If you were to walk a mile in the shoes of a Black man, you probably wouldn’t get far— unless, of course, you look the part. And though hitting 'da club' is hardly the most important thing we are tasked with doing, it is yet another space in which our identity as Black men is derided and denounced far too often.. As trivial as it may sound, as a man of color, what you choose to put on may make the difference between gaining access into an establishment, or being left standing on the curb.
Many nightclubs, bars and restaurants often enforce rather strict dress codes that, on the surface, may seem quite reasonable. No hats, no sneakers…the usual. But when you peel back the less-offensive respectability tropes, there may be a not-so-obvious message that comes along with such restrictions. As a Black man, I’ve been a witness of how these dress codes can be enforced unfairly, in which bouncers arbitrarily make the executive decision that I, or someone I’m with, does not fit the description of a desirable patron. Not for looking un-presentable, but for simply fitting a designated profile. And I'm talking about casual bars and clubs, and not just swanky five-star hot spots.
So just who is considered a desirable patron, and who is not? Based on universal restrictions, it appears that "urban" fashion—associated with hip-hop culture, of course—is often targeted at many establishments. In some instances, young, Black men who fit these criteria are not only turned away, but also publicly embarrassed. Most brothers could probably share a story or two about a time when he, or someone he knew, was denied entrance into a club or restaurant for violating a dress code, while he watched a White patron, wearing the same thing, be granted access. And while general attire policies are typically designated to a sign by an entrance, many other restrictions are often left to the discretion of the bouncer.
Derek Wilson, 25, and his friends were denied entry to a bar in a White, moneyed area in Buckhead, Georgia. Why? Because one of his friends wore camouflage on the sleeves of his shirt, even though there was no sign that said, “no camouflage.” When they pointed out that a White man inside the bar was also wearing camouflage, the bouncer brushed them off. “He was in here before I came at the door,” he argued. More alarming, the bouncer could not give one reasonable explanation as to why camouflage was not appropriate attire.
Wilson, a Clark-Atlanta University graduate and sales rep in Atlanta, says this isn’t the first time he and his friends encountered resistance at the door. “My pants were riding down a little bit so the bouncer told me I couldn’t get in because I was sagging,” Wilson tells EBONY. “I told him that I would pull them up. I wasn’t intentionally doing it.” Despite Wilson’s cooperation, the bouncer refused to let him in and told him to, “try again next week.” Since the summer, Wilson says, more and more patrons of color have been frequenting the bar, which has a predominantly White clientele. “If you can tell people what they can or cannot wear, then you kind of control what’s coming at your door,” he says. “They tell people they can’t get in because they’re wearing baseball caps or earrings, even if you take them out…it’s totally ridiculous.”
But it’s not just “White” establishments that partake in such sketchy practices. David Williams, 25, recalls a time he went out with friends to have a late-night dinner at a Caribbean-style restaurant in Brooklyn. When he was told that he would have to remove his hat, he refused out of principal. “I felt like I was dressed casually and I looked nice…I wasn’t dressed ‘hood,” Williams says. “I felt like they were trying to weed out certain people. People wear what they feel comfortable wearing. It doesn’t depict who they are.”
In situations like these, it’s hard not to bring the discussion to race. Black men far too often encounter unnecessary red tape when navigating the nightlife scene. How often does a White male get denied entry to a nightclub or bar for what he’s wearing?
A strong parallel can be drawn between the discrimination men of color face within nightlife culture and America’s general attitude towards Black men. And you don’t have to look far for proof. Trayvon Martin’s hoodie has become a symbol of America’s racial profiling issue and general fear of Black men, and then there’s the more recent death of Jonathan Ferrell, who was shot by North Carolina police for being perceived as a threat, when he was simply looking for help. With this social backdrop, it isn’t far-fetched to think that this country’s implicit racism has a rather heavy hand in nightlife door policies.
If you’re going to enforce a dress code, it should be clearly stated in writing at the door, and should be enforced to everyone – not just a few. If Jay-Z can walk into a spot sporting his Yankee fitted cap and sneakers, why can’t the average Jerome? Sadly, owners are going to enforce rules however they see fit, and no one’s going to assemble a nightlife task force to ensure that Black men are treated fairly at the door. It’s about time we begin to critically question these policies that are so clearly loaded with racism. Black men shouldn’t have to comply to rules of respectability for the sake of one’s comfort or sense of safety. As the old adage goes, if you don’t stand for something you’ll fall for anything. And this is certainly something worth standing up for.
Gerren Keith Gaynor is a freelance journalist in New York City and Staff Writer for CentricTV.com. He is a graduate of Morehouse College and Columbia University Journalism School. Gaynor also covers entertainment and television for XXLmag.com, and JET and DELUX Magazines. Read more of his work on his blog, MrGerrenalist.com. Follow him on Twitter: @MrGerrenalist.