Opinion: This adult activity book is funny — but its authors are definitely not joking

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Editor’s Note: The CNN Original Series “United Shades of America” airs on Sundays at 10 p.m. ET/PT.


What do you get when a sociopolitical comedian teams up with a best-selling children’s book author to write a book about fighting racism in America?

When those two people are W. Kamau Bell, host of CNN’s “United Shades of America,” and Kate Schatz, author of the best-selling “Rad Women” children’s books, you get “Do the Work! An Antiracist Activity Book” (Workman Publishing) – a workbook for adults filled with exercises, coloring pages, information about historical figures, lists of things (big and small) you can do to change the world, guidance on how to have tough conversations (with yourself, your family, your colleagues and your kids) and most of all, pages and pages of witty dialogue between its authors.

The book began in the wake of the racial reckoning that followed the murder of George Floyd. Bell and Schatz – already friends and fellow denizens of the East Bay area of California – kept having conversations about how to deal with White people who wanted to know: “What do I do?” Bell suggested they write a book together and during the first Zoom about the project, a simultaneous light bulb flared: “We both pitched an activity book or a workbook,” said Schatz.

According to her, “I blame that in large part on the fact that we’re both parents who had been pandemic schooling our kids. So we thought, maybe we could do some kind of activity book for adults, because all these big, scholarly tomes on the history of racial injustice perhaps weren’t getting through to everybody.” Said Bell: “After I wrote my first book, I was like, ‘I will never, ever write another book again.’ And then this idea came to me, and I was like ‘I think I would only do it with Kate.’”

Schatz, who is White, was resolute in not only collaborating with Bell but also with other Black artists and designers for such a visually-driven book. She gives a particular shoutout to designers Tré Seals and Dian Holton and praised all the many collaborators on the project, especially in book publishing, an industry that has long struggled to diversify.

So how do you write an activity book for adults about how – in this topsy-turvy, pandemic-riddled, just-make-the-headlines-stop world – to do something as overwhelming as fighting racism? If you’re a parent familiar with Schatz’s previous work in books such as “Rad American Women A to Z” and “Rad Women Worldwide” (guilty) you might not be surprised that Schatz cites a classic activist adage: think globally, act locally.

“It’s how I think about storytelling,” she adds. “How do we connect a really big thing to this immediate moment we’re living in?…. Here’s a specific thing you could do tomorrow” – just one example in the chock-full book includes putting numbers for the fire department, domestic violence and suicide hotlines in your phone, so calling the police for any emergency is no longer your default – “that to me is a concrete detail that lands it for a reader, especially when you’re dealing with a very big topic that could seem abstract.”

For Bell, “I’m just trying to make it clear that there’s more work to do, that just ‘cause you had the [difficult] conversation doesn’t mean you did the work. It is super important always to lead people with ‘What more can you do? What’s next?’”

Bell and Schatz spoke with CNN Opinion about their book and how they see the world.

This interview has been lightly edited for length and clarity.

CNN: How did your different experiences as a children’s book author and a comedian and commentator inform your project?

W. Kamau Bell: For me, so much of this book comes from being parents. How do you get people to learn things they don’t want to learn? Or how do you get people to value information they don’t value?

Kate Schatz: One thing I’ve come to realize in this collaboration is how much our respective, separate careers are similar. My work writing children’s books of complicated histories about women that a lot of people haven’t heard of (laughs) is not that different from the work I did as a high school teacher, which is not that different from my work as a parent. I think there are a lot of parallels with Kamau’s work as a TV commentator and a stand-up comic, which – again, that it’s about trying to communicate with an audience that maybe doesn’t want to hear you.

So we both have these different, complementary kind of tactics of how we convey important, complex ideas in a way that’s funny and appealing, whether it’s parenting and trying to convince [our children] to do something, whether it’s getting high school students to care about a 19th century novel or getting my readers to be engaged in histories and people that they’ve never heard of.

I’ve always felt with children’s books, I don’t think the kids need complicated ideas to be dumbed down, I think they can handle really difficult things. I also don’t think that we need to water down and dumb down complicated things for adults either. I think there are ways we can speak very directly and very candidly about controversial things to an audience that are still engaging and entertaining but don’t try to pretend otherwise.

CNN: One thing that stuck out to me while reading the book was Kate’s comment in the introduction – that among a lot of other things, the book is for people who go to protests and think to themselves afterward, “What next?” Given what’s happened over the past few weeks, especially for those who may have been protesting now for generations and are confronting how things are evolving, I’m curious – how do you feel about this moment that your book is entering the world?

Schatz: I’m just completely devastated and enraged and so overwhelmed by all of it. But, despite those feelings, it’s actually fueling my excitement for this book to be in the world because that’s what this book is about, really: how to figure out what to do in the face of daunting and overwhelming horror.

And a lot of it is about getting people to think creatively, to think locally and to recognize that activism and change-making exist on a spectrum. Protesting is one really important part of the spectrum, but it’s not safe for everybody, it’s not accessible for everybody and it’s not the end all, be all. Neither is voting and neither is donating money. All of these things are pieces of a bigger puzzle.

In this book, I hope that readers can find some form of like, “Oh, this is a thing I could be doing,” or, “I could do this,” or, “I could do that.” Because it’s just very easy to feel paralyzed, like nothing matters. So yes, you protested and this terrible thing still happened, so what next? We definitely don’t have the answers, but we have a lot of ideas.

CNN: One of the things in the book is a set of affirmations for the reader, one of which is that they are now a “practicing anti-racist.” The idea then being that it’s an iterative process, something you have to keep practicing at to get better. Speaking of practice, and this is for both of you, what’s your favorite exercise in the book?

Bell: I’m a big fan of the “check your privilege” checklist just ‘cause I think it really expands the idea of what privilege is. And even though there are many jokes in there, none of them are jokey. I used to say about myself, “I tell jokes but I’m not kidding.” I saw somebody who zoomed in on [the exercise] on Instagram and said, “Tall? Is that a joke? So you’re saying tall is a privilege?” And I’m like, “It’s not a joke at all. I’m tall, I know it’s a privilege.” I love the fact that embedded in there are lots of jokes, but it also makes people think differently about privilege. My favorite one is, “Are you George Clooney?” That’s a privilege, if you’re George Clooney. This idea of privilege gets so corrupted and confused – and made so boring – that to me, I feel like that exercise did a great job of being actually funny, but not joking at all.

Schatz: And it takes this really loaded thing that people freak out about – this idea of privilege – and it disarms it by being funny. I will say that one of my favorites is the radical activists coloring page spread, which comes at the end of the section about history. I love the way that page looks, I just think the artist really nailed it. It’s fun. I love thinking about people coloring all these different names – it’s just this huge collage of individuals and groups,and organizations from across the centuries. I love the idea of thinking of someone coloring it in and then being like, “Who is this,” and googling it and learning about someone new. I cling to that kind of historical knowledge so much, especially in times like this because I think knowing that other people have been through this or iterations of this, or way more horrific s**t than this…to study how they did it and to know we’re part of that lineage of resistance is really important.

CNN: I was really struck by the “know your lane” exercise. What would you say to someone who was maybe looking to change lanes, so to speak, to participate in or speak on something they aren’t as experienced with or haven’t confronted personally? Is that even possible?

Schatz: Well, be sure to use your turn signal and really look over your shoulder as well. (laughs)

Bell: And that’s actually good advice, that’s not strained metaphor.

Schatz: I love nothing more than really squeezing the life out of a metaphor, so I can keep going with this. What I really mean is, look before you merge. If you want to change lanes, that’s great, but understand the lane that you’d like to go into before you go into it. Who’s already there? Who’s coming up behind you? Who’s up ahead? How fast are they going? What kind of cars are in there?

I think anybody can switch lanes and move into another kind of space of activism, but you’ve gotta know who’s already there and who’s been doing the work before you figure out where you fit in.

Bell: For me, [I’d say] two things. One, yes of course you can change your lane, but don’t bulls**t yourself into thinking you’ve changed your lane if you didn’t. In the wake of 2020, there were many responses from White people about racism, and some of those people thought they changed their lanes and were bulls**tting. All those people thought with one Instagram black square that…who knows, but I think they thought they’re now in the anti-racist lane and they weren’t. They just were not.

And two is what Kate said. This anti-racism lane has been going for a long time. So if you wanna get into a new lane – and this could be anything in your life – that lane’s already going, so actually pay attention and study up before you get into that lane, so you can know, “I’m not good enough to go in the fast lane of that lane. I should sit on the sidelines and pay attention before I get in there.”

CNN: You’ve both talked about parenting, and while so much this book is for adults, there are some really memorable spots where you talk directly to the adults about how to talk to children about anti-racism – a concept that is increasingly among the most politically divisive topics in our society. Why do you think classrooms have become ground zero for the battle over who gets to control history?

Schatz: It’s ground zero and it always has been, right? This is not a new thing. We’ve seen it for years, history textbooks getting re-written, edited, changed and controlled. It’s also how most Americans learn history, in the classroom – America considers history to be a subject in school, not an active part of our lives and existence. It’s a thing we learn in school that maybe you got a good grade in, but you probably didn’t.

And because of that, what happens in the classroom – unless you come from a family or a community that is really enthusiastic about history – really shapes most people’s sense of what this country is and how we got here. And it’s being taught in radically different ways all over this country.

Bell: You don’t empower teachers to do their jobs by taking things away from them. And so if a teacher realizes, “I can’t say these words” or “I can’t talk about this book,” you’re not gonna get the teacher at their most powerful. But you’re not gonna stop teachers, either. You know what I mean? We understand that teachers are part of the revolution and we want to give them better tools.

Schatz: And, I would add that the other key component here of the revolution and change-making is, in addition to teachers, the young people. To them this is so uncool. Banning books is so uncool. Teenagers know that. Like, this is not a good look. (laughs) ‘Cause guess who knows how to get information? Kids and teenagers. They all know how to go on the internet. They all know how to access information and that’s actually where a lot of them get radicalized by White supremacists. So the more that we are taking books out of schools and the more that we are limiting what teachers can teach and what kids can learn, the more that they’re gonna be turning to the vast dark web to get information.

CNN: There’s a part in the book – under the heading of “We #@%*!’d up!” – where you both talk about a moment when you got it wrong and apologized. Can you say more about why you included those stories?

Schatz: Because it’s really important for us to be transparent. I think we’re very clear in the book that we are not experts. We’re also not perfect. We’re not outside of this thing that we’re talking about, right? When we say everyone’s gonna f*** up at some point, we literally mean everyone, including ourselves.

That felt like a no-brainer, sharing these stories. As we’ve talked with people who’ve read the book, it’s really one of the things that clearly resonates with a lot with people. I’m glad we made that choice. I also think it models to the reader how we can be honest and vulnerable.

Bell: For me, if I don’t show vulnerability, then I’m a really poor example. ‘Cause as much as people may think I am him sometimes, I am not Cornel West. Like, I have not done all the reading, I have not studied all the things, I have not been to all the protests. So, I’m very aware that the more that I’m showing that I don’t always have the answer, the more you go, “Oh, I don’t always have the answer either.” And so, I think being vulnerable and apologizing, and being very clear about your apology, and loud about it is important. The example I wrote about in the book, we literally talked about it live on television when I had messed up.

Schatz: I was thinking about it recently, there’s that great example from a few weeks ago when Lizzo changed her song lyrics and did that great public statement. What a great example, I would’ve put that in our book. But there you go. That’s how it works. She said, “Hey, everybody. I had this song, there was a word in it. People let me know that it was offensive. I went in and re-recorded the song, re-released it. I’m sorry, I’ve learned,” like, there you go.

Bell: And I think that, while I’m sure Lizzo got some messages that were supportive, I’m sure she got some messages that hurt. And I think sometimes when we get caught, we think that if it hurts, then it’s wrong. “You hurt my feelings, so you must be wrong.” Um, not all the time. And sometimes it’s okay to have your feelings hurt.

CNN: If you could write one thing on the little card of “recommend reads” under this book at the bookstore about why someone should pick it up, what would it be?

Bell: I think “funny, but not f***ing around” says everything I want it to say. To, that’s the whole thing – it’s both of these things at once.

Schatz: Maybe the line I would add is, “If you don’t think you need this book about how to do anti-racist work, then you probably do.”

July 17, 2022 at 09:31PM

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