Walter Kamau Bell kicks off Social Justice Week at Pitt


W. Kamau Bell speaks at an event at Pitt on Jan. 17, 2017. Anna Bongardino|Staff Photographer

By Rebecca Peters / Staff Writer

About 150 people from varying backgrounds walked into a room. They filled half the seats in the O’Hara Student Center ballroom. Someone cracked a joke.

“Hey. How you doing? We’re half empty. Did the Republicans not show up?”

The joker was comedian Walter Kamau Bell.

“If that’s too much, it’s gonna be a long evening,” Bell said.

On Friday evening, Bell performed “Ending Race in About an Hour” — a stand-up comedy act and PowerPoint presentation — as part of Pitt’s upcoming Social Justice Week. The week, celebrated at universities across the nation, begins after Martin Luther King Jr. Day and includes interfaith services, community events and roundtable discussions.

This is the first year the Office of Diversity and Inclusion is hosting a Social Justice Week — instead of just an MLK Day of Service — in celebration of King’s life and legacy.

Pitt’s Black Action Society booked Bell’s performance, and BAS President Aminata Kamara, a junior nursing major, chose Bell because he finds a way to merge serious political topics with comedy.

“Social justice is hard to talk about. Humor can make it easier for a campus like Pitt that doesn’t have the best diversity,” Kamara said.

According to the 2017 Pitt factbook, white or Caucasian students constitute about 73 percent of Pitt’s undergraduate student body. Asian students represent about 10 percent, African-American students constitute 5 percent and Latinx or Hispanic students make up about 3.5 percent of the undergraduate student body.

Bell was quick to clarify his thoughts on race and social attitudes Friday.

“Race is not real. It’s a social construct invented as a way to divide and separate people,” Bell said. “Racism, however, is real. It is a consequence of believing in race.”

Bell pointed out racism in movies, politics, sports and media by citing certain social media movements, including #OscarsSoWhite, a reaction to a lack of diversity among the 2016 Academy Award nominees.

“Hollywood is paying attention to that,” Bell said, citing the movie “Gods of Egypt,” for its lack of Egyptian cast members and subsequent lack of success in theaters.

Politically, Bell focused on the Black Lives Matter movement and the 2016 presidential election.

According to Bell, the BLM movement is an extension of America’s inability to have meaningful conversations about race.

“Until we get black lives to matter we can’t get all lives to matter,” Bell said. “White Lives Matter didn’t even exist before Black Lives Matter. Not even the Beatles said all lives matter.”

Switching from politics to sports, Bell questioned the ethics of athletic teams still named after ethnicities and the reaction to San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick’s decision to sit during the national anthem.

“The third and fourth verses of the national anthem, which no one ever sings, are ‘No refuge could save the hireling and slave / From the terror of flight or the gloom of the grave,’” Bell said.  “Can you see why he didn’t want to stand for that?”

Bell’s background in social justice activism includes a comedy series, docu-series and two comedy albums. He’s also been a Racial Justice Ambassador for the American Civil Liberties Union.

According to his website, Bell is currently filming a new season of “United Shades of America,” which airs on CNN as an exploration of “racial subcultures and other micro-societies across the country.”

Amal Saeed, a sophomore molecular biology major, and Sarah Tolaymat, a sophomore bioengineering major, came to see Bell speak specifically because they’d enjoyed the docu-series.

“Humor is the universal language,” Saeed, 19, said. “While race is a sensitive issue, if you bring a bit of humor to it, anyone can get what you’re saying.”

Similar to what Bell does on his show, Kamara wants college students to realize that political disagreements can be conversations, not conflicts, on campus.

“It’s OK to talk about issues in different ways and still get the point across,” she said. “You don’t have to be the most knowledgeable, but it’s better to be present than be blind.”

Saeed, a Muslim woman, disagreed with only one of Bell’s points during the presentation.
While Bell discussed the 2010 census defining Arab Americans as Caucasian, Saeed said he “made it seem like it was a privilege to be considered white and asked ‘when African-Americans will be upgraded.’”

“Being considered white doesn’t make it any easier for Arabs. Muslims face a lot of the same discrimination African-Americans do,” she said.

In addition to Bell’s event, Social Justice Week will feature a social justice symposium and an interfaith service to continue diversity talks.

Alpha Phi Alpha, an African-American intercollegiate Greek-lettered fraternity, hosted a candlelight vigil Jan. 16, in honor of King, who became a brother in the fraternity in 1952.

The vigil became a tradition in 2000 and has amassed a crowd of at least 40 people each year for the past two years.

Alpha Phi Alpha President Jaron Moore organized the vigil, aiming to look at the world through King’s perspective.

“Coming into an event with your own opinion on police brutality or inequality in the U.S. and hearing other people’s research and how you can improve and advocate for change is what social justice is about,” Moore, a senior finance, economics and philosophy major, said.


Social Justice Week events include:

  • Jan. 13, 7 p.m.

Kamau Bell – Ending Racism in About an Hour, presented by Black Action Society

O’Hara Student Center

  • Jan. 16, 8:30 a.m.-2:30 p.m.

MLK Day of Service

Pittsburgh Area Communities

  • Jan. 16, 7:06 p.m.

Alpha Phi Alpha Fraternity, Inc. Candlelight Vigil

WPU Driveway, followed by a discussion in WPU 540

  • Jan. 17, 7 p.m.

Interfaith Service, sponsored by CCLD, PittServes and The Chaplains Commission

Heinz Chapel

  • Jan. 18, 4:30-6 p.m.

Social Justice Roundtable, sponsored by PittServes with Community Partners

WPU Ballroom

  • Jan. 18, at 7 p.m.

The Pitt News Social Justice & Journalism panel

324 Cathedral of Learning

  • Jan. 19, 9 a.m.-2 p.m.

Social Justice Symposium, Creating a Just Community by Unmasking the Faces of Privilege

WPU Assembly Room

Must RSVP for event

  • Jan. 20, 9 a.m.-1 p.m.

Equipoise Brunch, with guest speaker Cheryl Ruffin

WPU Assembly Room