a positive mood or a fearful mood or a more neutral mood and then give them a classic facial memory task, but have them memorize a set of or learn and try to learn a set of faces that would be of the same race as them and face they’ll would be of a different race than themselves. And typically when given this task people are terrible terrible is too strong a term. People are much worse at recognizing other races than members of their own race which is why we have this saying they all look the same to me. And remarkably in our research we show that if you can get people in a positive mood. Importantly if you can make good laugh that they no longer seem to pay attention to race so much. What has happened? Because they haven’t changed anything other than their mood. And so there must be something about emotions, and how they make us label and categorize that maybe kind of underlying why we get this difference in recognition. Facial recognition in general is something that we do, you could call holistically. The downside to this holistic perception of faces is that we don’t do it for faces of a different race as much as we do it for faces of our own race.

When we’re in a more positive mood we seem to not care so much about boundaries that divide groups. We start to see similarities across categories as opposed to focusing on differences. So maybe that good moods let us see people as people as opposed to black people and white people. If I see you as, “Oh you’re one of those.” And then I react on the basis of “Oh you’re one of those,” then that’s who you are. One of those. You’re not Kamau, you’re not Kareem. And so I think what positive emotions are doing, I think with this shared identity exercise is doing this is letting us see people for their full humanity not as a representation of a label that that we’re giving them. And I think one reason why positive motions can do this is that in essence what positive results are telling us that everything’s OK. You’re safe. There’s something about sharing a laugh with someone that makes you, you know, like them

DACHER KELTNER: If you’d like to try the shared identity practice, or other practices like it, go to our website, Greater Good in Action. That’s GGIA dot Berkeley dot edu. And then email us and let us know how it went!

I’m Dacher Keltner. Thanks for joining me for the Science of Happiness.

This podcast was produced by the UC Berkeley’s Greater Good Science Center. 

If you are looking for a way to become an interfaith leader, work for racial equity and build bridges, please check out our free curriculum "We Are Each Other's" and start your interfaith leadership today

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