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It’s not often that a book covering an issue as serious as anti-racism features coloring pages, crossword puzzles, and even a board game. But that’s precisely what W. Kamau Bell and Kate Schatz have incorporated into their new book, Do the Work!: An Antiracist Activity Book. For many Americans searching for a way to tackle racism, especially in the aftermath of the 2020 racial justice uprising, Do the Work! aims to be an accessible starting point. Bell and Schatz strike a balance between exploring serious concepts—like White supremacy and intersectionality—with games and activities that offer readers a sense of accomplishment, while still encouraging them to interrogate their own racial privilege.
The book’s authors themselves embody the racial solidarity necessary to doing the work of anti-racism: Bell is a well-known Black comedian, writer, producer, activist, and the Emmy-winning host of CNN’s United Shades of America, while Schatz is a White queer feminist historian.
In exclusively featuring the work of artists who identify as Black, Indigenous, and people of color throughout the pages of their activity book, the authors of Do the Work! actually do the work of anti-racism—while encouraging their readers to do the work in their own lives. Even the fonts used in the book are designed by a Black typography artist named Tré Seals.
Bell spoke with YES! Racial Justice Editor Sonali Kolhatkar about Do the Work!: An Antiracist Activity Book, how it came about, and what he hopes readers will get from it.
This interview has been edited for clarity and length.
Sonali Kolhatkar: It seems to me that the mass racial justice protests of 2020 opened the door for the nation to be more receptive to a book such as this one. Is White America more ready now for a racial justice activity book than it was a few years ago?
W. Kamau Bell: Yeah, I think through social media it’s a lot easier to see what everybody is doing and what everybody even thinks they’re doing. In 2020, in the middle of COVID, many of us who could afford to be locked down are locked down in our houses. And then the news suddenly says, “wait, COVID’s important, but there’s something else we need to talk about,” and suddenly you see George Floyd being murdered on television by the Minneapolis police and it leads to this so-called racial reckoning.
A lot of people get on social media and there’s a lot of people on TV talking about what we can do now and how we can finally fix America’s racism problem. And a lot of those people, you know, honestly, are White people who sort of are just realizing how deep and how long the problem has existed. I think a lot of these are people who went to the kind of schools where you learn about racism through slavery and Martin Luther King Jr., and then everything is fine after that.
So, I think that we saw a lot of people struggling with that: a lot of White people who wanted to help but really couldn’t figure out what to do. We saw a lot of books go to the top of The New York Times bestseller list, a lot of great anti-racism books. But me and Kate Schatz, my co-author, were like, “Will these people know what to do after they read these books, or will they even read these books?” So, our charge was to, how do we—as the saying goes—make the revolution irresistible? And so, we just thought, let’s try to make it more fun and surreptitiously revolutionary by turning it into activities and games.
Kolhatkar: On the surface, it looks like a fun book! But it’s a huge topic, arguably the most important topic in America. How did you choose what goes in and what doesn’t? I see that you open the book with teaching readers how to do Indigenous land acknowledgments?
Bell: Well, the thing that we told ourselves is that the book wants to be funny, but it also wants to not be “messing around” (we used more adult language than that). So, if you open it and turn to any page, even if it looked fun and funny, we wanted there to be information or things that indicated that we’re serious about this work.
And so, even before you get to the land acknowledgement, the book starts with a poster that says “End White Supremacy” that we challenge you to pull out and put someplace publicly in your life where other people see it. For some people, that will be easier. They’ll put it next to their other “End White Supremacy” poster! But for many people, the audience of this book, it’s going to be a real challenge.
And then you get to the land acknowledgments. We wanted to take it a step further and invite a Native American graphic designer, Sadie Red Wing, to actually do some art in the book to talk about what this country would be like if we actually were aware and thought about the land we lived on more often.
This is about getting people to do the anti-racism work that they haven’t probably been doing.
So, we always were trying to push it one step further than what we thought was the current version of the conversation. But honestly, you could do a whole book like this about Native issues, and I hope that book comes. I hope there’s a whole activity book about Native issues—although Kate and I should definitely not write that book!
Our book is 176 pages. I think it was supposed to be 150 pages. So, we pushed it as far as we could, but really [with the] understanding that throughout the book we’re pushing people to do their own research. I’ve seen people online do the land acknowledgement and then start to do a deep dive on their land acknowledgement and really find out things that we didn’t assign them in the book. Once you start going down that rabbit hole, we want you to keep going down the rabbit hole.
Kolhatkar: Is it a book for kids, or adults, or everyone in between? There’s a little swearing, so it’s a little edgy.
Bell: It’s up to how you raise your kids. I’ll put it this way—my 11-year-old daughter has the book next to her bed. She’s working on it. Now, the fact that she’s my daughter may mean she’s a little more ready for this work. And also, she’s heard me swear before!
I think a lot of people see this and want to think it’s for kids, because we want to think that kids need to do the anti-racism work. But really, it’s the adults that need it. So, as parents, we put it in a format that we know that our kids like, which is games and activities.
Certainly, as adults, we probably play more games now than we ever have in the history of the world through our phones and Wordle and Quordle, etc. So, we are a game-ified adult culture, but we wanted to do it in a way through this book that sort of disconnected your rational brain and invited you to do some things in the way that you do when you go as an adult to the dentist’s office. There’s a Highlights magazine, [and] you pick it up because it’s like, “I want to see what Goofus and Gallant up to.”
So, I would say, definitely teenagers can do it. We actually are working on a book for younger readers that will be quite different, that is sort of in the same anti-racism vein, but it’ll be quite different. It won’t be a workbook, because we want it to be able to go into the libraries.
But this [book] is really for adults. It’s really for adults.
Kolhatkar: White adults? Or all non-Black folks? Your co-author Kate Schatz is White, and you say in the book that it’s for White folks.
Bell: Here’s the thing. We understand that this is about getting people to do the anti-racism work that they haven’t probably been doing. What does that mean? The foreword is written by Alicia Garza. So, that means we had to send it to Alicia Garza. She’s one of the co-founders of Black Lives Matter and leads the Black Futures Lab. So, we wanted our activist friends to be able to read it and go, “Maybe this isn’t all for me, but I see what you’re doing here, and I respect it.”
Or, even [for] somebody like Alicia Garza, there’s probably something in the book that she’s not aware of or something that she doesn’t know all the way through. It’s a 101 book on racism, which means automatically, the core audience is White people.
But having said that, I put together the book, and I didn’t know all that stuff either, and I’m somebody who [does] this anti-racism work every day—at least I try to. So, I look at it this way: The TV show Friends was made for White people, but I enjoyed it. So, certainly the core audience may be White folks, but it doesn’t mean that people who are not White can’t pick something up.
It’s fine if you have a moment of being overwhelmed, but we need to get you to actually doing the work to create less racism.
And also, I think that White people tend to think that all of us non-White people know everything about every other culture. So, there is a mix of racial history and racial ideas in here.
Kolhatkar: As a non-Black person of color, I definitely felt it was a book I could work through and write in. Is the fact that it is an activity book intentional, so as to give readers a sense of ownership over their anti-racism work?
Bell: It’s meant to say that doing anti-racism work is actually a thing you do. You can read about it as a way to get prepared to do the work, but it actually is a thing you do. And it is often a tangible thing you do, and there’s many ways to do it.
So, if Martin Luther King Jr. had just written a story about a march to Washington, that would have been one thing, but it is not as powerful as an actual march on Washington.
In the back of the book, we have a lot of stuff about, “Fill out who your local politicians are, when your elections are.” We talk about registering to vote and things like that. So, you can read about it, but if you don’t actually do those things, it’s not gonna help you come voting season—which is what we’re in right now.
So, the book is designed to get you to action. It’s like, if you read a book about working out, but you didn’t actually work out, but the book about working out can help you learn how to work out better.
Kolhatkar: How did you approach the fact that some White Americans are not always very receptive to facing their own privilege, facing their own culpability for enabling racism?
Bell: When the 2020 [racial justice uprising] happened, I got booked on a lot of late-night talk shows hosted by White men, and there was a sort of common refrain that “it’s time we have the conversation.” And I was like, “No, no, no, we’re way past the conversation. We have to stop thinking that the conversation is the work.”
So, we wanted the book to very quickly get you to doing the work. And I think a lot of times, White people get caught up in, like, “Oh my God, I didn’t know this,” and now they’re stuck with all this knowledge they have about racism. And they’re like, “Oh, I’m so overwhelmed by all the racism knowledge I have, I don’t know what to do.”
Being overwhelmed doesn’t help create an anti-racist society in America. It’s fine if you have a moment of being overwhelmed, but we need to get you to actually doing the work to create less racism.
We really understood that the audience for this book was for people who in 2020 turned their Instagram posts to black squares, and it was supposed to be to promote anti-racism or racial justice. I remember seeing a lot of people doing this, and nobody had sent a message to me [about this], and I get sent a lot of those “We’re gonna do this thing on this day, for this reason.”
And so, I reached out to Alicia Garza, actually, and I was like, “What’s happening?” She’s like, “I have no idea.” And then we both quickly realized that this was just this thing that had happened and people thought turning their Instagram squares to black was somehow doing something. It wasn’t connected to any action, any donation, any ask. It was just a symbol.
So, this book is for those people who think that was doing the work. No, no, that’s not doing the work, this is doing the work. My friend Jelani Cobb says a lot of White people think doing the work is buying Juneteenth ice cream from Walmart, and that’s not doing the work.
Kolhatkar: One of the things that you take on in your book is what leads someone to call the police. In the last few years, with social media and the ability of smartphones to capture instant footage, we’ve been able to see in real time what happens when White people in particular call the cops on Black folks who are just existing, just living. So, what do you ask your readers to think about before calling the cops?
Bell: I think that this is about what your personal relationship is to the police. I think for many White people in this country, their personal relationship to the police is that they are helpers and they come when you call them and they’re never rude to you, they always trust what you say and so you can trust them implicitly. And we wanted to be like, “That’s not true of everybody.”
And also, there’s times when White people thought they were calling the police, and even saying explicitly to the dispatcher, “This is a nonviolent person, they don’t have a gun, please just come help them like you help me,” and that person ends up dead. I can think of many situations like that.
There was a young Black man named Elijah McClain from Colorado. This was before 2020. He was just a young Black man who apparently was dancing down the street, and all of Elijah’s friends said he was quirky and sort of reveled in being a weirdo. He apparently taught himself the violin so he could play it for stray cats at the ASPCA—he was that kind of dude—sounds like a great dude.
He was dancing down the street, and somebody called the cops because they said, “I see this Black man acting erratic.” They said, “He’s not doing anything violent, but he’s dancing, he’s just acting erratic.” I guess they thought they were helping him or worried about what he was gonna do [because] he was literally dancing on the street.
The police showed up. They said he told them, “Oh, I’m a strange person, please forgive me, I’m not gonna hurt anybody.” They thought he was acting erratic. The EMTs came, they filled him up with sedatives, and he died in the hospital days later because they overdosed him on sedatives.
So, we’re trying to say [to readers], before you call the cops, really know why you’re calling the cops. And also understand that you can’t control what they do when they show up, especially if it’s with a Black person or a person of color.
Kolhatkar: So, your intention doesn’t matter when you call the cops. The cop’s intention matters and that’s something you can’t control, right?
Bell: This is also true of Black people who call the cops because one of our loved ones is having a mental health challenge. And we call the cops saying, “My loved one is having a mental health challenge. He needs help.” And there’s just 911 to call, so you call 911, and then they come and kill that person. This has happened many times throughout this country in recent times.
Kolhatkar: Tell me about the ways in which you hope people will use the book to spark conversations about race. We don’t like to talk about race in this country. In mixed-race families through marriage, conversations about race can get awkward.
Bell: You’re describing me and my in-laws.
Kolhatkar: And me and my in-laws! So, what advice do you give to folks about how important is to talk about these issues at the dinner table?
Bell: I think the idea is, do you want to be a good community member? And by community, [I mean] there’s a community of people who live in your house, there’s the community in your neighborhood, your city, and then there’s your country. Racism is one of America’s defining traits, and one of its founding principles, with the genocide of Native Americans and then also the enslavement of Africans.
So, until we actually really address that and really understand that it didn’t end when Lincoln freed the slaves and it didn’t end when Indigenous people were “given” reservations—until we understand that we still are suffering the effects of all that, I think this American experiment is basically doomed to fail. I didn’t used to be this pessimistic about it. But [given] what I’ve seen in the last couple of years, I really believe that.
When you look at, like, the results of the elections in Kansas recently, where they resoundingly said, “No, we want to support a person’s right to have an abortion,” that is an idea of [how] we need to draw some lines in the sand and we really need to be loud. We need to do the work. It’s not just enough to put on your Instagram a picture of “I support a person’s right to have an abortion.” I need to actually do the work.
I always compare it to [how] in 2020, many people bought Pelotons, and they got motivated by the fact that they were doing that every day and sharing it with their friends. I wish anti-racism work could catch on like that and be sort of trendy, but I hope the trend actually stayed over time—unlike the Pelotons that are now just expensive hangers.
Kolhatkar: In your chapter about actually doing the work—called “What do I do?”—you have an interesting section about how people have been told to “stay in your lane” when it comes to doing anti-racism work. What does that mean?
Bell: I want to give my co-author Kate Schatz credit [for that], that was really her idea. I think people often will say to a White person who’s working to be an anti-racist, “Stay in your lane,” because they don’t trust that White person to actually know what they’re doing once they step out of their lane. And so, we’re saying, “OK, if you are gonna stay in your lane, you can do anti-racism work in your lane.”
I think a lot of times, White people will be excited about being anti-racist, and they’ll go start a nonprofit that they have no business starting instead of [asking themselves], “What’s your job now? What’s going on in your family? What’s going on in your neighborhood now that you can actually work on?”
So, we’re actually asking people to look at your lane. And we talk a lot about your work lane, like, what is your work doing? Look around [at] who you work with, how many people of color work there, what are you doing to make it easier on the Black folks and the people of color who work there, and what aren’t you doing? How can you change it?
If you work at a fast-food restaurant, or certainly if you work at a school or you work at just a regular office, you can look at your lane and clean that lane up before you start going out into the world.
Kolhatkar: Your book has activities of the kind you would find in a literal activity book, such as coloring pages and crossword puzzles. Tell me about that and why that was something that you decided to include. How do you learn to be an anti-racist by doing coloring?
Bell: Well, you know, we really wanted the book to be diverse. There are more than 15 artists in the book, and they’re all artists of color: Black, Indigenous, and artists of color. And a lot of them were being published for the first time, which is our way of doing the work. Our designer is a Black woman named Dian Holton. So, we were doing the work while we were doing the work!
And we wanted it to be a thing that if you flip through [the book], maybe you’re not into crossword puzzles, but you are into coloring pages. Or maybe you’re not into coloring pages, but you’re into those activities where you try to find the hidden pictures. Maybe you’re into games—there’s a little board game in the middle of the book. Maybe you’re into the foldout that has pictures of Black women in our “centering Black women’s voices” [section]. And so, we really wanted the art to be diverse in the way it looks, and also who’s making it.
There’s a lot of adult coloring books. But what are you coloring? Rainbows? Birds? That’s fine. But how about Nina Simone? How about James Baldwin? You know what I mean? How about an Audre Lorde quote? It’s not “the work,” but for some people, they’re not going to know who those people are, or they don’t really know what those people do, and it starts to get some curiosity going. But it wouldn’t be enough to just do a whole book of anti-racism coloring pages, although, who knows, maybe that’ll happen too. It’s just a way to sort of mix up the tones and textures of the book.
Kolhatkar: And also, it brings joy, right? I mean, that’s something we do need. Doing the work of anti-racism doesn’t have to only feel heavy, sad, painful. It can and should feel affirming and joyful, right?
Bell: Yeah, I mean, I’m a comedian and yet this is my job. So, I understand the fact that it’s the only thing that keeps you doing the work—and this is true of activists who aren’t comedians—is humor and joy, because you couldn’t do the work if it was just unrelentingly hard all the time. And there are times where it is unrelentingly hard.
A lot of the Black women I know who work for reproductive rights services and organizations, especially in the South, are having a hard time. And yet they still understand that sometimes they have to connect with joy.
Sonali Kolhatkar is currently the racial justice editor at YES! Media and a writing fellow with Independent Media Institute. She was previously a weekly columnist for Truthdig.com. She is also the host and creator of Rising Up with Sonali, a nationally syndicated television and radio program airing on Free Speech TV and dozens of independent and community radio stations. Sonali won First Place at the Los Angeles Press Club Annual Awards for Best Election Commentary in 2016. She also won numerous awards including Best TV Anchor from the LA Press Club and has also been nominated as Best Radio Anchor 4 years in a row. She is the author of Bleeding Afghanistan: Washington, Warlords, and the Propaganda of Silence, and the co-director of the nonprofit group, Afghan Women's Mission. Her forthcoming book is Rising Up: The Power of Narrative in Pursuing Racial Justice (City Lights, 2023). She has a Master’s in Astronomy from the University of Hawai’i, and two undergraduate degrees in Physics and Astronomy from the University of Texas at Austin. She reflects on her professional path in her 2014 TEDx talk, “My Journey From Astrophysicist to Radio Host.” She can be reached at sonalikolhatkar.com