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Real talk about race: W. Kamau Bell and the Elmwood Café

flickr user Florida International University
Comedian W. Kamau Bell performing his stand up act

In the auditorium of Willard Middle School, about 300 people have gathered, many of them sitting on those rickety school bucket chairs, the ones that make most adults hunch over awkwardly. Sitting on stage in front of a tattered green velvet curtain is an eight member panel; a combination of husbands and wives, comedians and scholars, teachers and students.

This public forum is taking place to talk about an incident that happened to popular local comedian W. Kamau Belland his wife, Melissa Hudson Bell.

Melissa Hudson Bell is white, and her husband is black. It was W. Kamau Bell’s birthday and the family went to the Elmwood Café in Berkeley to celebrate. It was a happy family outing, with their three-month-old in tow. After eating, the couple left to do their own things, Hudson Bell went off to meet up with a mommy group she was just getting to know, and they ended up at the Elmwood Café again (Hudson Bell says she really liked the brunch spot). Her husband, W. Kamau Bell stopped by the Elmwood for a second time too, to say "hi" to his wife and her friends.

“And he walked up to where we sitting at the table,” Hudson Bell tells the packed room. “I quickly introduced him to the women who I was with who had only just found out he was a comedian.”

Not just a comedian, but a pretty famous comedian. Bell had a show on the FX Network, called Totally Biased. He’s got a new show coming out on CNN.

And yes, Bell deals with race a lot in his comedy. Take the segment “Anything to say to a black guy” in which Bell, playing “the black guy,” asks white people if they have anything they want to say to him.

One woman wonders what it is like to walk around as a black man, asking “do people avert their eyes?”

Bell tells her that people either look away, or blatantly stare, going on to joke that “one of the problems being black is that sometimes when people are being mean to you you don’t know if they are being racist or being a...” (he goes on to use a not particularly polite word for the human anatomy).

This clip is resonant because the joke Bell is making is that sometimes racism can be coded or disguised. Which is exactly what the Bells say happened to them on that Monday afternoon at the Elmwood Café.

Mellissa Hudson Bell says her husband stopped by to say "hi"  to her and her friends, who were sitting outside, when she heard a rapping on the window behind her. “I thought what I often think,” she says. “Man I can’t take Kamau anywhere. People are recognizing him because he’s famous. And I looked at him, and his face, and quickly realized, oh no, that’s not what this is.”

It was a different look -- a look equally familiar to her -- not the look of people knowing him -- but the look of him knowing he’s been told he doesn’t belong. Bell says from the expression on his face, she knew he was being asked to leave.

Bell says that moments like this, happen all the time when you live in black skin. “People of color experience what is called microaggressions or implicit bias all the time, everyday, all the time.”

Here, we get into the language that has developed to talk about race, which is part of what the forum is all about. According to the panel, a microaggression is basically an underhanded compliment that conceals a racist stereotype. Like saying to your black friend: “Wow, you don’t act black.”  These seemingly harmless moments accumulate over time and people internalize them, it’s a way of hiding stereotypes in everyday life.

But the problem is, Bell says, “We can’t talk about it all the time because we would sound crazy.” But, he says, “This incident was so blatant, I was like, 'I can’t let this one go.'”

Melissa Hudson Bell she says the waitress apologized, but it just kind of made things worse.

“She continued to say, 'I’m sorry,' but then said the thing that I really don’t care for, which is, 'I really don’t think that it was a race thing.' And I said to her, 'It absolutely has everything to do with race.'”

The Bell’s co-authored a blog post about the incident, and because W. Kamau Bell is famous, it went viral. Which is how the Elmwood’s Café’s owner, Michael Pearce, heard about what happened.

“I learned about the incident like most of you, by reading Kamau’s blog.”

Pearce says he immediately got upset, and called up W. Kamau Bell to apologize. The two got to talking, which is how this public forum came to be. They felt it was important to start a discussion about what it really means when a black man who stops to talk to his white wife and her white friends gets shooed away from a restaurant in the heart of liberal Berkeley.

And Pearce says he quickly recognized how the incident at his cafe made Bell feel, he says what he felt immediately, was shame.

At the forum audience members write down anonymous comments on index cards, and panel moderator Pamela Harrison Small reads them aloud to the panel. One question in particular got right at that feeling of shame.

The audience member asked: “How do you think we can talk about racism and racial microaggressions without shaming people?”

U.C. Berkeley Associate Professor and panelist Nikki Jones had a straightforward answer: “Shame," she says, “can be a moving emotion.”

W. Kamau Bell echoed her asking: “What’s wrong with shame? Sometimes you should feel bad.”

The next question was directed at Bell “What made you so sure it was a racially motivated act as opposed to one directed to you for other reasons, such as the large homeless population that solicit the cafe?”

Bell’s first response: “I love this question! Thank you!” he boomed.

“I know it was racism,” he says.

And he reminds the crowd that when talking about racism, the rule of thumb is pretty much: trust the person of color.

“You can listen to me and we can talk about it and you go what can I do to help you with this.” But, he adds: “The minute you go to ‘I don’t think it was racism’ and you are not a person of color from that community, you just lost a friend.”

There were more questions from the crowd, honest questions, with sometimes uncomfortable responses.

Like with this question: “As a white person -- a woman -- going into a black space, clubs, cafes, neighborhoods, I have also been made to feel unsafe, that I don’t belong. How do we all become colorblind and treat each other as just human beings?”

Kadijah Means had a response to that question. Means is the head of the black student union at Berkeley High. She says colorblindness really isn’t the goal of all this.

“I think you need to stop trying to erase color because you think its rude to mention someone’s race, or it's rude -- that’s just ridiculous to me. I’m sorry, it’s hard for me to articulate that,” she pauses. "Please don’t call people articulate. Don’t come up after and tell me I’m articulate,” she says, laughing but still serious. “Please do not do that.”

Means says calling a black person articulate, is like microaggression 101. As to the part about white people feeling uncomfortable entering into black space, UC Berkeley Associate Professor Nikki Jones says sure, we can all feel uncomfortable in the spaces of others, but that is not the full story.

“White people can visit black space, they don’t have to -- but they can visit,” Jones says. “But in order for black people to get ahead, to have some social mobility, they have to learn how to live in white space.”  

Jones also has some very basic advice on how to disrupt racism.

“I’m just going to offer a really simple piece of advice that I give my students as well,” she tells the crowd. “If you want to disrupt white supremacy, love black people and if you are black -- love yourself.”

The panel ran longer and later into the evening than planned, but people stayed, including the TV news trucks parked outside. W. Kamau Bell had a request of the crowd: Don’t let the media define this event as a one-off.

“They’re going to report on this that they had this event, and this event happened, and at the end, there going to get some clip of someone saying, ‘I thought it was good, I thought it was bad,’ and that’s going to be the story allegedly.”

He was kind of right. As a member of the media, my first response was to get those sound bytes. To find the sum-it-all-up moment, as if the night was a nicely packaged event that just needed to be tied up with a bow. Even to sort of dismiss it because the forum happened in Berkeley -- what some might call the politically correct capital of America. But Bell basically called me out on that, too:

“Like I’ve seen some people online, like news reporters, ‘This is so Berkeley, they are going to have a talk about a racist thing that happened.’ You’re damn right, alright! Hashtag this is so Berkeley!”

But he implored the crowd to take the conversation out of the middle school auditorium.

“Please take this out there out there into the streets, it’s not about the Elmwood Cafe. It’s not about what bad things happened to our family -- we’re all here because this has happened to us, or we want to know more about it.” The crowd cheered. “This is so Berkeley,” Bell says.

And that’s the hope, to take the conversation to corners where people might not throw around phrases like implicit bias and microaggression; for people to feel comfortable about calling others out when they do something they might not realize is racist; to not be embarrassed to have embarrassing conversations.

Sandhya got her start as a reporting fellow at KALW, working on award winning radio documentaries about crime and justice and education in Oakland. She reported on the 2012 presidential election in Iowa, for Iowa Public Radio, where she also covered diversity and mental health issues.