Comedian W. Kamau Bell reports being victim of racism at Berkeley’s Elmwood Café

Elmwood-cafe-1
Socio-political comedian W. Kamau Bell wrote in his blog of being asked to leave the Elmwood Café at 2900 College Ave. Photo: Tracey Taylor

By Tracey Taylor and Frances Dinkelspiel

Update, Jan. 30: The Elmwood Café posted on its Facebook page around noon that it has fired the employee who made the unacceptable remark.

Update, Jan. 29, 6:40 p.m.: Bell posted on his Facebook page at 4:48 p.m that he spoke to Pearce after this article was published. He wrote: “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.” On its Facebook page, the Elmwood Café appears to have deleted its first post in which it expressed how horrified it was (see a screen-grab captured by Berkeleyside). At 5:31 p.m., it posted the following: “We have reached out [sic] Mr. Kamau Bell and expressed to him how truly sorry we are. He and his wife have graciously accepted our invitation to have an open dialogue about the incident, and what steps can be taken. This conversation will be forthcoming and transparent and public as to what went wrong, and what actions we take to rectify what happened.”

Read what happened later, on Berkeleyside.


Original story: A popular African American comedian took to the Internet on Thursday to complain that an employee of the Elmwood Café on College Avenue told him to “scram,” or words to that effect, Monday while he was talking to his white wife and her friends at one of its outdoor tables.

W. Kamau Bell, who performs regularly in Bay Area comedy clubs, said he was shocked when the employee tapped on the window from inside the café and indicated that he should leave the area. The employee apparently thought Bell might be trying to sell something. Bell said he was dressed in a dark Oaklandish-brand hoodie at the time.

“It is the definition of prejudice,” Bell, a Berkeley resident, said. “They looked at me, they judged me against other people, an idea they had in their head about what a person like me is going to do, and then they acted in stupidity and ignorance.”

Bell, who said he and his wife once loved the café, and had, in fact, eaten there that morning to celebrate his birthday, told his story on his website. It quickly went viral and prompted dozens of people to complain on the Elmwood Café’s Facebook page. By early afternoon, people had posted nearly 30 one-star reviews on Yelp as well, alleging that the café was racist. Bell’s website eventually crashed from all the traffic.

The Elmwood Café issued a statement on its Facebook page saying it was “absolutely horrified” by the incident. “We have zero tolerance for racism,” the café wrote on Facebook. (The café subsequently deleted this post, but Berkeleyside has a screen-grab of it.)


Michael Pearce, the owner of the Elmwood Café, told Berkeleyside Thursday afternoon that he was “horrified and appalled” at what Bell said happened. Pearce, who said neither he nor his manager knew about the incident before Thursday, had wanted to call Bell but could not find his number. Pearce eventually contacted Bell’s manager.

“I want to speak to him so he can relate to me exactly what happened,” said Pearce. “Anything I can do to make this right I will do. I want an open and transparent discussion, possibly with the community and the press, once I find out what we did wrong. I want to be able to fix this.”

W. Kamau Bell. Photo: Matthias Clame/courtesy FX
W. Kamau Bell: “I don’t feel any great pressure to wrap it up in one day.” Photo: Matthias Clame/courtesy FX

Bell said Thursday afternoon that he had heard Pearce wanted to talk to him, but he was not ready to discuss the situation yet. His wife had brought up what happened immediately after the incident, and the Elmwood Café staff had brushed off her concerns, he said. Bell said he needed to be with his family for a while. “I don’t feel any great pressure to wrap it up in one day,” he said.

Bell detailed his experience in an article titled “Happy Birthday! Have some Racism from the Elmwood Café!

In the blog post Bell describes how he visited the café twice Monday, Jan. 26: first for breakfast with his wife to celebrate his birthday, and then when he dropped by to chat with his wife and her friends who were having lunch there.


Addressing the café directly in his post, Bell wrote:

While she was eating with her new friends, I was down the street at Espresso Roma Café working on my Macbook Air. I suppose I could have stayed at the Elmwood Café 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 Café.

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 Café. 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.

The employee who indicated she wanted Bell to leave told him she thought he was trying to sell something, Bell writes.

Bell writes that he was stunned, and “felt numb, like I was going to pass out.”

Today the Elmwood Café posted its reaction on its Facebook page (since deleted with an updated post):

We at Elmwood Café are absolutely horrified to read about the account of the event that took place this Monday. We have zero tolerance for racism. We want to find out exactly what happened and take all steps necessary to rectify the situation.

We ask that Mr. Kamau Bell and anyone else who witnessed this occurrence to please contact us at info@elmwoodcafe.com

You can’t imagine how horrified and very very sorry we are. We will do EVERYTHING we possibly can to make this right.

Bell’s wife told Elmwood staff that, though she had previously been a devoted customer, she and her family would not return.

Bell, a stand-up comic prominent in the San Francisco comedy scene, is best known as the former host of the FX television series “Totally Biased with W. Kamau Bell.”

Addressing the irony that the incident happened in Berkeley, a city known for its liberal values and tolerance, Bell wrote: “We were bothered by the fact that we [were] 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.”

Bell’s report is already having an impact on the business’s reputation. In response to the description of his experience, there have been 26 new one-star reviews posted on Yelp on Thursday alone, as of about 3:15 p.m.

Bell said he thinks the racist attitude expressed by the employee is probably an extension of the business’s attitude. That said, he does believe people and businesses can change.

“I think there will be more to come from this, but I don’t know what that will be,” he told Berkeleyside. “I do believe that everyone has the ability to learn and to do better, and that includes Mr. Pearce and the Elmwood Café.”

But he has no plans to return.

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