When Canadian comedian Daniel Woodrow visited Toronto nightclub EFS one Saturday evening in early June, he had an experience that’s all too familiar to many people of color. As his white friends were being ushered past the velvet ropes of the King Street West venue, the doorman stopped him and told him that he wasn’t getting in.
“I asked why said it was dress shirts only,” Woodrow explained to THUMP over the phone. “Then I pointed out that my friends who he’d just let in also weren’t wearing dress shirts, and neither were the other people that were being let in.”
He and his friends gave up, and went to another bar down the street to continue their night, but the experience continued to nag at Woodrow. The comedian took to Facebook the next day to tell his story, and his post was immediately shared widely. Patrons started posting similar stories and leaving negative reviews on the club’s Facebook page, and local talk radio soon picked up the story. EFS representatives finally released a public apology addressing the incident several days later.
“It is EFS’ policy that all patrons abide to a Style Code to gain entry into the club. Under no circumstance is religion, sexual orientation, or race a factor in the decision to deny entry,” the statement read. “We are a multicultural venue with a culturally diverse staff. Entrance is at the discretion of each door person who makes the call on a case-by-case basis, and acts in the best interest of the venue. While we agree that the Style Code may be perceived as subjective, we aim to create a stylized, elevated atmosphere where the majority of patrons adhere to this code.”
After receiving the statement, THUMP’s follow-up request for a copy of the aforementioned style code produced a document that makes no explicit reference to either t-shirts or dress shirts. While the comedian acknowledged the apology, the lack of a credible explanation as to why he was refused entry makes their insistence that discrimination wasn’t a factor, harder to swallow.
EFS’ code policy, courtesy of EFS
A quick perusal of nightclub review site Clubcrawlers reveals corroborating stories that prove Woodrow’s tale is far from an isolated case in Toronto. One southeast Asian patron claimed that he was told EFS was all booked up for table reservations after he gave his name, but when his white girlfriend called back, she was immediately accommodated. Customer testimonies of Bloke, a restaurant-lounge located only several blocks away from EFS, are peppered with accounts of reservations vanishing when black clientele showed up at the door. Last year, the bar at the Trump Hotel in Toronto was accused of refusing entry to a man wearing a turban.
In all these incidents, the venues were able to dismiss the claims by citing capacity issues or vague codes. It’s next to impossible to prove these kinds of allegations without corroboration from club employees who are privy to the reality behind the scenes. Venues always have some way of plausibly denying accusations, and there’s no shortage of excuses available to management to brush away any claims from patrons who believe they’ve been discriminated against.
Photo courtesy of CODA’s Facebook
Even if you make it past the door however, racial profiling can continue to impact partygoers inside venues. In February, Detroit-raised, Toronto-based DJ Antwon Faulkner was watching Robert Hood play at CODA, when security shone a flashlight on him and started grabbing at his pockets.
“He’s asking me ‘Where is it? You must be a magician.’ I’m feeling really uncomfortable and everyone is looking at me wondering what the hell is going on,” he told THUMP. “I just came to hear my man Robert play and all of a sudden I’m getting treated like a drug dealer. I felt like I was singled out because I was the only black guy up there. I don’t do drugs, I don’t smoke weed, I rarely drink. I told him the only drug I sell is coming out of the speakers right now and it’s called Detroit techno.”
Faulkner later reached out the club’s owners hoping for an apology, but never heard back from them, which inspired him to write a song called “Revenge” about the experience (the track builds around a vocal sample asking “Am I hurting you?”). He hasn’t been back to CODA since.
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“That’s what’s so insidious about institutionalized racism, it’s set up in a way that you’re gaslighted right away,” said Toronto artist Isis Salam of her experiences in the city’s clubs. “If you say something, they’ll be like ‘What do you mean, there’s a black guy already in there,’ because they’ve already hit their two black guy quota. You can’t even call them out about it, even though you can clearly see that it’s not really about capacity or about dress code.”
It’s incredibly tough to prove that these experiences are the direct result of racial profiling, but insiders say that people like Woodrow, Salam, and Faulkner aren’t imagining discrimination. “Cindy” has worked as a bartender at two other downtown clubs, and reveals that behind the scenes there were concerted efforts at both establishments to limit the numbers of black men.
“As long as I’ve been in the nightclub industry, this has been the standard. Promoters would talk to the managers about groups that they had coming in for table reservations, and the managers would blatantly ask what ‘kind’ of people they were. They referred to our black and brown patrons as ‘urban’ patrons,” she told THUMP.
“It was accepted that when you stated there was an urban crowd, that’s what they were referring to, and they always wanted to limit the number of urban patrons, which is ridiculous.”
“They wouldn’t say black specifically, but they would use code words. If they said to not let in too many ‘hip hoppers,’ or too many ‘homies,’ we knew what they meant.” – Toronto bouncer “John”
THUMP reached out to a former bouncer we’ll call “John” about his experiences working the door at several Toronto clubs since the 90s, and he also confirmed that the practice of deliberately limiting the number of black and brown patrons was disturbingly commonplace. He was regularly instructed to prevent larger groups of black men from entering together, although he says his bosses were always careful with their wording.
“They wouldn’t say black specifically, but they would use code words. If they said to not let in too many ‘hip hoppers,’ or too many ‘homies,’ we knew what they meant. There was an understanding that you don’t let in a big group of younger black guys all at one time.”
The policies seemed to them so culturally ingrained in the industry that neither John nor Cindy felt they could protest at the time, and both requested that we not use their real names out of fear of potential fallout. “The whole time I was doing that I remember thinking that it was wrong,” John admitted. “When I did it, I didn’t feel good about it. I knew it was messed up.”
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For club patrons who believe they’ve been denied entry based on their skin color, there are legal options available. The Ontario Human Rights Commission provides free legal representation, and successful claims can result in anything from fines for the venue to policy changes and additional training being mandated. “Write down what happened to you, and make sure you have all the details,” OHRC information officer Vanessa Tamburro told THUMP. “Speak with our legal rep, and see if it can be argued or proven that it was in fact discrimination.”
In most cases of racist door policies though, it’s often only the employees who can provide the hard evidence needed. While those employees may be scared of how their bosses will react, they may be comforted to know they have some legal protection.”They are protected against reprisals,” said Tamburro. “If they’re fired for bringing this up, there could be repercussions for the employer.”
While complaints about workplaces failing to provide policies against discrimination can be brought to the Human Rights Tribunal of Ontario, taking issues to the courts isn’t necessarily an appealing option for most victims of nightclub discrimination. For many, an honest and public dialogue about these topics is ultimately the most effective way to achieve systemic changes.
“All you wanted to do was listen to David Guetta and do some shots, and now you’re at the courthouse? That’s bullshit,” said Salam. “I think the only way for things to change is to call them out. I thought things would have changed by now in Toronto, but apparently it’s still 1956 out here.”
Benjamin Boles is on Twitter.