Boris Kodjoe: Teach Racial History - OZY | A Modern Media Company

Boris Kodjoe: Teach Racial History

Boris Kodjoe: Teach Racial History

By Eugene S. Robinson


Because melting pots can be global too.

By Eugene S. Robinson

Actor, producer and former model Boris Kodjoe stopped by Casa Carlos for a revealing interview on the latest episode of The Carlos Watson Show. The following are some of the best cuts from the full conversation, which you can find on the show’s podcast feed.

Getting here from there

Carlos Watson: Hey, Boris, you made it hard today. I work with a wonderful woman named Monica, who was so excited when she saw your name, she said, “Yum,” and I said, “Monica, you haven’t said ‘yum’ before when my name came up,” so compliments to you.

Boris Kodjoe: She needs to be yumming all day when she works with you.

Watson: I love that. Where did you grow up? You grew up overseas, right?

Kodjoe: Yeah. Heidelberg is about an hour north of where I’m from. I’m right by the Swiss border all the way in the south, southwest France. So I’m in the corner of France, Switzerland and Germany. I’m right there.

Watson: Interesting. It was very funny, literally in the minute you went from American to German to French. I heard a little Tony Parker in your voice for about two seconds, and then you came back. Do you speak French as well or just German?

Kodjoe: Yeah. Well, obviously, German is easy and then French was my second and then English and Spanish.

Watson: And then your pop is from Ghana? Is that right?

Kodjoe: Yeah. He’s from Ghana. West Africa.

Watson: I like to say Ghanaians are certifiably the nicest people in the world. Australians, Colombians, Brazilians are runner-ups, but I think Ghanaians are the nicest people in the world.

Kodjoe: Ghanaians actually are known for their hospitality. Like when you go to Accra, it’s like you’re at home. The food, to the people, to the music and obviously all the historic sites that are there.

We’ve been producing this event called a Full Circle Festival for the past three years and bringing people over to Ghana and reconnecting with the ancestry and visiting all the sites and all that. And it’s changed people’s lives and how they think of Africa. Because we’ve been told so many lies about the continent and to sort of course-correct and redefine that narrative is important.

Watson: Were you connected to Ghana or to Africa at all as a kid growing up?

Kodjoe: Oh yeah, we went there for vacation in the summer to see my family, my grandmother and all my cousins and aunts and uncles. I took a little break then — my parents split up and then I went back as a teenager and then consistently throughout my adult life. I wanted my kids to see it, so I took them very early in their lives and they’ve been going back almost every year. So we made it a point to make sure they know where their roots lie, whether it’s Germany or Ghana. We’ve been to Germany every year since they were born. I think it’s important.

But the first, initial perception that people have of me is that I’m from here, D.C., East Coast, whatever. It took a lot of effort for me to be able to do that, to be able to fool people into thinking that I’m from here, which was probably the harder part, compared to learning the language.

Learning the language was hard enough and speaking it without an accent, but then to understand the culture and the physical communication that is very specific to African Americans, that was really the hardest part for me. It continues to be actually because I’m very African and German.

And those cultures are very specific in itself. They’re very stoic, we’re very disciplined. And Germany definitely left an imprint because I mean, that’s where I spent the first 20 years of my life. So the mentality, again, the structured discipline, never being late, those kinds of things that seem very trivial but … When I first came, by the way I studied in Virginia, when I first came to Virginia, people on campus would say, “Hey, I’ll meet you at 3,” and I’ll be there at 2:55 and they wouldn’t show up until 3:40. And it was weird, it was strange to me when people would say, “Yeah, let’s go to the movies tomorrow.” And I would sincerely expect to be going to the movies tomorrow and it was just a way for them to communicate. We would just throw something out, it doesn’t mean it was a fact or certain, it wasn’t confirmed.

So yeah, Germany is all over me. It’s definitely a big part of who I am and also how I approach things in my life and how I raise my children. Tradition, culture is very important to me. That’s why I traveled with them when they were infants. We went everywhere all across the world. I wanted them to understand diversity, I wanted them to understand different cultures and their ancestry. I wanted them to understand how important it is to connect with their roots, whether it’s food or language, I think it’s tremendously important in the development of a human to be exposed to more than just one thing.

And I think that’s also the detriment of growing up in the States, that a lot of people don’t get the opportunity to travel outside their boroughs, their community, their cities, their state, and therefore maintain a narrow-mindedness. And also the whole imperial sort of approach to foreign policy here in this country is based on the fact that everybody thinks that America is the only place in the world, right?

When you win the NBA championship, they call it the World Championship. When you win the baseball championships, it’s the World Series. It’s like, no, you’re really just competing in the country. You’re not really competing with the world. But I think America has done an extraordinary job in selling this country to the world. They’ve done an incredible job creating not just propaganda but the marketing efforts with the American flag and the fast food and the movies, that has sort of shaped the image of America all across the world.

And America has problems just like any other country in the world, but they’ve downplayed that so much. They’ve changed the way they tell the history, strategically leaving out parts that have come back to haunt them now. It has shaped how the world has perceived them. And only in the last four years that has sort of come crumbling down because of this leader that they’ve had. And now the whole world looks at them completely differently.

Race differences, race similarities

Watson: What do you think you would have done, if you had not gone into modeling and acting?

Kodjoe: Well, I was an athlete before. That’s something that I wanted to do all my life. I was always playing tennis, and that was my path before it was interrupted. But, I always thought about … I was a premed in college, so I was always interested in medicine. And I was also always interested in education.

So, I think I would have probably been an educator/entrepreneur. I love to engage with people. So, I might have been in the same area that you’re sort of … in the same pool that you’re swimming in. I love galvanizing people. I love learning from people. I love different ideologies and ideas, philosophies. I love history. I love making connections between certain eras, and how history has influenced us in certain ways.

Watson: And your mom and dad, what did they do?

Kodjoe: They’re both doctors. My dad passed four years ago now. He was an anesthesiologist, and my mother is a psychologist.

Watson: What was it like for you growing up as a Black child in Germany?

Kodjoe: It’s interesting. German history is very interesting, especially post–World War II. What happened in Germany was that there was a major correction in course, which obviously had to happen based on what happened in the ’30s and ’40s. The patriotism and any sort of nationalistic feeling was completely buried. You would never hear the national anthem or [see] a flag even, unless it was the World Championship, the World Cup or something. We grew up with an acute sense of responsibility to learn from the past and to educate our children, to avoid anything like that ever from happening again. Reparations happened. Hundreds of billions of dollars to Israel and the organizations affiliated with what happened.

So, this new generation that grew up in the ’80s, ’90s is made up of some really progressive innovative thinkers who embraced diversity across the board, which is not to say that racism is still not universal, right? So, me growing up with my brother, we were the only Black kids in our community. We were bullied every day, called names every day, because it’s just inherent, and especially in kids, that anything that is different or foreign is a threat, right?

So instead of being curious, kids usually are quick to ostracize you when you look different. So, we went through that a lot as kids. And again, that’s why we focused on sports. It was an outlet for us to excel and deal with our frustration, and all that. That’s why we did so well in sports.

My mother, who’s white, did the best she could to empathize and to give us the support to be able to vent and to be frustrated if we needed to, and to continuously sort of let us know that we were OK the way we were, and that people who thought otherwise were stupid and ignorant, and that’s how we grew up.

So again, racism is universal. It’s just that it has a different dynamic depending on who you are in the world. There’s a huge, gigantic African diaspora outside of the continent made up of over 400 million people. In Germany, there’s not a lot of Black people. Then you have the United States, where it’s almost a parallel society, if you will.

So again, there’s racism here, there’s racism there, but the dynamic is different. Here, it’s become part of the structure, part of the system, if you will, right? It’s become a mechanism that white people came up with in order to make sure that there was a generational wealth gap that would give them sustainable advantages in all kinds of areas, whether it’s economy, health care, education, justice, where in Germany, there is no law that speak to differences in color. There’s no law that protected us, or affirmative action, that doesn’t even exist, right, in Germany.

And Germany dealt with … It was funny. After World War II, Germany imported a lot of Italians, and Yugoslavs, and Turkish workers to rebuild the country. It was foreign workers who rebuilt Germany. And they went through their own struggles in sort of socializing foreigners in terms of language and culture, and they’re still going through that right now.

Watson: Are you hopeful, as you sit in this moment right now, as you watch everything that’s happened, and maybe even as you think about analogies like the German experience, do you sit here … hopeful about what’s about to come?

Kodjoe: I believe in the silver living of everything. I always look at the … I’m optimistic about what’s going to happen. I think there’s an advantage to us knowing what we’re dealing with so we can counteract and mobilize to make sure that we raise a generation of anti-racists rather than people who are complicit.

I think white people have learned a lot in these past eight months about the various facets of racism. Racism is not just George Floyd. It’s not just overt hatred and violence. Racism is also apathy. Racism is ignorance. Racism is privilege. And I think a lot of white people have been more accountable and have taken on the responsibility to counteract racism, rather than just staying on the periphery and saying, “Well, I’m not a racist. I have a friend who’s Black, and my ancestors weren’t slave masters.” Right?

I think a lot of people are understanding that when you’re a white person in this country, you have, in some ways, been able to take advantage of the system, and that it’s your responsibility to be a part of the solution to condemn racism, to be counteractive, and to also … I always say three things when my white friends ask me what they can do.

You can educate yourself. You can listen. And you can show empathy. Let’s start there. Those are three very simple steps that you can take in order to support this movement of anti-racism and to get to a place where we can get closer to equitable laws, social justice, economic equality, and equality in health care and education, and so forth.

Watson: Boris, if you and I had met a year ago or five years ago, would we have been having this conversation? It feels like you have been awakened in a very profound way.

Kodjoe: No. No, I think you’re right. But also, there’s two things. No. 1, I’m never asked these questions, whether it was five years ago or even today, I’m never asked these questions, and I had to start to insist on speaking on these issues, because I think they’re important. And No. 2, yeah, we’re living in a pivotal moment in our history where I think people with a platform have the responsibility to move the ball forward and to create this sustainable progress in the right direction.

Acting: Still thrilling, or …

Watson: Do you still enjoy acting? I know you do it. I know you do it well. I know you’ve done it across film and TV. But does it bring you joy?

Kodjoe: Yeah. No, I do. I love many things, but acting definitely has brought me joy, and it still brings me joy, hopefully for a long time. In my current situation, Station 19 is great because it’s a family environment. Shondaland is a place that speaks to creativity, but it also speaks to the current issues and courage to tell stories that are important to tell.

I think Shonda Rhimes, as well as Debbie Allen, who runs Grey’s Anatomy, and Krista Vernoff, who runs Station 19, are unapologetic and courageous in how they tell stories. Right now, we’re living through COVID-19, so we’re telling stories about COVID-19, about social justice. And right now, we’re going through two episodes that we’re shooting where systemic racism is a big topic.

And I really appreciate that. And see, when you can tell stories that are meaningful in that way, that can inspire dialogue, that makes my job even more fun, more enjoyable, because then, it all has a real purpose, which is very important to me.

Watson: Tell me about your future role. What’s a role that you would love to play?

Kodjoe: Well, there’s a hundred roles that I want to play. There’s so many, from real-life people like Arthur Ashe, or somebody like a David Goggins, I don’t know if you know who that is. David Goggins is a phenomenal person who was a Navy SEAL who went through SEAL training three times, the only human being in history to do that, and then became a motivational speaker, and an extreme marathon runner. He runs like 100 miles, 150 miles, to bring awareness to different organizations he supports. Very interesting cat.

But there’s so many roles that I want to play. There’s so many people I want to work with. This is the industry that brings you together with just phenomenal people who are so talented. I could never really express to you all the things that I want to do. I don’t see any limits, so I’m just blessed to be doing what I’m doing right now, and I’m always excited about the next day.

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