W. Kamau Bell made it into the spotlight by talking. He’s stayed there by listening. The comedian and Emmy Award–winning host of CNN’s United Shades of America travels the country starting conversations with people he might disagree with. Bell is also this year’s Sinatra Artist in Residence. During his first visit in November, he hosted a Q&A with students.
Here is some of what Bell had to say: How do I talk to someone I obviously disagree with? For me, a lot of times, and I know this happens on college campuses a lot, people who disagree with each other talk to each other as a way to convince the other person. I don’t think that’s always the most effective way to engage in conversation.
If you want to convince somebody that you’re right, it’s not going to happen in one conversation. Which means the first few times you talk to them you’re going to just have to listen. So, for me, if you’re the Klan or you’re Richard Spencer or you’re a militia guy on the border who I talked to last week, it’s about me allowing you space to feel like you’re being heard. Because the problem with this country right now is, everybody feels like they aren’t being heard, even though some of them are clearly being heard. But even people who are being heard, if you really want to have a conversation with them, you have to allow them to be heard and you have to get used to—how do I say this?—shutting the fuck up.
A lot of times when we talk, we’re just waiting for the other person to stop talking and you’re thinking about the sick burn you’ve got. A lot of that comes from social media and Twitter and comment sections where you’re just trying to figure out a way to insult them and win the internet for the day. But as it turns out, that doesn’t pay a damn thing.
What’s more productive is actually listening to them and finding things in there that you’re curious about. When I was talking to the Klan, I was like, “Where do you get the wood from to burn the crosses?” Because I was just curious: Where does that come from? It’s not like I’m saying, “Yay, I love it when you burn crosses.” But what is the process? Where do you get the sheets from? Who makes them?
These are questions I ask because I was curious about them. It doesn’t mean I agree with them. Some people don’t like the fact that I didn’t just yell at them, but we’ve seen how that happens. We’ve seen how it happens on reality television when people just yell at each other. It doesn’t accomplish anything.