In my late teens I accompanied a niece to look for party dresses at various stores in a city centre shopping mall. We had taken the train from her parents’ home, with another friend who was going to the same party, and they were excited about the formal dresses their parents had promised to pay for once identified.
At one of the first stores we entered in the Cape Town city centre, the shop assistant, a young white South African woman with local vowels, rushed over and asked us to leave. I remonstrated that this was absurd, and asked for an explanation (looking back now, I can see how my middle class, educated entitlement and my own vowels must have baffled this young woman, probably three years older than I was, in what was still apartheid South Africa in 1991). She explained that the ‘ladies’ were uncomfortable trying on their dresses in front of a man. When we pointed out that my niece and her friend would have the same issue given that the ‘ladies’ were themselves accompanied by men we did not know, she became curt and simply told us that the store reserved the right to refuse people entry We left.
I had had similar experiences at the South African National Gallery and the South African Natural History Museum (I was younger than the average undergraduate, and I looked even younger than I was). I was refused entry as a potential “school boycotter”. The National Library did the same thing, despite my possessing a university student card with my photograph on it. This was pre-1994 South Africa, but similar experiences persisted into South Africa after 1994.
To this day there are landlords who will not rent to people who are not white. Of course they no longer say so – it is illegal, and it provides evidence against their self-image as ‘not racist’. Instead they ask for your telephone number and call you for a chat, then if they are still uncertain, they request certified copies of identity documents and passports. Estate and letting agents collude with this, and I once had to warn an agent - after being strung along to accommodate their racist client - that if they did not find me a flat within a day, I would take further steps.
The most spectacular rights of admission reserved story, of course, was the one in which the white bouncers at the door to one of Cape Town’s premier gay bars refused entry to one of the most famous Black women on the planet. The supermodel was mistaken for a township drag queen and they refused her entry. She and her entourage remonstrated without success befoe leaving. The club later responded that the supermodel and her friends had insisted on paying their entry charge in foreign currency. Many of us wanted to know why the visit of a supermodel wasn’t payment enough, but we also realised that the concept of the supermodel was antonymous to the idea of Blackness held by many at the time.
Over the last weekend, a friend posted a notification on his online profile. The manager of a Sandton establishment has asked another friend to don a jacket or leave, because he was making the other customers uncomfortable. I stared intently at the photograph of the offender, studying what he was wearing, to the point where computer malfunction threatened. From small cues, I deduced that it was not his attire but his demeanour which offended: he was too camp, too feminine in his dungarees and t-shirt, for the manager’s liking. The jacket was meant, presumably, to contain and mask him. The franchise to which this Sandton establishment owes its name could not be more casual (they call themselves a café, after all), but attire could presumably be used to police something else.
The ways in which race and class (read Blackness and poverty) are policed by such restrictions are familiar to many of us. The normativity of whiteness and the middle classes works so powerfully that even people who are neither white nor bourgeois will use such standards to police others. Security personnel who patrol suburban streets make judgements on who to approach as a potential suspect using such stereotypes. The exclusions at shopping malls work in the same way.
You can, of course, refuse people the right to admission (what a curious phrase, often printed over shop fronts and at the entrances to bars and cafes) without doing so. This can be done in the workplace by refusing to work with, greet or acknowledge people, consequently refusing to acknowledge their capacity not only to contribute to the work project, but also to improve it. Just as that young man in the dungarees was asked to don a jacket to appease other customers, so many of us have our right of admission reserved subject to our realigning ourselves into the dominant paradigm.
The racism, sexism, classism and homophobia which underpin those ‘standards’ in the dominant paradigm must be revealed. Furthermore, racists, sexists, anti-poor and homophobic people should not be given power to exercise their fascist views. Right of admission should not be reserved on the basis of anything other than the right to be there, to pay your way in the appropriate manner (whether cash at the store or café, or professionally competent work at the workplace).
Whether someone is camp, dresses to their income bracket, or needs SPF50+ on a winter’s day in a Mediterranean climate, should not determine access. We pay our way. If the camp man’s money isn’t good enough, neither is mine. If the butch lesbian isn’t good enough to film your nature documentary, I’m not good enough to narrate it. And businesses in South Africa must be taught this lesson: we must vote with our cash. It is 2014, after all. Apartheid is (supposed to be) dead.
Remember, if you are silent when they come for the Jews, don’t expect anyone to speak up when they come for you.