Comedian Kamau Bell holds forum on racism at Berkeley’s Elmwood Cafe

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Michael Wan/Staff

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About two months after what comedian Kamau Bell described as a racist incident at the Elmwood Cafe, approximately 300 people gathered to grapple with issues of racial bias at a community forum Friday.

With seven panelists situated on the stage of Willard Middle School, the discussion of race and how it operates in everyday situations of implicit bias lasted more than two hours. The panelists offered various ways to look at and deal with issues of race through the lens of the law, sociology and personal experiences with racial bias.

The panel was composed of Bell, his wife, the Elmwood Cafe owner, a campus professor, a lawyer, a teacher and a Berkeley High School student, and the conversation was facilitated by Pamela Harrison-Small, who works to bring equity to classrooms through cultural training for Berkeley Unified School District.

“People in Berkeley feel they are not racist and never could be, because they compare themselves to active members of the KKK or … great-grandparents,” said Kadijah Means, the Berkeley High School student panelist at the event and president of the BHS Black Student Union. “But they don’t think about the little microaggressions … like clutching their purse when they see a black man.”

Michael Pearce, owner of the cafe, said he is working on a workplace-implicit-bias training program for retail and restaurant workers, which will be made available for Berkeley business owners upon completion.

In the incident that sparked the forum — as described in a blog post on Bell’s website — Bell was showing his wife and her friends a book at the cafe when he heard a rapping sound on the window and saw an employee shooing him away. When Pearce found out about it, he and Bell spoke and decided to hold the forum.

Throughout the night, Harrison-Small urged community members four times to discuss various facets of racism with those sitting around them.

One audience question concerned Bell’s attire, asking how he knew it was a racially provoked incident at the cafe, given the homelessness in Berkeley and his choice to wear a hoodie jacket.

In response, Bell said, “So what if I was homeless?” and said if someone tells an individual he or she had a discriminatory experience, that person should not deny what the victim felt.

“I think trying to say he’s homeless is a way of trying to erase race,” Means said. “We’re the product of a racist society, so in an effort to avoid that, we say things aren’t racist when in fact they are. … People tend to look for the intent of something rather than the impact it had on the community.”

Panelist and UC Berkeley associate professor in African American studies Nikki Jones introduced Yale professor Elijah Anderson’s concept of “the white space,” a framework that describes the division of white spaces and black spaces. Black people have to navigate white spaces with a “deficit of credibility,” a burden to prove they belong, Jones said.

The panel questioning took longer than the time originally allocated for the forum, but about 150 people stayed until the event’s conclusion.

“This isn’t the end,” Bell said in closing the evening. “All these conversations should continue.”

Contact Jamie Nguyen at [email protected].