Firstly, I’d like to evoke the fact that this article was the whole reason I set up a blog in the first place. It was intended to be a published newspaper feature, but funnily enough only one of the five local newspapers I contacted got back to me with a “we’ll keep your records on file”-esque answer. That being said, I’m sort of glad it’s happened this way; I have a lot to say, and it’s best it’s not restricted.
Secondly, for the purposes of avoiding a libel suit (although it’s only libel if it’s not true…) the establishments I refer to will remain unnamed throughout this post.
Finally, I need to sincerely thank everybody that got in touch with me with his or her own stories. I hope I do you justice.
What’s the difference between a smartly dressed, teetotal male with enough money to buy the entire premises in a heartbeat, let alone the bar, and a different male in a cable knit and some clear-lensed RayBans, already intoxicated as he’s drank enough beforehand to ensure he only has to spend a tenner in the club? We’ll get to the answer later.
When I sent out a tweet a couple of weeks ago asking for anybody that had experienced any racial discrimination in Birmingham’s nightlife to get in touch with me, I expected little. To be honest, I was more just interested in hearing what people had to say than actually acting upon it.
And at first, I didn’t really get anything back; in fact it was only when, in an unrelated tweet, I complained about a specific nightclub that I had any sort of response. I hadn’t actually mentioned any sort of racist occurrence. However, the replies I got not only mirrored my disdain but were also focussed in particular on this certain spot’s potentially racist door policies; so I asked again for people to come forward.
The reaction I got then shocked me. I had people I’ve never heard of emailing me pages and pages of accounts of what they’d been put through at the hands of door staff and security. It changed everything because when you think of racist door policies, what do you think of? It’s hardly like a brutal ex-boxer bouncer is beating up punters in the street for having a jheri curl; people just get turned away. Nothing to cry about.
But I want you to think differently now. If I could publish the entirety of the emails I received, I would. Because if one thing really stood out to me, it was the sheer length of them. People were and are angry, embarrassed and upset and they want something done.
Imagine it’s your best friend’s birthday. You’ve got a new dress on, and those heels you really can’t walk in but hey; you’ve got a VIP booth booked, so you’ll be able to rest your feet later. After first leaving the main group of girls to head to the toilet with a friend, you finally walk up to the VIP area only to be told you’re not allowed in by the security guy. You’re confused – you definitely have this area booked and your name is on the list. But the bouncer (who, like you, is black) tells you the area is too full, and for want of not causing a scene the two of you just stand on the other side of the rope, feeling like a bit of an idiot nonetheless.
And then you see this guy let in two girls. Two white girls. And then you get it. You get it because it’s not the first time it’s happened, and it won’t be the last – over the course of the next hour the bouncer allows access to more and more white girls, right in your face. How would you feel? Angry as hell, right? Embarrassed, certainly. But also helpless – what could you possibly do about it?
This scenario isn’t fictitious; it came from a University of Birmingham Law student, one of the people that emailed me. She also described being stopped by the same club’s door staff on another night, and separated from her friends. “Being singled out like that was just so embarrassing and humiliating – I’ll never go there again”, she wrote.
The student also presented an idea I hadn’t thought of before. “I think that in my case they were just trying to make life difficult for me and put me off coming again rather than actually stop me from going into the club at that particular moment”. Another girl that got in touch with me picked up on this point – after having also been isolated from the group she was with, her driving licence unnecessarily scrutinised and refused entry on the grounds that the door staff didn’t believe it was her own, she was finally allowed access (albeit to a different nightclub) when and only when her friends came to fight her corner. In this case, the girl in question has an unusual name of Turkish origins – the only possible justification for her having been treated separately. Call me a conspiracy theorist, but doesn’t this make you think that nightclubs are covering their own backs? If they don’t categorically turn people away, but simply cause them such humiliation that they vow to never return, what can they really be accused of in concrete terms?
My own first experience of blatant racism in Birmingham came from the first nightclub I implicitly allude to, when sometime around June last year, my friend was singled out of a group of us for not adhering to the dress code. Granted it’s subjective, but he was certainly dressed smartly – the apparent problem was that he wasn’t wearing a blazer. The guy in question is Caribbean. I’m sure I don’t have to dwell on the fact that there were a whole gang of white guys in the club at the time looking like they were at your regular Banks’ franchise for the Sunday match.
It’s the same reasons that are dished out all the time, and it’s tiring. “You’re not right for the club”, “we don’t allow short-sleeved shirts”, “we’re full”, “guest-list only tonight” or even just a firm “I don’t have to justify anything to you”. Of the several people that got in touch with me, all of them remarked that the justification they were given for being refused entry was applied to them and to other non-white potential partygoers, but not to white clients immediately afterwards. This is race discrimination in its purest form.
I’ve tried to do as much research on this subject as possible, and given my status it’d be slightly paradoxical if I didn’t comment on the case law. Only it wouldn’t, because none exists, at least not on the legal databases. There are two, maybe three BBC articles, and some foreign regional newspaper websites that touch on the matter, but no official reports. Now that in itself sums this all up very nicely; nobody wants to talk about it.
Last week I wrote that there exists in society today an “underlying, unspoken and – thankfully – for the most part unexercised segregation”, but it’s clear that in the case of a small number of nightclubs in Birmingham, there’s a new wave of ostracism upon us. Only the well connected are exempt. And the worst part is that we just accept it; we tolerate this clear violation of basic principles of equality. And that is because the people that it doesn’t apply to don’t care, and the victims of race discrimination feel that a complaints procedure will be fruitless. And let me tell you, after standing outside this same nightclub for half an hour trying to discern from the management in a most civilised fashion the exact reasons for why my black and Asian friends wouldn’t be joining me at my birthday celebrations, I can confirm that fruitless it is. Even our detailed, formal and courteous emails got us nowhere. And God forbid you actually ‘pull the racism card’ – the door staff will virtually turn super-Saiyan with their defences. So people take to forums, they leave 1* reviews, they detail their anguish with colourful language and capital letters and decidedly questionable grammar, but then what happens? Well mate, you’ve just left a review on Trip Advisor. No clubs are getting shut down today.
Pathetic, isn’t it? As is the shocking phenomenon of black-on-black racism I touched on earlier, something that is neither uncommon nor any less demeaning than any other form. I’m all out of metaphors when it comes to this aspect of race discrimination. Whilst I accept that the bouncers only implement decisions that come from a higher link in the authoritative chain, I can only assume with regret that the door staff and security are getting paid more than their morals are worth.
The amount of racism we tolerate in society today is somewhat worrying. Recently, the French administrative authorities shut down a black comedian’s tour in one city due to his sketches being labelled as anti-Semite. But does the line “throw the Jew down the well” ring a bell? Of course it does. Admittedly France is understandably more sensitive to anti-Semitism than Anglophone countries (take a look at the appalling events of July 1942) but does this mean that we are simply OK with race discrimination and outright racism if the author just “doesn’t mean it”? When you think about it, we’re environmentally conditioned to hearing, seeing and even being the subject of a cacophony of –isms on a daily basis and thinking little to nothing of it.
This all boils down to the fact that certain acts, like implicitly racist door policies, go unsanctioned, especially when “[t]he management and venue accept no responsibility for refused admission on the grounds of inappropriate dress or behaviors (sic), or to guests who are/appear to be intoxicated”. But that doesn’t make it any less intolerable for the victims of discrimination, who are left humiliated, hurt and seemingly helpless.
Concretely, does Birmingham have a problem when it comes to nightclubs and racism? Well, the majority of the people I spoke to focussed on one joint in particular (with one man even going so far as to say that “Adolf Hitler would be proud of the way [it] is being run”). And I can certainly say I’ve never been to a nightclub in Birmingham with an exclusively white clientele, unless it was incidental. The pacifist in me would like to tell you to simply avoid nightclubs that are rumoured to be racist; you’ll save yourself any potential confrontation, which, on experience, can easily escalate and ruin your night.
But the lawyer in me is writing a follow-up to this post that should be available in the next couple of days, hopefully providing some tangible legal answers (obviously billed at £200/hour) and some justice for those affected.
I asked at the start of this post what the difference between those two guys are, and I’m now sure you’ll be able to answer that question. Whatever your experiences of clubbing in Birmingham have been, I hope this post has changed your perspectives on this concentrated issue. It’s not something that should be ignored, it’s not an inherent part of our multicultural society, and it needs to change.
As ever, some food for thought (skip to around 2:19 if I’ve already stolen too much of your time):