Opinion: The Elmwood Café brouhaha makes clear that empathy is the antidote

Much of the reaction to the recent Elmwood Café-Kamau Bell situation was a case study in victim blaming, and it begins with a lack of empathy.

In recent days we’ve been following the commentary on the Kamau Bell and Elmwood Café story and found a startling amount of polarity for a city historically united on social issues — especially issues of race and racism.

There are, of course, numerous definitions of racism. Indeed, in a few of the comments on Berkeleyside articles, the very idea that Elmwood Café’s actions constituted racism is hotly contested. Perhaps the most elegant definition of racism we’ve come across is professor and poet Kwame Dawe’s suggestion that racism, at its core, is a lack of imagination. To imagine someone else’s situation is the gateway to empathy. And with empathy comes understanding.

What’s so disheartening about public commentary regarding Mr. Bell is the consistent inability or unwillingness to imagine what his experience felt like. Imagine being shooed away from your spouse based upon a split-second assessment of your skin color and body. And imagine further the underlying assumption here — that you and your spouse don’t “match.” You are a black man harassing a white woman, not a husband chatting with his wife.

Imagine then, that you want what many victims of racism must want, some promise that things will change. Imagine receiving a promise from the owner of the Elmwood Café — that the implicit biases of its employees will be addressed — only to have your emails unreturned and the café’s promises abandoned.

And, lastly, imagine relating your own experience as a black man being shooed away from a coffee shop to a similar event at a Starbucks in Philadelphia, only to be ultimately faulted for the closure of the café. This is a case study in victim blaming, and it begins with a lack of empathy.

Much of the public commentary around this issue suggests that what Mr. Bell and his family experienced wasn’t “real” racism, and that we should instead focus our collectively energy on “more systemic racism” like mass incarceration. (Important sidenote: As white people, we do not get to decide what’s racist. If you don’t live it, you don’t get to define it. Period.)

And yet, one can draw a pretty direct line from the lack of empathy for Mr. Bell’s experience to a systemic failure like the overrepresentation of black men in prison. As a culture, we often view black men as threatening, and that view manifests in a range of behaviors — from assuming a black man is bothering customers to disproportionally incarcerating men of color. However, if we are to even begin to tackle the big issues of our day, like mass incarceration or systemic racism in other forms, we need to start by empathizing with the victims of daily racism, especially right here in our own community.

We need, first and foremost, to believe people of color when they tell us about their experiences. When they are brave enough to share their story publicly and weather the storm of personal backlash, we need to support them. Before we fire off a comment lamenting the closure of a local spot, we need to ask ourselves: Are we blaming the victim for the consequences of racism?

We owned a dessert catering business in Berkeley until 2015. We loved feeding our neighbors, being a part of birthdays and weddings and graduations, and belonging to a community of small-business owners. We always mourn the closure of any locally owned spot, and especially a neighborhood anchor like the Elmwood Café. To suggest, however, that Mr. Bell and his family’s experience caused the closure lacks empathy and succumbs to an all-too-familiar trap of victim blaming.

At its core, this debate is not about one café or one family. It’s about creating a Berkeley that lives up to its reputation as an inclusive, progressive, and welcoming city to all. The very first step to creating a truly inclusive culture in Berkeley is to imagine, empathize, and believe our fellow community members when they experience racism.

Kathryn and Casey McEachern moved to Berkeley to attend college, and have called the city home in the 15 years since.