Happy Birthday! Have some racism from Elmwood Cafe!

UPDATE: My wife & I just talked to Michael Pearce, the owner of Elmwood Cafe & we've decided to have a public conversation about this. Details soon. Me & my wife are not calling for anyone to be fired, not asking for a boycott. We are going to have a public conversation. #SoYouCanComeToo

Dear Elmwood Cafe 2900 College Avenue, Berkeley, CA 94705

Not appropriate for Elmwood CafeYou don’t know me. I know that for sure now. It’s not that I would expect you to know me, although many people in the Bay Area do, because of the work I’ve done as a stand-up comedian locally and on television. I’m known for something that The New Yorker called “intersectional progressivism.” That basically means I use jokes to fight for the people who don’t get a fair shake in the world. For the last several years, I have tried to learn as much as I can about oppression in all forms so that I can help make the world slightly more bearable with a few jokes. But that’s just my career.

In my life, I am a person who loves The Bay Area. LOVE IT! I lived in San Francisco for 13 years and in Oakland for two. And even though I lived in SF mostly, I spent A LOT of time in The East Bay. I have done my own headlining shows at The New Parish, La Pena, The East Bay JCC, and Marga Gomez’s comedy nights at The Marsh. I love these audiences. The Bay Area is a place where all sorts of different people live together, explore new ideas and strive to uphold the idea made famous by children singer Raffi, “The more we get together the happier we’ll be!”

To be honest though, my most fervent love is for Oakland. Which is why I was so excited recently when the people at Oaklandish gave me a hoodie. They just GAVE IT TO ME! I was walking past their pop-up shop at The Oakland Airport and one of their employees saw me, recognized me (I told you that people around here know me), and she awesomely and very generously gave me a hoodie. I love it. I wear it a lot. I was wearing it this past Monday, January 26, when I went to the Elmwood Cafe.

It was my birthday. My wife, Melissa, wanted to take me out for a birthday breakfast after we had dropped our three and a half year old daughter, Sami, at school down the street. Melissa picked the Elmwood Cafe. She loves you. She loved you back when you were the old school soda fountain, Ozzie’s. And she loves you more now that you have been turned into a beautiful all day brunch spot. Melissa is a sucker for runny eggs, scones, and lemon curd. I blame Downton Abbey.

So yes, we had breakfast there. But I know you don’t remember that, Elmwood Cafe. I know you don’t remember that because later that same day my wife went back to eat lunch with some new friends of hers. (I told you that she loves you. TWICE IN ONE DAY!) These are new friends because, after two years in New York City, we moved back to the Bay Area last summer. My wife was pregnant and we wanted to have our second daughter back home. Our daughter, Juno, is now 13 weeks old. (I know. It’s crazy that her name is Juno considering that storm back east.) My wife’s new friends are all moms with new babies. When I heard that she had gone back to the Elmwood Cafe, I was happy she would get to have more of your food and ambiance. I was happy that you made her happy.

While she was eating with her new friends, I was down the street at Espresso Roma Cafe working on my Macbook Air. I suppose I could have stayed at the Elmwood Cafe and worked after breakfast, but you are relatively small establishment and I didn’t want to take up a table. When I was done working I walked back down College Avenue to rejoin her and meet her new friends. I was just carrying my laptop with no bag because I knew I wouldn’t be out for long. On my way back I stopped at Mrs. Dalloway’s, the bookstore, and I bought a children’s book about the Lovings, the couple who went to the Supreme Court and successfully argued for the striking down of laws that banned interracial marriage in 17 states. This is relevant to me because I’m black and my wife is white. That part I know that you know. Because of the series of events that followed me buying this book. They are as follows:

1. After buying the book and deciding not to get a bag for the book, I walk to the Elmwood Cafe.

2. I see my wife and her new mom friends all happily chatting and holding their babies while sitting at an outside table. It struck me how well my wife fit in with these new friends. (And not just because they were all white… although I think that may have made a difference to you.)

3. I walk over to them. My wife introduces me to them.

4. One of them asks about the book I am holding.

5. I show her the book.

6. Seconds later there is a loud series of knocks on the window of the Elmwood Cafe. They are coming from the inside of the restaurant.

7. I look up and see one of your employees staring daggers at me.

8. The employee then jerks her head to her left aggressively and I see her mouth say something to the effect of…

9. “SCRAM!”

Seriously. That is what happened. OK. Maybe it wasn’t exactly, “SCRAM!” Maybe it was, “GIT!” Or maybe it was, “GO!” Whatever it was, it was certainly directed at me. And it was certainly the kind of direction you should only give to a dog… a dog that you, yourself, own.

Or maybe you could yell that at a dog that you don’t own, but a dog that you are afraid is going to attack a group of moms and their babies.

I was stunned. Caught totally flatfooted. My wife saw the look on my face. Later she told me that what I heard was in fact the second round of knocks on the window. My wife apparently thought it was a person who recognized me from my work who was excited to see me. (Look, Elmwood Cafe, I know you don’t know who I am but it does actually happen sometimes that people who know my work are excited to see me.) But when my wife saw the hurt expression on my face, she knew it wasn’t a fan. It was… something really shitty happening to her husband at her (soon to be formerly) favorite breakfast spot.

I told her (which meant I had to awkwardly tell these other women I just met) what just happened. I wanted to run away. I was actually strangely embarrassed, as if I had done something wrong. (Through my reading I have learned that’s one way oppression also works, from the inside.) I felt numb, like I was going to pass out. And then an employee — maybe the same one — walked out of the cafe to once again deliver the “Get out of here!” message. I guess since I was still standing there you figured that I hadn’t heard it the first time. But then your employee hesitated and looked around. And I guess she realized that no one at the table was bothered by my presence. We were in fact only bothered by her presence. We were bothered by the fact that we we currently standing in Berkeley, California, a city so allegedly liberal that even the most progress-y progressives make fun of it, and yet thanks to you, it is where I as a black man was being told to “GIT!” like it was 1963, Selma, Alabama, and I was crashing a meeting of The New Moms of the Confederacy. In that moment, your employee delivered the line that has become an instant classic in our family:

“Oh, we thought you were selling something.”

“We thought you were selling something???”

What the hell was that supposed to mean? You thought I was selling something so you thought you’d tell me to “GIT!” without first walking outside to find exactly what was going on? And is “selling something” enough for you to bark at me through a plate glass window? And is the equivalent of “Oops!” enough to get you off the hook? The answer to the last two questions is, “No.”

At this point Melissa couldn’t take it anymore.

Melissa: “He is my husband.”

Your employee: “I’m sorry.”

Me: “This is my wife. That is my daughter. I just ate here earlier today.”

Your employee, not even looking at me: “I’m sorry.”

Me: “I bet you are.”

Quickly Melissa gathered herself and our daughter and we left. Much sooner than we would have wanted to in a perfect world… or even in just a kind of okay world. Melissa talked to your employee. Melissa explained that although we had eaten there twice that day and even though she loved the Elmwood Cafe that we would not be back after the racism that we had just experienced.

That’s when your employee told my wife, “I don’t think it was a race thing.”

Ummm… actually a black man being told to leave a restaurant because the restaurant believes that his presence is harassing four white women and their kids, even though there is literally no evidence to support that is TEXT BOOK racism. It is so old school it has a wing in the racism museum, right between the sit-ins at lunch counters and a southern redneck telling a black man on a business trip, “You ain’t from around here, are ya, boy?” My wife told your employee in no uncertain terms that we ABSOLUTELY knew it WAS a race thing, because we live with this shit everyday. Full disclosure, I heard about this exchange after it happened when we were headed home. While my wife was talking to your employee, I was cooing at my daughter in the car, for two reasons. 1) I love my daughter’s fat cheeks and big hazel eyes. And 2) I knew if I stood over my wife with my 6’4”, 250lb frame that it could very easily be spun that I was standing over your employee, and maybe that I was trying to intimidate her, or even worse that I was getting aggressive. I didn’t want to end up a hashtag. Again, we live with this shit everyday.

And look I understand that on College Avenue in “Berserkeley” that you might get some characters coming through your establishment that you might not want to serve. And it is your right to refuse service. For example, when we had breakfast that morning, there was a white guy with dreadlocks sitting directly across from your doorway spare change-ing everyone who went into and out of your restaurant. And I could understand if a business thought he was bothering people and if that business had asked him to leave. But he was there the entire time we had breakfast, at least an hour, and I didn't see anyone tell him to, “SCRAM!” But when I stood amicably talking to my wife for a few minutes, it was a different story.

I think me and that white guy were both even wearing hoodies, so it can’t be how I was dressed. Plus mine was a super cool Oaklandish one. I guess in his hoodie he had a more Mark Zukerberg type of feeling than me.

So Elmwood Cafe, we won’t be back, and that sucks, because my wife really, really liked you. And she’s one of those people who really talks a lot about the things she likes. And I haven’t been impressed with your response to this situation. Your employee’s apology was weak. One of my wife’s new (and hopefully future) friends even tried to talk to someone in the restaurant after we left, and that person apparently still believed I was trying to sell something. CAN YOU BELIEVE THAT? I promise you I’m not selling my Macbook Air to anyone. I love it too much. And since I had just bought that book about the Loving couple, that’s not going anywhere either. That’s for my daughters.

And later that day I posted a picture of myself in the same clothes to your Facebook fanpage. I suggested that you Google me since you clearly didn’t know who I was. I don’t blame you for not knowing me. But I did hope that maybe you would look me up and discover how ridiculous that whole situation was. And how it was so mishandled by you from start to finish. I thought you might reach out to me. But you haven’t.

Despite everything, I do believe in peoples’ ability to learn new things and in a business’ abilities to conduct better practices. It’s a key component to my intersectional progressivism. But that doesn’t mean you get have to have my family’s patronage as you go about your learning curve. And you definitely don’t deserve my silence. Because I believe if you told me to scram then you have probably done that or something equally dehumanizing (or worse) to another innocent person. And I definitely believe it will happen again if I don’t say something. And as much as it would be “easier” to let it go, if I did that I wouldn’t be fulfilling my duties as a member of the advisory Board of Race Forward, a racial justice organization, and I certainly wouldn’t be living up to my responsibilities as The ACLU’s Racial Justice Ambassador. Yup, thankfully I have little bit of a platform to try and prevent this from happening to anyone else.

Anyway, the waffles were still delicious, but I’ll be down the street at Espresso Roma Cafe from now on. And my wife will have to find runny eggs, scones, and lemon curd elsewhere.


W. Kamau Bell (And Dr. Melissa Hudson Bell, Ph.D… She co-wrote and cosigns this.)