Comedian W. Kamau Bell and his wife, Melissa Hudson Bell, produced a new documentary film in which they ask kids, including two of their own, to reflect on mixed-race identity. (Graphic by Kelly Ma of KQED)
W. Kamau Bell and Melissa Hudson Bell didn’t think it would be a big deal to either of their families when they began dating two decades ago.
Both Bell, who’s Black, and Hudson Bell, who’s white, had dated people of different races before. But it was obvious to everyone that this relationship was serious, and that realization seemed to bring out a side of Hudson Bell’s Italian American grandfather she’d never seen before.
“He claimed — and felt in his heart — that he was open to all people. And then when we started dating seriously, we found out that the little caveat for him was that those people, though, shouldn’t be dating and shouldn’t be in relationship with one another,” she said.
Hudson Bell, who grew up close to her grandfather, described that realization as “a sort of shock wave through the family.”
“That very blatant racism had been buried in this kind of language about openness — and then there was this very clear dividing line for him, that our relationship was not acceptable,” she said.
It was a long process, she said, to both “navigate the obligation that I still felt to my family,” and to Kamau.
“How do I incorporate this person who means so much to me into that? And how can I honor his experiences and make sure that he is supported and respected without, you know, abandoning my family or creating some sort of big scene?” she said. “So it was a lot and it was a long, long process.”
The Bells have since married and had three daughters — kids who are featured alongside a number of other mixed-race young people in the couple’s new HBO documentary, 1,000% Me: Growing Up Mixed.
Both Bell and Hudson Bell said in a recent interview that they knew raising kids who didn’t look entirely like either of them would pose challenges — and they started having conversations about raising mixed kids early on.
But they didn’t know how much kids can also act as healing agents — starting with their oldest daughter, Sami, whose birth changed Hudson Bell’s grandfather’s entire affect toward their small family.
“There was something about the presence of this child and a sort of recognition of the continuation of his family line through this child. And, you know, these weren’t conversations that we ever got to have with him directly,” she said. “But I would say certainly his affect towards Kamau, his understanding of our relationship and sort of respect for us as parents, changed.”
By the end, said Bell, “We were buddies.”
Bell has centered conversations about race in pretty much all his work as a comedian, author and TV host. But kids are rarely asked to weigh in on the question. So he and Hudson Bell — a dancer, choreographer and teacher — chose to center mixed-race kids in their new film.
On having mixed kids
Kamau: You start talking about kids and you’re like, Well, what are they going to look like? And we don’t know. If you’re Black in America, there’s already a certain level of mixture, especially if you’ve had family that goes back to the days of enslavement. Every Black person in America goes to a family reunion with some super-light-skinned Black people.
So for me I was more aware of the fact that we have no idea what these kids are going to look like. DNA is a weird thing. Also, if we have multiple kids, that doesn’t mean they’re all going to look the same. And then there is a sense of, “Will the kids look like me? Will I be able to see myself in my kids?” We talked about that stuff a lot.
On raising kids who look different from you
Melissa: (I remember) the moment when I felt, for the first time concretely, the separation of Sami’s experience from mine as a white person. You know, you’re so close to these kids, you know them in and out.
There were folks coming to Berkeley from the alt-right and they were protesting the Black Lives Matter movement. And we lived in downtown Berkeley at the time. So these protests were going down the street that we could see out our bedroom window. And the helicopters were zooming overhead all the time and we felt compelled to action. And we wanted the kids to feel empowered and to understand what was going on. So we went to a teach-in specifically designed for children.
Sami was maybe 5 or 6 at the time and heard — as she’s sitting in my lap — that the people who are coming here, to our town, are coming because they think white people are better than other people. And they’re coming here and they’re in our streets. And we need to tell them that what they believe is not right and that these are our streets, you know.
And I remember sitting with this kid, and these tears in my eyes, and she’s turning back to look at me like, “Wait, hold up. You, white mom. Can we check in about this for a second? You’re white. But I’m not just white.” And I really saw her coming to a new understanding, as a 6-year-old, of the separation that would always exist between the two of us. And it broke my heart — that I could follow her or protect her or be there with her or understand her or mentor her, and always only to a certain extent. That there would always be things about her lived experience that I as a white person would never understand. And it was such a powerful gathering and such a meaningful moment for me and for her.
And I think about it, how some of these differences, we can’t talk our way into dissolving them. They just exist concretely. And we have to build our love around those differences.
On protecting your mixed kids in the world
Kamau: I think as Black people in this country — and this could be true for people from other races but certainly Black people — you don’t want to give white supremacy an obvious target. And so you’re thinking about all the things you can do, all the things you can sort of try, because you’re going to get targeted anyway, but you do not want to give white supremacy an easy target.
For me, it’s deodorant. I don’t want anybody saying, “That Black girl is stinky.”
Melissa: I have tried to educate myself about doing the girls’ hair. That’s a big thing for me as the white mom, and on more than one occasion, you know, people will comment, “Oh, you braid so well, how did you learn to do braids like this?” And I was like, “Well, I went and did a lot of research because I can’t be that white mom who doesn’t know how to make their daughters feel beautiful through these kinds of braids and hairstyles, who isn’t able to help them feel like their very best selves through whatever hairstyles they want to have.”
On their hopes for the ‘1000% Me’ film
Kamau: It was always intended to be something that families could watch together. Something that a whole family could sit down and maybe the little kids aren’t going to pick up all of it. But it is going to be a thing that you can all have a discussion afterwards. And so for me, it’s about the discussions that come out of it.
I really hope it can provide a service for mixed folks who feel like they don’t know where to go to have these conversations. And then I think it’s also bigger than that, just a service for folks who are afraid of these conversations, which is most of this country.
Melissa: A friend of mine teaches in Florida, where programs at her school are getting canceled because they have decided that there’s too much critical race theory being taught and things like this. And so she’s fighting a battle there to be able to teach students in the way that she feels is right. And she came to see the film and she sent us a message afterwards saying, “What a gift to give to the folks who I work with, who live in this place where we’re being told that these conversations are dangerous and these conversations are causing problems — for them to see these young people who are being taught in a different way and to understand how powerful that can be.”
And I think I was so excited for our community to see what we’d made, you know, and feeling so proud and really focused on how it would feel for the folks who live around here to see themselves represented or for mixed folks in particular to see themselves represented, that I had forgotten to think about the people who really might have opposing views to what we’re presenting in the film and how it could potentially be that sort of spark of change for folks, to feel different or to consider different perspectives through these kids.
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