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Berkeley Shows How to Have Real Race Conversation

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After that viral video of Sigma Alpha Epsilon one must wonder if we’d have a lynching image on our minds if “SAE” didn’t rhyme with “tree.”

But if they rhymed with “Epsilon” then we’d likely end up with a hanging at “dawn,” or a cross on the “lawn.”

Doesn’t matter.

The chant had another key word that provided the nation with an example of what the sociologist Elijah Anderson often refers to as a “nigger moment.”

Nikki Jones, from UC Berkeley’s African-American studies department, brought it up last Friday at what has to be as good a community model for a public conversation on race that I’ve ever experienced.

Jones explained that society has its White spaces and its Black spaces, and when Blacks (or really any people of color) are upwardly mobile, their success depends on how they act in the White spaces, and how they deal with those moments that are consciously or unconsciously intended to put us in our place.

I’d never heard that idea before, which is why it’s always a good thing to have a sociologist like Jones present in any race conversation because if some people think such events are mere intellectual exercises, then it helps to have real intellectuals.

But I know for me, it was helpful to hear her and the others, a high school student activist, a teacher, an ACLU lawyer, along with the two principal parties representing the transgressor and the transgressed upon, all talking about race before 500 people on a Friday night in a junior high school gym in Berkeley.

It was a perfect mix brought together by W. Kamau Bell, the former host of FXX’s Totally Biased, and the just-named star of a brand new CNN program.

He isn’t totally anonymous.

You just don’t expect him to be profiled as a homeless panhandler — except maybe in a racist community.

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But in progressive Berkeley, where sugared drinks are considered evil?

People of color know what these minor transgressions are about. When at a big anniversary for NPR, I showed up in a tux. I was the only senior host of All Things Considered at the time who was a minority.

Big deal, right? When I showed up at the coat check, the supervisor thought I was the help.

It happens.

For Bell, it happened this past January.

Bell was late joining his wife, Melissa Hudson Bell, at the outside dining area of Berkeley’s Elmwood Café in January. His wife, a White woman, an accomplished artist and college instructor, was having lunch with other young mothers after some morning fun with strollers and kids. Bell held a computer and a book he wanted to share with his new infant. The book was on the Loving v. Virginia, the case that ended the ban on intermarriage in America.

A waitress observing the scene, was on the inside looking out. She thought Bell, 6-foot-4, 250 pounds, was trying to sell her White patrons something. So she did what any earnest White person might do — she banged on the glass to shoo Bell away.

Bell was upset. His wife felt even worse. The waitress apologized, though she said to Bell, “I really don’t think it was a race thing.”

Oh yes it was.

Subsequently, the waitress was fired. But that never ends the situation.

This is when you need that very public race conversation. Bell needed to vent to his Berkeley community.

“People of color experience what is called micro-aggression and implicit bias all the time every day, all the time,” Bell said. “But the problem is we can’t talk about it all the time because we’d sound crazy.

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And this incident was so blatant, I was like, I can’t let this one go.”

Bell said you can’t even talk about this with your friends who are people of color. “We grow exhausted talking about it with each other,” he said.

There were some people of color in the gym. But it looked to be more than 75 percent White.

Michael Pearce, the café owner in question, seemed to speak for the majority when he said he admitted he “felt shame.”

“I couldn’t let it stand,” he said. “We could do better.”

Pearce announced he was developing a training program on implied bias with Jamie Almanzan, the educator who was part of the panel. The intention is to share what they develop with other retailers and small business people.

Almanzan said fighting implicit bias is about controlling what often can be racist impulses. “Your brain will make decisions before your conscious brain can check it,” said Almanzan. He added that to keep from making the wrong decisions, listen first. “You got to learn how to listen,” he said. “You have to listen to others before you have a desire to share your ideas.”

The place to listen is in real conversation, which the people did in between speakers as they turned to each other and shared their thoughts.

Not surprisingly, when the audience asked questions of the panel, the one that drew the biggest reaction was about shame — as in, is it possible to talk about race without shaming?

“Shame can be a moving emotion,” professor Jones said to cheers.

At that point Bell, the comedian, got up and said, “What’s wrong with shame?” He indicated that some people need to feel bad.

By applause, those were the two biggest moments all night.

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But I know some people feel that shaming can only add to the paralysis, hence recent indignation over such things as “fat shaming.”

Still, Jones felt that shame for a finite period could be positive, because after that comes a period of “re-integration.”

That may not happen to the fired waitress at work, whom Bell said he would meet with this week. But the crowd did seem evenly split when a show of hands thought she should be given a second chance.

Which brings us back to SAE and the racist chants.

I haven’t heard a lot of the community conversation about the chants. But there has been stern, and I believe, rightful action taken by OU President David Boren against the frat house and the students involved.

On Friday, attorney Stephen Jones was hired by OU chapter of SAE and told the media the local chapter isn’t seeking a “legal solution.”

He said his concern was the public safety of the students (I hope he meant both the White and Black students), some real estate questions, the national board and due process for the disciplined student.

But without a seeking a legal solution, it sounds like he’s more about looking for a re-integration for the two racist chanters.

So when do we, or how do we “re-integrate” them back to any college campus? Is there a way toward forgiveness and redemption?

Will a college anywhere let in transfers with a resume that bears the line “reformed publicly shamed racist”?

Sounds like a race conversation higher ed folks should be having. As Bell’s Berkeley session shows, done right, public conversations can be a lot more helpful than you think.

Emil Guillermo writes on issues of race, culture and politics for the Asian American Legal Defense and Education Fund (www.aaldef.org/blog). Like him at www.facebook.com/emilguillermo.media; Twitter@emilamok.

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