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Stand-up comic W. Kamau Bell has been all over the internet, accusing The Elmwood Eatery, a local Bay Area restaurant, of racism.  The Berkeley restaurant (yes, all of this drama occurred in that hot – bed of tolerance, Berkeley) has since been assailed with one-star reviews on Yelp and tons of bad publicity. Bell and his wife (and I am assuming their friends) have vowed never to eat at the establishment again.

Bell’s story is as follows:

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.

You can read a more compete account here.

It is quite possible that the restaurant employee peered through the window, saw and assumed that because Bell was Black that he couldn’t possibly know the white women he was speaking to.  What is more probable is that the employee looked through the window and saw a poorly dressed Black man, with his hair standing all over his head and made the leap that he was a bum, harassing customers.

Was this racism? More accurately, was it racism that rises to the level of assaulting the restaurant and never again darkening their door? It seems to me that we have become so accustomed to calling out every single slight that we have lost all perspective.  As a reminder, THIS is racism:


THIS is racism:


THIS is racism:


Being mistaken for a homeless man and being told to move along, is NOT racism.

There is little doubt in my mind that Bell’s race played a part in the employees reaction. However, I am also certain that there were other factors that influenced the employee.  For instance, there is a homeless population in the area.  I wonder if Bell ever asked himself: what instructions are the employees given about dealing with the harassment of customers? Does the homeless population in the area look like me?  Can one honestly blame an employee for attempting to protect the restaurant’s customers?

As with many side-walk cafe’s in big cities, restaurant goers are often approached by homeless people for food and/or money. I owned a restaurant in Encino, CA. with a small outdoor eating area.  We occasionally had homeless wander around the customers, even come into the restaurant.  My employees were instructed to protect our customers, but they were never rude. I set the example.

Bell has spent a great deal of time whining about racism, when the issue is actually one of civility, a point he doesn’t make until far into his complaint.

When I dealt with the homeless who came around my customers, I attempted to treat them with the same dignity that I would demand. I spoke to them as one man ought to speak to another – without condescension, without malice, and without anger.  Something tells me that if the restaurant employee had behaved with civility rather than the ugliness represented with dirty looks and a “SCRAM!” this incident, well, would never have become an incident.  I think there is a grand lesson in here somewhere.

Any restaurant must be sensitive to protecting their customers privacy as they dine outside. Employees are going to notice and react whenever customers are approached. And if you are wearing a hoody and have your hair standing all over your head, and yes, if you are also Black, you will receive more scrutiny.  No, it’s not nice and may even be frustrating – even prejudiced, if you must. But this is simply not the kind of thing that merits the destruction of a small business.  Perhaps, it is time for folks to put their big boy pants on and stop crying racism whenever their feelings get hurt.




About Author

Joseph C. Phillips

Joseph C. Phillips was born on January 17, 1962 in Denver, Colorado, USA as Joseph Connor Phillips. He is an actor, known for General Hospital (1994), The Cosby Show (1984) and Strictly Business (1991). He has been married to Nicole since 1994. They have three children.

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