Another London nightclub, another race row. A few years ago, DSTRKT nightclub allegedly refused entry to a group of black women for being “too dark” and “overweight”. The club denied the allegations but the protest that followed led R&B singer Omarion to pull out of his planned appearance at the venue. Its eventual demise last year was celebrated on Twitter as karmic retribution. Now this week, London West End nightclub Drama, attached to the Hilton Park Lane, was accused of having a racist door policy. Nadine Marsh-Edwards alleged on Twitter that while white women were charged £10 for entry, her daughter was charged double. Nadine’s daughter is black.
There are TripAdvisor posts claiming the club has a racist and sexist door policy, but a Drama spokesperson said they are investigating the recent allegation, insisting that: “[It does] not tolerate any form of discrimination against any individual or group.”
It adds to a long list of racist and discriminatory door policies – from Pollyanna’s nightclub in 1970s Birmingham to more recent reports – denied at the time – at another Birmingham venue, Bambu, in 2015. But how and why do clubs continue to get away with behaviour that should be classed as breaking equality law?
When many think of racism, the image that comes to mind is often of a “lout” shouting obscenities at a passerby on the street. Or perhaps a video of abuse slung at someone on public transport. Or the Tommy Robinson supporters performing Nazi salutes. But anyone with prejudiced views and a smidgen of power can leverage their authority in more subtle ways, to stop ethnic minorities from accessing anything from jobs and promotions to housing and health services. Last year, research from NatCen and the Runnymede Trust found that 26% of people self-describe as being “very” or “a little bit” prejudiced. This has, sadly, been consistent since 1983 – going as high as 39% but never falling below 25%.
People carry these beliefs with them in their day-to-day lives and make choices – from whom they will let into their nightclub to the policies they make – depending on the power and position they hold in our society. So MP Philip Davies saying in parliament this week that black people are “more likely to be murderers” and a West End club charging a black girl double may appear to be unconnected events. But in reality, they are laced together in the wider tapestry of racist stereotypes that masquerade as “objective policies”.
And door policies are an obscure place where insidious racism can easily lurk in dark corners. It has not been legal to ban someone from your bar or club because of their race since the 1965 Race Relations Act. But you can refuse someone entry because of say – their outfit – as long as it’s the same rule for everyone. Clubs can use subjective and ambiguous excuses to stop people they deem “undesirable” from coming in. It’s then up to the patrons to prove that the rules are only being applied to them unfairly. This makes it difficult to prove racism is the cause. But Google “nightclub racism” and you’ll find TripAdvisor posts, videos and news articles abound with stories that strongly suggest this is a pervasive problem. Some excuses are not even subtle. A group of NFL players claimed they were turned away from central London club Cirque Le Soir in 2017 for being “too urban”, despite the group having prior reservations. Again, the nightclub denied the allegations.
When last year, Trapeze nightclub rejected a planned Grenfell fundraiser because it would play bashment and trap music, they were accused of “passive racism”. The general manager said these genres of music “attract a poor-quality demographic and result in problems”. Bashment and trap music are both associated closely with black people.
Some nightclubs clearly see ethnic minority groups as an “undesirable” demographic that are unfairly categorised as a risk to public safety. The disproportionate use of Form 696 on events thought to attract a largely black crowd followed a similar logic – often citing “safety” concerns as the reason events could not go ahead.
Yet these same clubs unashamedly use famous black stars to emphasise their “elite” credentials. Drama is proud to cash in on Rihanna and Drake’s passing appearances at the club. I’m sure their music is the soundtrack to every Saturday night at the venue. It is laughable that a nightclub accused of charging black women double for entry and saying: “Eww your kind isn’t allowed in here” to black and Asian patrons, plays “mainly hip-hop and R&B”. Black people are desirable as entertainment or decoration, but not as clientele.
I rarely go out in the West End because I find the mediocre R&B mixes fall flat, and one drink is often the price of two H&M T-shirts. But I do not believe it’s a coincidence that I’ve always gone with a group of white people and also never had an issue getting in. I’m glad to see the London Night Czar Amy Lamé will investigate the alleged incident at Drama. But until we see a serious change in public attitudes I don’t see racist door policies coming to an end anytime soon.
• Kimberly McIntosh is a policy officer for the Runnymede Trust