To their credit, essentially all of the white late-night hosts are eschewing the usual Hollywood chit-chat this week in favor of opening up their shows to a variety of black voices as the country continues to process the police murder of unarmed black man George Floyd. Now, some might object that it’s about fucking time. Or that, with that pandemic that’s apparently just not on Donald Trump’s radar any more, there really isn’t much show business going on, and that putting on a show (literally and figuratively) of performative white guilt in the wake of yet another race-based police murder and global protests thereof isn’t going to solve anything. And, actually, that’s exactly what United Shades Of America star W. Kamau Bell maintained all through his extended, show-length, bracingly uncompromising interview with Conan O’Brien on Wednesday. (That last one. The “performative” one.)
It’s not that Bell isn’t a Conan fan. (The comic made a point of noting how he remains inspired by O’Brien’s graceful exit from his disastrous, truncated Tonight Show gig.) Or that he wasn’t grateful for a full half-hour of TBS’ airtime to hold America’s feet to the fire. Or even that he wasn’t appreciative of his host’s clear confusion and pain at trying to come to terms with the tear gas-scented spectacle of Donald Trump’s America greeting protesters for civil rights with fascistic police (and now military) violence. It’s just that, as Bell said when O’Brien desperately asked for some advice and a little hope in this time of nation-shaking strife, “Those should be billable hours.”
And while Bell noted that he is one of the lucky few black Americans who does actually get paid to talk to troubled white people about the system of white supremacy governing America (on his Emmy-winning CNN show and stand-up stages), it’s simply not black Americans’ job to make Conan O’Brien and other white people feel okay about things. Because, as Bell pointed out, things are not okay. Not now, and, for black people in a country constructed from day one with “forces in place that are institutional and structural that just promote whiteness over all the other races,” not ever. Bell, throughout, was never less than happy to be on Conan, without ever letting the actual Conan off the hook, getting repeatedly specific about how, while giving a temporary bump in platforming black guests is nice, a more inclusive, top-to-bottom employment structure at both Conan and TBS as a whole would represent the host not just expressing some solidarity, but actually doing something. “We need white people to show their work,” Bell said, explaining that that would mean he could come back on Conan in a year’s time and see the Conan and TBS offices looking significantly different.
But Bell is nothing if not helpful (and funny), telling Conan that he’d just gotten off the phone with a writer he admires who has agreed to be “in charge of Conan’s whiteness” from now on. Perhaps with an eye toward the aforementioned idea that it’s not black writers’ responsibility to shepherd one of the whitest guys in TV history through his long and difficult education on racial matters in America, Bell hand-picked acclaimed (and white) author Kate Schatz to be on call to help O’Brien’s clearly sincere concern about white supremacy and his role in it turn into meaningful discussion—and action. Conan joked that his legendary whiteness might prove too daunting a task even for the author of Rad American Women A-Z, and Bell did admit that he thought he heard his friend take a deep breath before agreeing, but that she’s up for the challenge. In their wide-ranging and thoughtful conversation, Bell kept O’Brien from allowing the mere fact of Bell’s presence on the show be enough. Bell stressed again and again that George Floyd’s caught-on-camera murder will eventually fade in even well-intentioned white America’s memory, that being distracted by “hopeful” images of cops doing PR stunts like Kansas City cops kneeling with protesters (right before pepper-spraying them) is thoroughly unproductive, and that hope only means a damn “as long as I’m doing the work” to sustain it.