Editor’s Note: It’s there. You might have experienced it or know someone who has. Racism rears its ugly head in the world of nightlife just like it does in most facets of life. It may (or may not) be subtler than it has been in the past but it’s there nonetheless. A sensitive topic such as this deserves more than 1,500 words, so ADANAI plans to delve deeply into it over the course of a series of articles. While each instance of racism is nuanced, there are a few major areas where racism pops up in the nightlife industry on a regular basis: 1) the door policy at nightclubs; 2) hiring policies for staff; 3) upward mobility in the workplace and; 4) music choices. This introduction to racism in nightlife touches on each of these areas and offers a taste of what is to come.AAfter working the night shift week after week as a senior manager at PepsiCo in Orlando, Fla., Keisha Child was in dire need of a vacation. She decided it was time to head south to Miami so she booked a room at the famed Fontainebleau. Its stellar accommodations seemed perfect for Child and her plus one. In order to fully experience her first-time stay at the hotel, she and her date did everything from dining at chef Scott Conant’s Scarpetta to hitting the resort’s main pool.
During her time at the historic hotel on Miami Beach, the hardworking African-American and her Indian companion went to LIV nightclub. And that’s where this story takes an unexpected turn for the worse. Waiting in line at LIV, Child noticed girls in scantily clad attire being picked out from the crowd and granted access into the club. This explained why it was taking so long to get in. Noticing the bewildered look on her face, a Caucasian club-goer standing next to her in line told her that she had to know someone to gain entry.
Well, she didn’t know anyone—she was just a hotel guest. So, after a 30-minute wait (without the option of paying money to get in, like at “normal” nightclubs), one of the door hosts walked over to Child and told her where to stand. From there, she and her date were charged $60 a piece to enter and they partied the night away—till 4:30 a.m.
Child had heard about people being denied admission into certain clubs based on the way they looked or dressed but she’d never experienced that treatment herself. The Fontainebleau website, under the FAQs section, states: “Admission to LIV nightclub is not guaranteed. … LIV management reserves the right to refuse admission to anyone, in its sole discretion.” Unaware of this policy prior to her visit, Child was clearly taken aback after reading it. She was under the impression that hotel guests would be able to get into the club without a hassle.
Crazy, huh? There was a time when you could just wait in line and pay your money to carouse all night. Now, it seems as if there’s a particular screening process to get into the “hot spots.” Just imagine if that present-day screening took skin color into account or if such racism issues went beyond the velvet rope and actually permeated the nightlife industry’s inner workings. Well, it does and they do.
In 2010, four Black females who said they were denied entrance because they didn’t fit a certain mold sued New York City nightclub Greenhouse. And last year, at Circle Nightclub in midtown Manhattan, a Black male wasn’t allowed into the predominately Korean club even though the bouncer permitted entry to his Asian girlfriend. This isn’t unusual according to seasoned hospitality consultant Rob Build. “When I first went into this field, if you were cool, the doormen would take care of you and get you in. Nowadays, the door person is like, ‘Oh, you’re not my friend. I don’t know you, I’m not letting you in,’” Build says. When Build worked as an event programmer, whenever he looked to book a venue, management would say to him, “What type of crowd are you bringing?” He adds, “Or then they’re like, ‘Can you bring me white?’ There’s a lot of racism there. It’s not going to change. They are letting in whoever they feel fits their criteria.”When James One door hosted at a well-known Las Vegas nightclub on the Strip, he prided himself on building relationships and bringing in people who were going to spend lots of money. He thinks there’s more to the screening process than just being a certain skin color. “It’s not always just racist, it’s a sexist thing too,” One says. There was an instance when a high school friend of his made plans to visit his venue to celebrate a bachelorette party. “I told her that I’m going to comp their table. But when the [African-American] girls came up, [my coworker] looked at them—and there’s about three big girls in the group—and was like, ‘You gotta be fucking kidding me.’ He was like, ‘Come on man, they gotta be hot chicks if you’re going to comp a table.’ That is the mentality of the nightlife in Vegas. It’s always been like that. It’s not going to stop anytime soon either.”
Should this mentality be tolerated? Absolutely not, according to University of Nevada, Las Vegas Department of Educational Psychology and Higher Education assistant professor Tara C. Raines, Ph.D. “The messages in these interactions were unstated but clear: African-American beauty, money, and company are not welcome or appreciated,” says Raines.
Former Las Vegas cocktail waitress and model Kelly Dice agrees. While working at one of the top nightlife venues in Sin City, the African-American beauty was asked to be a model in a pool photo shoot. “The photographer had me walk into the scene so she could get a few shots for [Wynn] Magazine and she stops me and says, ‘I’m going to need you to take that curve out of your lower back.’ And I was like, ‘Excuse me?’ And she said, ‘Well, your behind is sticking out too far,‘“ Dice says.
The photographer should have chosen one of the Caucasian girls who were hanging around by the pool instead. Dice says, “Maybe their body [type] would have been better for her and what she was looking for. That thought crossed my mind like, ‘Why don’t you ask one of these other women to do this if you don’t like the shape of my body, you know?’ But, I didn’t say it because I was afraid that that might have repercussions or I might even lose my job for not going along with it. After all, I did sign the papers saying I’m a model and when you do that, you kind of relinquish a lot of your rights because they are allowed to have rule over what you look like.”
The overall experience for Dice was “very demoralizing. That was a terrible day for me. When it was all over, I felt bad. I thought I was going to feel good because I was chosen for something but I felt terrible and I wish I would have told her no as soon as she made the reference to the shape of my curves and how I was too curvy for the picture. So that hurt a lot. That broke me down. There is a lot of racism in Las Vegas nightlife.”
Her story doesn’t end there. A photo from that day was used on a billboard. But, there was something different about the picture when Dice finally saw it. “They Photoshopped my curly hair and changed it to long, straight hair. So that was the cherry on the cake. You could have grabbed someone with straight hair and less curves. Why take me and change me? It was very, very offensive,” Dice says.
“This is an example of racial microaggressions,” Dr. Raines says. “Microaggressions are so termed because they are not large enough in individual incidents to warrant a strong response, however, with repeated exposure to subtle (and sometimes not so subtle) indignities, harm is done to self-image, self-esteem, and self-efficacy which can have a detrimental impact on overall mental health functioning. These microaggressions, over time, are the emotional equivalent of receiving thousands of small, shallow stab wounds. Each wound in itself is not deadly, but each stings and collectively they cause tremendous emotional pain, which can lead to increased risk for mental health disorders such as somatic disorders, anxiety and depression,” says Dr. Raines “It would appear that this event left the individual feeling as though she as an African-American and/or all African-Americans are less valuable than their peers,” Dr. Raines adds.
Biracial bartender Tiffany Jackson can relate. The 28-year-old works at a well-known Miami nightclub. When she was first hired, she had long hair, but recently decided to cut it off. Then she was told that she had to get a weave in order to continue working at the establishment. “My boss basically said [to someone else] she didn’t want that nappy shit here,” Jackson says. “It was a confidence downer to me because it’s like someone telling me, ‘Oh, you’re not pretty enough to work for us unless you have hair.’”
“It is a true tragedy but very much the reality that African-Americans are exposed to racial microaggressions across many settings including nightlife,” Dr. Raines says.
They say Black is beautiful. They also say beauty is only skin deep. Under the alluring surface of the billion-dollar-a-year nightlife industry, an ugly truth lies.
*Names in this story have been changed to protect the individuals who are still in the nightlife industry or wanted to share their experiences while remaining anonymous.