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Systemic Racism Comes Out at Night

The New South ain't so new

As a lover of all things nightlife, I’ve relished the opportunity to document my late-night experiences and adventures throughout the Queen City in this column. Lately, however, I’ve struggled to find the words to express how I’ve felt about anything amidst the chaos that has been not one but two pandemics: COVID-19 and systemic racism.

In the aftermath of the murder of George Floyd at the hands of a Minneapolis police officer, Charlotte nightlife began to heat up, but it wasn’t due to entering Phase 2 of reopening. Instead of listening to the sounds of music pouring into the street from The Local, cries for justice filled the streets of Uptown once again.

Have you ever woken up from a nightmare and it was so familiar that you’re positive you’ve had the same dream many times before? That’s how I’ve felt from the first night of protests on. Each news clip, each headline, each video of a #Karen losing her shit in public, and each uncontrollable emotion a blatant reminder of a nightmare that’s been had time and time again.

Aerin Spruill

Nightlife conversations in the corners of rooftops, restaurant patios and living rooms look and sound different than they did a few weeks ago. What already felt like stolen, selfish moments spent imbibing despite warnings from public health officials have been further complicated by the inexplicable need to purge emotions with everyone only to be met with:

“I don’t understand the looting.”
“Do you think I’m racist?”
“I don’t see color.”
“It’s awful that he died that way but…”
“The only way to move past racism is to stop talking about it.”

*Screams into pillow*

To each of these I respond with some version of, “Please explain how the actions of a few and an eight-minute video of a man dying at the hands of someone who’s supposed to serve and protect compare. Why would you think I think you’re racist? Do you think you’re racist? Everyone sees color, admitting it, however, may distort your utopian view of the world. There are no buts. Oh, and racism is alive and well. Systemic and institutional racism is embedded as a ‘normal practice’ within society or an organization, e.g. the criminal justice system, in other words, it’s designed to pull the wool over your eyes.”

The uncomfortable truth and the reason why we’re having this conversation again and again — as if we’re stuck in a B-list cast in a time-loop movie that never stops making sequels — is that we are still far from the change that we thought we’d achieved. Case in point: Ink N Ivy.

Just when we thought everyone had forgotten the “roach health score scare,” the local nightlife destination found themselves at the center of racial controversy when an employee was overheard using racial slurs. Was I surprised? Not one bit.

While Charlotte for me (a black woman) has been somewhat of an escape from the reality that was my experience and often the foundation of my racial trauma growing up in the small, rural North Carolina town of Trinity, I’ve never turned a blind eye to the unequal and unfair treatment of persons of color in the “optically progressive” city I now call home.

From the enforcement of “strict dress codes” created at their core to target and discriminate against people of color to the blatant use of racial or homophobic slurs by staff members at bars and nightclubs, the Charlotte nightlife scene is no stranger to the institution or perpetuation of racism. And what’s even worse? Many of these coveted local establishments have still made the decision to remain silent and “just stay out of it” to avoid public backlash.

Privilege is walking into any bar in this city and not feeling the weight of hundreds of eyes staring at you from the moment you walk through the door. Privilege is knowing that you will not be turned away by a staff member because of the way you look or because of what you have on. Privilege is believing that if you are harassed by a patron, staff members won’t stand idly by without intervening. Privilege is knowing that anywhere you choose to go, you won’t feel unwelcome or like you don’t belong there.

“Did you notice I was the only black person at that bar?” I asked a friend once. They looked back at me with a look as if their whole world had fallen apart. You know the look. The one where someone’s eyes are so swollen and sunken in and their skin turns pale? That look. And they responded with regret and embarrassment, “I hadn’t even thought about it.” The silence that followed was resounding.

Have you ever even thought about systemic racism? I’ll wait.

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