Kamau Bell Elmwood Cafe forum Photo: Pete Rosos
W. Kamau Bell and Melissa Hudson Bell at the community forum on race held at Willard Middle School in Berkeley on Friday March 13, 2015. Photo: Pete Rosos

At a community forum held in the wake of a well-publicized accusation of racism at a Berkeley café, a new initiative was announced to help train local businesses in handling implicit bias.

An estimated 300 people turned up to Willard Middle School Friday night to take part in the public discussion prompted by the incident which happened when comedian W. Kamau Bell and his wife, Melissa Hudson Bell, were at the Elmwood Café on Jan. 26 this year.

The comedian, who is African-American, made public on his blog how he was asked to leave the café on College Avenue while he was talking to his wife and her friends, who are all white, at an outdoor table.

After he read Bell’s blog post, Michael Pearce, the owner of the Elmwood Café and a social justice activist, reached out to the Bells and they agreed a public conversation would be a way to turn a negative experience into a teaching opportunity. Their goal was to achieve a broader understanding of racial issues, in particular the implicit bias that can explain micro-aggressions inflicted on people of color.

Nikki Jones, Novella Coleman, Jamie Almanzán, and Kadijah Means. Photo: Pete Rosos

Implicit bias is defined as a positive or negative mental attitude towards a person, thing, or group that a person holds at an unconscious level.

The talk, in which audience members were asked to participate, was facilitated by Pamela Harrison-Small, former executive director of the Berkeley Alliance. Joining the Bells and Pearce on the panel were Berkeley High School senior and president of the Berkeley High Black Student Union, Kadijah Means; ACLU-Northern California staff attorney Novella Coleman; Nikki Jones, associate professor in UC Berkeley’s department of African-American Studies; and Jamie Almanzán, design and leadership coach at The Equity Collaborative.

The conversation was broad-ranging, engaging, and sometimes provocative.

Harrison-Small opened the discussion by saying the evening was “a landmark event.” “What we do tonight will be the legacy for our children and it will help show how we move forward around racial issues for the city of Berkeley,” she said. Referring to racism, she added: “The elephant is always in the room — it can’t stay here any longer.”

Melissa Hudson Bell recounted what had happened on that Monday, which happened to be Kamau Bell’s birthday. She concluded by saying that the way her husband had been treated had “absolutely has everything to do with race.” “If he looked different he would not have been treated the way he was,” she said

Members of the 300-strong audience were asked to talk to each other and consider some the issues under consideration  Photo: Pete Rosos

Bell concurred and explained why the couple decided to go public. “This was so blatant I couldn’t let it go,” he said. He described how he had moved to the Bay Area from New York because of its liberal values. “We chose to move back here — this is my home. I rep it hard — I am happy to be a part of it.” He said that the fact the incident involved his wife and three-month year-old child prompted him to write about it rather than turn it into a joke in his act.”This happened to my family. I want to be able to talk about this apocryphal moment. If I don’t do this, I’m not living up to the principles that I have.”

Bell, a stand-up comic prominent on the San Francisco comedy scene, is the former host of the FX television series “Totally Biased with W. Kamau Bell.” CNN has recently picked up his new TV series, “United Shades of America.” Bell will travel to different parts of the country to explore its subcultures, according to CNN.

Kadijah Means spoke about how she had been challenged to fight for social justice and equity from a young age. “I’ve always been black,” she said to laughter, “so race has always affected me. I learned from dad that ‘white’ was a racial construct.” 

Nikki Jones talked about research on “white and black spaces.” “The university where I teach is a white space, movie theaters, cafés are white spaces,” she said. “In these white spaces black people have a special burden. Somehow they have a provisional status position. They have to prove they belong there.”

The forum was moderated by Pamela Harrison-Small. Photo: Pete Rosos

Novella Coleman said the law does a poor job of dealing with racism. “One of huge failures of the law is that it doesn’t recognize implicit bias,” she said. “The law requires that you prove [an act of racism] is intentional. The law doesn’t recognize that biases are harbored without people knowing about them. People see themselves as progressive but they still buy into those racial biases and situations can trigger them.” She said that if employee accused of racism can provide a race-neutral explanation for their act, “then the law is good with that.”

During the evening’s discussion about implicit bias Bell spoke about how he himself had had “homophobia in him” before he moved to the Bay Area but that it was “worked out of him.”

Later on, Hudson Bell questioned the ubiquitous use of the term ‘implicit bias,’ however. “We white people don’t want to say racism — a lot of those biases exist on the axis of race,” she said

Almanzán, who is Mexican, cautioned against downplaying the importance of race. “My skin color plays a part in my identity — I’m not advocating color-blindness,” he said.

W. Kamau Bell, Melissa Hudson Bell and Michael Pearce. Photo: Pete Rosos

Means concurred: “When you say you’re color-blind you’re denying the struggle — you’re saying that it’s easy if you work hard. Stop trying to erase color because you think it’s rude. Be more color-competent — be more color-aware.”

Pearce said the incident that triggered the event had made him feel ashamed. The Elmwood Café was closed Friday night so that all its staff could come to the forum. Pearce said he had met with the Bells at their home, and that they had agreed to jointly launch an implicit-bias training program for the local service industry — both restaurants and retail stores.

“There is no training for implicit bias. We are going to start a program for the service industry here in Berkeley — we may be the first city in the U.S. that will have that curriculum,” he said. Pearce told Berkeleyside that they would  be working in collaboration with experts, such as Race Forward, to devise the program, and they would start on his café’s doorstep, going door-to-door to Elmwood neighborhood businesses to talk about what could be achieved.

A website for the program is under development. Pearce said they are actively seeking input from the community — he  asked that everyone with ideas email info@implicitbiastraining.com

The audience was receptive and the mood was upbeat at the forum. Photo: Pete Rosos

The vibe in the school auditorium was upbeat and the audience was receptive and generally positive. Harrison-Small asked people to engage in conversation with one another, using prompts such as “What do you think is the definition of a micro-aggression?” and “When was the last time you interrupted a racist act?”

Not everyone who has learned about the Bell incident thinks it was a clear-cut case of racial profiling, however. Among the 1,152 comments left on Berkeleyside’s coverage of the case, some have suggested the waitress may have assumed Bell was soliciting and he would have been asked to move on regardless of his color. Others criticized the comedian for grandstanding in his blog post detailing the experience.

At the forum, an audience member asked Bell, via a written question, what made him so sure the Jan. 26 incident was a racially motivated act, and not one directed at the homeless population that is to be found around the café. Bell responded: “So what if I was homeless? Even if I’m homeless I’m a black homeless person — you can’t take that part away from me.”

He said if someone you know says they were subject to racism and you question them, “you have just lost a friend.”

Another participant asked why the waitress who tried to shoo Bell away was fired. Was there not a way to repair her attitude?

Pearce, who spoke last month to Berkeleyside about why he made the decision, reiterated that “someone left the café feeling uncomfortable — I don’t want to be part of an organization where that happens.” But he admitted it was a tough call, and asked the audience for a show of hands as to whether she should have been fired. The response was roughly 50:50.

Nikki Jones, Novella Coleman and Jamie Almanzán. Photo: Pete Rosos

Kamau Bell said he would like to meet the waitress to talk to her. “I wasn’t pulling for this woman to be fired,” he said. He said he had worked in retail jobs where he was told to “watch the black people.” “It’s institutionalized, it’s not just this incident,” he said.

Indicating an envelope in his hand, Bell said he had just been handed an apology from the waitress which he had not read yet. “We don’t want to scapegoat her. I wish she was here — I hope she still has a job. She’s still in the community,” he said.

Coleman perhaps best articulated the significance of the evening. She applauded Bell and Pearce for coming together and organizing the forum. “Someone was brave enough to say this was about race and have people listen to them,” she said referring to Bell. “And Michael Pearce stopped — he didn’t wave this away,” she continued “[Together they] created a space to acknowledge that we are not in a post-racial society. We can sit in that awkwardness for a bit and deal with those emotions. Then we can take that experience and carry it to our workplaces — and to different walks of life. We can influence people and challenge ourselves to do better.”

Despite the warm relationship that appeared to have been established between Pearce and the Bells, Kamau Bell said he and his family were not yet ready to revisit the place where it all started. “When you don’t make a business safe for the entire community you’re losing business,” he said. “We were talking to Michael today. We’re still not in a place when we’re ready to go back to the Elmwood Café. We’re still negotiating that.”

He quipped that the business had probably lost “hundreds hundreds of dollars” as his wife loves the café’s scones and runny eggs.

And Bell — a comedian after all — did end the evening on a light note. He said friends who had heard of Friday’s event had ribbed him, saying “that sounds so Berkeley.” Bell said he agreed. “We’re the nerdiest people in Berkeley —  militant nerds who don’t have Friday night plans. ‘This is so Berkeley?’ — you’re damn right this is so Berkeley: let’s take this out there.”

At the conclusion of the event: (l to r) Nikki Jones, Jamie Almanzán, Novela Coleman, Pamela Harrison-Small, Michael Pearce, W. Kamau Bell, key organiser Charity DaMarty, Melissa Hudson Bell and Kadijah Means. Photo: Pete Rosos

Date set for public forum with W. Kamau Bell and Elmwood Cafe in wake of racism accusation (03.09.15)
New details emerge in W. Kamau Bell-Elmwood Café storm (02.04.15)
Comedian W. Kamau Bell reports being victim of racism at Berkeley’s Elmwood Café (01.29.15)

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Tracey Taylor is co-founder of Berkeleyside and co-founder and editorial director of Cityside, the nonprofit parent to Berkeleyside and The Oaklandside. Before launching Berkeleyside, Tracey wrote for...