The Colour of Money

Every so often I need to check myself to see if I’m not defaulting into a stereotypical race lens when not treated fairly or respectfully – because that’s what we do in South Africa, see things through a racial lens. In these attempts to self-correct my thinking and shake off the feeling sticking to me like a bad odour, I can’t help but think that it’s not just me. That was indeed a racial jab.

I hate pulling the race card, would love injustices of the past to remain in the past and typically “get on with it” living my life and career as if there were no racial or cultural bias. Now you may say that I’m being naïve but this attitude has gotten me to rise above seeming limitations, opening doors on an international scale. When I experience discrimination I become super focused on achieving my goals. Unfortunately, until the playing field is equal for cultures all around the world to access opportunities regardless of where we come from, it’s up to my generation to be more mindful and work extra hard, strive for excellence and receive from merit. Creating a new kind of legacy will leave a more just inheritance for future generations.

Unfortunately my glorious vision and daily reality are still far removed. I also believe in keeping people accountable for how they treat me, so that they can reflect and hopefully it will result in behavioural change on an individual and institutional level. This is the reason for my post.

Two Saturday nights in a row I partied at Churchills, a bar lounge at Melrose Arch, Johannesburg. Given the location and positioning of the place, I was more attentive of my attire and prepared to spend more than usual on the night out. Last week was my cousin’s birthday celebration and about twenty family members came out for the night. We had a good time despite receiving a nonnegotiable no from the manager when my cousin asked a few times if we could move to the lounge area because we were too many for the booth. She acknowledged that we should have made a booking for a larger number, but still, there was an entire lounge area empty that we could see from where we were sitting. When we asked the waitress about it, she had more fear for the manager than achieving customer satisfaction. Now, my uncles love a good whiskey so were spending on the good stuff, surely this would have covered additional cleaning costs as a result of moving us?

I returned to Churchills last night with two highly accomplished black female entrepreneurs. With it being a celebratory girl’s night out, I was in great spirits and dressed to kill in my little black dress. At the door, I asked the doorman what the minimum amount of people is required to reserve a table. He said typically six but they could come down to four people if I was here to spend. It left a bitter taste in my mouth when he added “we like coloured money”. Now you see, up until that moment, I was a Woman Of The World who had gone out on the town with my girls, later to be joined by my New Yorker friend who had just brought an international artist to the country. There was a major disconnect between my perceived self-worth and what the doorman reduced me to. While Churchills has diverse clientele, the attitude and reception of my first encounter represents their institutional view.

One of my friends who was the first to arrive last night asked a waiter if we could sit in the lounge and not table and was met with that nonnegotiable no. We carried on with dinner, drinks and dancing but then realized that all the people going into the lounge were white. We were well into our third bottle of expensive champagne so knew that we were spending quite a bit and surely qualify for VIP treatment. After taking it up with management and insisting that we be moved, we finally got to the holy grail of the place – their VIP lounge. As we ordered two more bottles of champagne, we noticed that the other two groups were not spending on anything special or ordering much for that matter. I am now stumped, because I don’t know what qualifies you for the lounge area of Churchills. When one of my friends called the manager/owner over once again to ask why we could not get in earlier his response was that he did not want riffraff sitting in the lounge. She then asked him what he sees when he looks at us beyond the color of our skin (we were dressed up after all and were having good clean fun) he got very uncomfortable and just said “I don’t want to go there”.

Discrimination is a disease and we need a strong vaccination to kill it on a societal level. Most people do it unconsciously, but it aggregates to institutional racism when not addressed. I have had two bad experiences at Churchills now, but like the place enough to return. My point is not to shutdown or boycott places – this is but one where I happened to have had a bad experience 100% of my visits. My intention is to raise consciousness of discrimination, transform society and promote business practice where all clients can experience great service in an equal society… also, I just want to be a girl out on the town having fun without this crap hanging over me!

12 thoughts on “The Colour of Money

  1. I would not return to a place where I or my friends are unwelcome, or given second class treatment. As we do have other choices, returning to such a place implies some kind of acceptance of the situation. There is a quotation “a man twice wronged, is a partner in the crime”

    1. I would generally agree with you but (1) these spaces would ideally remain stuck in pre-94 thinking and without provocation they’ll keep perpetuating the behaviour (2) if there is an opportunity to transform spaces from within then I’d rather go that route.

  2. In a completely different scenario I went to a kiddies birthday party on Saturday, three times in the conversation one of the other Moms mentioned that I was white. Like I should know about this kiddie party venue (which I had never heard of before) because I was white, that I don’t party in clubs anymore because I’m white (I thought it was just because I’m middle aged and my teenage stepson might die of fright if we saw each other in the same club) and the last one because I appreciated the yellow irises on the side of the pond… it made me realise that stereotypes are alive and well with people I consider to be part of the world I live in, never mind strangers like staff at a night club.

    1. I think we all hold some of it inside us, it’s part of the environment we’ve been exposed to. We just need to humbly keep working on it, and be understanding when someone speaks up and says they’re not comfortable with something we did/said.

  3. Churchills Management

    Hi Lesley,

    Before we mention anything else, we would like to point out that more than 80% of our clientele is of colour, and we would certainly never treat bookings or guests differently based on such fickle criteria.
    We are saddened by your review and feel it is quite improper to throw such harsh accusations – considering that this is not at all the case.

    We have been open and running for almost two years now, and our reservations policy has remained the same throughout. Tables at the bar are reserved on a first-come, first-served basis, and once we are fully booked, we offer our smaller booth areas and cocktail tables for last minute bookings that come in. We specify to every single guest via email that we do not offer restaurant-style seating, but rather a couch area to serve as a base point for your guests to mingle, and cannot guarantee a seat for each guest. We obviously cannot specify these terms to walk-ins, but our managers are aware of our policies and then communicate this to guests.

    Our Lounge area is opened or made available, only once our main area couches have been completely filled. In the event that our lounge areas have been reserved, we are unfortunately unable to seat other guests in this area, regardless of the amount of money being spent. We of course, only place guests in certain areas, based on the number of guests booked for, and for no other criteria than this.

    If all of our seating areas have been taken, we then place walk-ins on a waiting list, and as the smaller tables leave, we place waiting guests at the next available table. Walk-ins are also more than welcome to join us at the bar and cigar lounge.
    Kindly note that even on our website, we state that we do not accept bookings for smaller groups on weekends (Thursday – Saturday).

    With regards to our security/doorman – kindly note that he is not an employee of Churchills Bar, but rather subcontracted on a casual basis. We have not yet been able to reach him for comment, but do apologise if such a comment was indeed made. Security (bouncers) are often perceived as rude and nonchalant, but in this case we would safely assume that he made a comment along the lines, as more tongue-in-cheek and was probably just trying to be friendly by interacting with customers. It would be unfair of you to see this as a racial comment coming from a person of colour.

    We feel that we go out of our way to make guests feel valued and enjoy the experience at Churchills. We also have many, many customers (black, white, coloured and indian), that can vouch for this service and would undeniably defend us in this regard.

    Lastly, it is indeed sad to see that people still use the racial card, only because their inexperience in certain situations tend to obscure the true facts.

    We hope that this provides some insight into the situation and that your view of our establishment has not been unfairly tarnished.

    Warm Regards,
    Churchills Management

    1. On the one hand, good for you Churchill’s in responding and explaining your policies and even for the proactive apology for the bouncer. Not every establishment would do that.

      on the other hand, denying or reframing someone’s experience is not the best tack to take in addressing these kinds of concerns.

      When you say “but in this case we would safely assume that he made a comment along the lines, as more tongue-in-cheek and was probably just trying to be friendly by interacting with customers. It would be unfair of you to see this as a racial comment coming from a person of colour” I think you need to actually stop and consider whether this is indeed a “safe” assumption, or whether any assumption in this case is safe. . Your guest did not feel safe, and she took the time to tell you in writing. Many others who would have felt that probably simply didn’t return, let alone alerted someone to the fact that the bouncers were creating a perception that people were being seated and courted based on their race.

      A kinder response would be to look at what she said, as clearly as you can. She has given you great data to ponder. Perhaps:

      “Thanks for your feedback. This is contrary to our policies and therefore we’re going to keep a watch out and we’ll get back to you. In the meantime please come on down and meet with us, and have a drink and we can chat about it. We’d hate to lose your business, and we’d hate to be seen this way.”

      Race is a subtle issue – microagressions are real and they are an ongoing part of living in a widly diverse society with a history such as South Africa’s It’s to be expected that no one will be perfect, in fact it’s suspect when people claim that they are. Lesley started her post with that vulnerable admission, and offered you a ground upon which to meet her. Take the offer.

    2. Dear Churchills Management,

      Thank you for taking the time to respond. As I was reading through the first part of your response, I thought you made some valid points and put my experience down to bad customer service overriding intentional discrimination and considered taking down this post. However, you ended off by accusing me of pulling the race card without regard of sensitivity, cause of reflection and based on unvalidated assumptions. Firstly, I have only ever written two bad reviews in my life with this being the first based on racial discrimination. Secondly, I will not bother detailing the rest of the facts of the evening since you are not open to it and thirdly, your presumptuous assertion of my “inexperience” in certain situations is baseless and offensive.

      Your place is beautiful and has a great vibe, but since customer experience/feedback is not a priority to you and I do have at least an iota of self-respect, you do not need to concern yourself with me returning to any of your establishments. I wish you good luck and a change of attitude.


  4. Terrible terrible service Lesely, and an equally terrible reply from management. This type f behaviour is so common in RSA establishments. I’m so over it! Management took the old usual defensive route of somebody who is guilty of discriminatory behaviour. Not once did they truly apologise for your experience. Disgusting!!!

  5. Jono Dicks

    Very sad to read this, simply appalling handling of the situation all round. I’m stunned.

    We discussed this lovely Mahatma Ghandi quote, in our staff meeting this morning:
    “A customer is the most important visitor on our premises
    He/She is not dependent on us. We are dependent on them.
    He/she is not an interruption on our work. He/She is the purpose of it.
    He/She is not an outsider in our business. He/She is part of it.
    We are not doing them a favor by serving them.
    He/She is giving us an opportunity to do so.”

    I loved this quote instantly. It covers all manners of interactions be it business or personal, be you the giver or receiver.
    Something for all of us to learn from.

  6. After reading Lesley’s comment and thereafter all other comments i have to say that i find merit in both parties.
    Clearly Lesley has had a bad experience, but why not take her complaint directly with the venue first? Why not sending an email to the venue instead of posting it on a public forum? Why immediately accuse and assume it is a racial case?
    I am not on anyone side here, but i have been twice to Churchills not long ago, and the venue is in fact predominantly of an african clientele. So how could they be racist?
    On the other hand, i do agree that the venue could have responded in a bit more caring way. Having said that, do you have to apologies for being racist when you clearly are not?
    I have worked in pubs in London in my younger days and to respond to Jono’s comment, not always the customer is right. Sometimes there are situations where customers are inebriated and not act in a proper manner. Does their behaviour make them right just because they are customers?
    I think we should look at this from both sides and learn from it.
    Good luck to both.

Leave a Reply