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W. Kamau Bell brings humor, empathy for season 2 of CNN's 'United Shades of America' returning April 30

This was posted Saturday, April 29, 2017 by Rodney Ho/ on his AJC Radio & TV Talk blog

W. Kamau Bell came to Atlanta a few days back to promote the second season of his CNN social commentary/travelogue show "United Shades of America."

I caught up with him at the National Center for Civil & Human Rights before a screening of the first episode, debuting April 30 at 10 p.m., focused on immigration and refugees. The highlight: Bell attending an alt-right conference and having a sit down with white supremacist Richard Spencer.

"He's a seemingly friendly man who wants a white ethno-state," Bell said. On the episode, he notes, "he dresses nice. He's the face of white supremacy's optics-friendly side."

Bell's easy-going, warm personality disarms even people who don't agree with him in the least. And he leavens everything with humor.

He said after season one, fans have told him how much they appreciate his ability to listen and empathize (which is different than sympathize) with people like Spencer, who gleefully told Bell in the interview that "I just want to bathe in white privilege!"

Difficult talks are "something I used to run away from but now I run towards," he said.

He is grateful when fans tell him how impactful and thought-provoking his shows are: "As a creative person, that's a great thing to hear... Hopefully, this show will help people discuss difficult issues. I hope that covers people from the lowest rung of the economic ladder to the highest rung like the president of the United States. You know he watches CNN."

When I noted CNN is not necessarily Donald Trump's favorite network, Bell added: "He may be hate watching but he watches!"

"You aren't 'Fox & Friends,' " I said.

"That was almost our slogan: 'We aren't 'Fox & Friends!' " Bell cracked. "We're friends but not foxy!"

Some of the topics he addresses this season includes life in Appalachia, Muslim and Arab Americans in Dearborn, Mich., Native Americans in Standing Rock, Chinese Americans out of San Francicso and the crime crisis in Chicago. And he hits a beach in Puerto Rico. He did a spring break episode season one. Is this a theme?

"I'm trying to go to places that aren't all scary!" he said.

In the first episode of season two, Bell notes that in a poll in 1994, 63 percent of people thought immigrants were a drain on society. Now, 51 percent don't believe that. "The minority is so vocal they want to change our country back to 1994," he narrated, then noted, "When Ace of Base was No. 1 but 'Gin & Juice' was a superior song!"

That garnered a big laugh from the audience that attended the screening.

During the Q&A after the screening, a young child, who looked about 10 years old, stood up and earnestly  noted that her grandfather was a refugee and wondered what she could do to make the country a better place.

As the crowd applauded, Bell was visibly impressed.

"First of all," he said, "will you be able to baby sit my daughter? I like that energy. I'm impressed you're interested in issues at your age. Stay interested. Study everything, not just in school. Pay attention. Speak up. You did all of that. I'm reflecting you back to you. You're like the X-Men. Must be stronger, faster. By the time you're in high school, you'll have a show on CNN!... Always have conversations. Push conversations forward."

Bell also has a book coming out May 2 to coincide with the new season called "The Awkward Thoughts of W. Kamau Bell."

"The book is a love letter to all the people in my life who were patient in my life and had awkward conversations with me about not being a good person," he said.

He joked that his TV show is "on brand" given that Bell is now the king of awkward conversations. He recalled conversations with family members and friends. "There's a section about a friend of mine kindly told me you can't try to end racism and be a sexist. She taught me about intersectionality before I even knew it was a word." He said he had to learn not to get defensive since his friend basically called him sexist in his act. So he listened and learned instead.


"United Shades of America" returns, season 2, at 10 p.m., Sunday, April 30, 2017


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About the Author

Rodney Ho covers radio and television for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution.