That Time a Klansman Shoved Skittles in Comedian W. Kamau Bell’s Face

It wasn’t the first time the rainbow candy inadvertently played a role in racial controversies.

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Comedian W. Kamau Bell showed up at a Ku Klux Klan rally in Kentucky in 2014 fully expecting to face steely stares and racist comments. (Bell is African American.) He was there to film an episode of his CNN TV show, United Shades of America, but even so, “I had been worried that some of the guys there would really not be okay I was there,” he writes in his 2017 memoir, The Awkward Thoughts of W. Kamau Bell, “and that someone was going to run up and attack me.” But when one of the masked Klansmen did approach Bell, it was to hand him iced tea and Skittles—the snacks Trayvon Martin purchased the night he was killed by George Zimmerman in 2012.

“In that moment, I knew they were trying to get me, they wanted to see if I would crack,” Bell told us on our most recent episode of Bite podcast. Bell told a joke instead, and watched the “phalanx of Klan members” laugh nervously. “Comedy is a way to stop the bigger guy from hurting you,” Bell says. “If you laugh, I have power over you in that moment.”

It wasn’t the first time Skittles inadvertently played a role in racial controversies. Last September, Donald Trump Jr. tweeted a campaign poster for his father that compared Syrian refugee children to the rainbow-colored candy. Trump Jr. has since taken the image on his own tweet down, but you can see it in Wired editor Nicholas Thompson’s disgusted reaction, below:

Trump Jr.’s tweet wasn’t just offensive—he also had his math wrong, argued Washington Post reporter Greg Sargent who posted a video debunking the claim. Data suggests that the “risk of a refugee killing an American in a terrorist attack is 1 in 3.64 billion,” Sargent reported. “Refugees aren’t candy in a bowl, of course—they’re people fleeing war, forced from their homes, trying to save their kids,” he added, akin to Skittles’ maker Mars Inc.’s retort to the offending tweet:

Then, in June, Skittles decided to sell all-white packets of its candy in Europe in support of LGBTQ rights: “During Pride, only one rainbow matters. So we’ve given up ours to show support,” the special edition’s packaging read. But the campaign seemed to have missed the mark—some people saw it as supporting white people, rather than the queer community.

On Bite, Bell talks more about how food can become a cultural symbol, racist or otherwise. He also reveals the key to the most savory gumbo, and who would land an invite to his fantasy dinner party in this trying time in American history.

Bite is Mother Jones’ podcast for people who think hard about their food. Listen to all our episodes here, or subscribe in iTunes or Stitcher or via RSS.

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We didn't know what to expect when we told you we needed to raise $400,000 before our fiscal year closed on June 30, and we're thrilled to report that our incredible community of readers contributed some $415,000 to help us keep charging as hard as we can during this crazy year.

You just sent an incredible message: that quality journalism doesn't have to answer to advertisers, billionaires, or hedge funds; that newsrooms can eke out an existence thanks primarily to the generosity of its readers. That's so powerful. Especially during what's been called a "media extinction event" when those looking to make a profit from the news pull back, the Mother Jones community steps in.

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