Opinion: To the ‘good’ white liberals of Berkeley

W. Kamau Bell was not trying to shut down the Elmwood Cafe. He was highlighting how subtle microaggressions remind people of color that they are only conditionally welcomed.

I recently moved to back to the Bay Area after 13 years in NYC and a (misguided) brief stint in LA. When my husband and I started looking at housing options, we found ourselves drawn to Berkeley for its accessibility, good food, and reputation as a liberal bastion. As the president continues to take steps toward making the country less safe and welcoming for people of color, it felt like a good place to call home for awhile. But the neighborhood response to Elmwood Cafe’s closing, amidst renewed accusations of racism, has got me thinking otherwise.

Since they decided to shut their doors, I have walked by and witnessed the outpouring of grief by white folks who have lost their beloved local coffee shop. Many have posted notes on the door, calling the now-closed cafe a victim of “too much political correctness,” and praising it for being a force of good in the community, where diverse people could come together to enjoy good food and conversation. Someone even lay flowers at its doorstep, as if it were the scene of a tragic death. “It was all just a simple misunderstanding,” I overheard a man standing outside the empty cafe say in reference to W. Kamau Bell’s 2015 incident, the event many seem to believe is responsible for its demise.

But what’s more troubling than the original 2015 incident itself, is the scapegoating and vitriol directed at Bell, who was not, as angry righteous Twitter users argue, rehashing the story for the sole purpose of shutting Elmwood down. What many of the “good” white folks of Berkeley seem to miss is Bell’s larger point – that what happened to him is part of the bigger problem of race relations in America, and that white folks seem to have the need to control what people of color can and can’t feel indignant, offended, and sensitive about. Moreover, it’s the outright refusal to acknowledge that even a “good” white liberal can harbor racist attitudes.

To be clear, what Bell was doing was using his platform to highlight what many people of color feel about living in America – being vocal about our indignities isn’t just a matter of political correctness, but of survival. The fear that compels a white person to kick a black man out of a coffee shop for looking “suspicious” is the same fear that makes a police officer pull the trigger on an innocent black life. It is an implicit bias that people of color, and black people in particular, are to be assumed guilty of bad/inappropriate/illegal behavior even when there is none, simply because they are not white. If Elmwood Cafe truly closed because a bunch of us were riled up enough to point this out (though we still don’t know that for sure), then maybe it was worth it if it forces the “good” white folks of Berkeley to form a deeper understanding of what it means to actually support black lives and stand “united against hate.”

Beyond the goal of safety from violence and discrimination, something so basic that it’s insulting to even have to demand it, ultimately, people of color just want to exist freely and with dignity wherever we go. That includes, but is not limited to, being able to shop at a store without being followed (as I’ve seen my husband experience), sit on a wine train and laugh among friends, board a plane and get to your intended destination safely, and yes, go into any space without fear of humiliation that you may be asked to leave. No matter how benign you think they are, the subtle microaggressions we experience as people of color are not mere inconveniences that prevent us from living our lives. They area reminder that even in the most liberal places in the country, we are still only conditionally welcome.

To some degree, I understand the nostalgia and affection one might have for their local neighborhood haunts, particularly in the Bay Area where rapid gentrification has been aggressive and unforgiving. But this story isn’t about people losing their homes because of greedy developers. This is about people upset over the loss of their safe, controlled white space, because us troublemaking colored folk had the audacity to demand equal respect and dignity.

So, to the “good” white liberals of Berkeley, you may not be wearing a white hood but your attitudes are certainly cut from the same cloth. Until you acknowledge that, your signs of “unity” remain meaningless. Perhaps it’s time to admit to yourselves that as long as Trump doesn’t impinge on your rights and dignity, you could care less about the well-being, safety and dignity of everyone else. Seems you have more in common with Trump voters than you think.

Conchita Campos is a Berkeley-based artist, writer and producer.