What Went Wrong at De School
DJ Dee Diggs takes us through the accusations of racism and sexual harassment against the Dutch nightclub De School, the issues with how it was dealt with and how club's can learn from this in order to cultivate safer club experiences.
This piece contains mention of sexual harassment / intimidation and discusses the nuances of racism at length.
De School’s club is closed. This nightclub and multipurpose venue in Amsterdam has been a rising star since 2016 in European’s clubbing landscape. That rise came to a halting stop with the worldwide Covid-19 venue shutdowns affecting the business. The pause in operations brought many lingering issues bubbling to surface. Former patrons of the nightclub took to De School’s instagram to air their reports of institutional racism, stories about the inappropriate and unprofessional behavior of certain staff members, and the hypocrisy of the club’s self proclaimed selling point as a ‘safe space’.
There was a podcast posted on De School’s Youtube channel on July 14th, 2020 called Taking Responsibility. The panel’s purpose was to respond to the allegations happening online and behind closed doors in a public forum. Contrary to the name, the two hour long conversation is full of backtracking and posturing in the face of rehashed trauma and earnest asks that boil down to ‘What were De School leadership’s plans moving forward? Would they reconcile with those wronged, listen to grievances and genuinely improve?’
I acknowledge that I was listening from the vantage point of a Queer Black American woman, who happens to also be a DJ that has performed at this club before. I’m speaking as someone who fielded a couple of DMs from Black people local to Amsterdam and the Netherlands who wanted to be on my guest list to make SURE they’d be let in the night I played there in December 2019. That was a little disheartening, but nothing new in nightlife. Then, I had a Black Queer organizer I really respect in the Amsterdam scene tell me he wouldn’t be there to see me play because he doesn’t go to that club anymore and when he shared more about why that was my heart sunk.
This is the dual reality that racism creates. As an international guest at De School, the booking team were accommodating and nice throughout my interaction with them. I have fond memories of the night that I played there in December 2019, but it’s hard to weigh my experience against this podcast. It leads me to conclude that I was only treated well because I was the DJ and not just a local queer Black woman with no clout who loves electronic music and is willing to travel into predominately white parties and clubs to reclaim this music as music of Black origin, to take up space, and to dance and enjoy myself. I’ve been that woman before and danced in places where I was told all were welcome, while the treatment I received in those atmospheres said otherwise.
Through this podcast, I learned the extent of how De School’s staff were unapologetically dismissive and apathetic to the safety, concerns, and critiques of people of color (POC) in their local dance music scenes and even within their own staff.
I was especially eager to hear something concrete come from those representing Team De School at this panel: Jochem Doornbusch, the co-owner of the club, Lon, the head of Human Resources, and Luc, one of two head bookers for De School during this podcast. Souhayla Ou-Oumar, a Black queer woman and former door host at De School, was the moderator and made it clear that she would not mince words or aim to be ‘unbiased’ or ‘centrist’ as some expected of her. Why should she be expected to be centrist while unpacking the real consequences and hurt caused by De School’s “blind spots” and unfair treatment towards POC? This was supposed to be a ‘clear the air’ moment of venting and apologies. The club’s co-owner, programmer, and human resources manager were able to acknowledge some of their failures and said it was their intention to adjust club policies, personnel, and the complaints process to involve follow up with those harmed, however when it came to the question of how, they had no answers.
Yet, the moderator did implore those representing De School to empathize and apologize, but they responded with flimsy self-centering statements of remorse like “It makes us feel bad” in response to specific events brought up by audience members in the Q&A about misuse of power and lack of follow-up to complaints about De School’s door staff. A concerning incident shared was that of a queer man of color at the door of De School one night being detained and propositioned for sex by a certain unnamed security officer who said he would not call the police on their alleged illegal drug possession if he agreed to sex. This is one of the most shocking things to come out in the Q&A. It clearly conveys the dissonant realities of being at this club versus how De School projected and promoted the club as being ‘safe’ and idyllic for an imaginarily homogenous group “everybody” that some how excludes us, Black queer people.
Team De School went on to explain that their mostly white staff was paralyzed for 2 weeks trying to come up with a social media post to show solidarity to the International Black Lives Matter protests and uprisings that had reached Amsterdam at that point as well. (The post where this all erupted is still on De School’s Instagram. The comments are divided along racial lines you’ll notice.)
Black and Brown staff members (mostly bartenders and servers in the club and restaurant) had to demand their voices be heard by those on the office staff (this verbiage is used over and over). They had to demand positions that granted them the power and influence needed to clean up De School’s messy dealings with POC in their local dance music community. How were the white people in charge as blissfully unaware (as they say they were) about the racial hierarchies? The fact that De School's Black/Brown employees were not impetus enough for this institution to take a preemptive response to the Black Lives Matter battle cry, a cry that reverberated around the world since the death of George Floyd, is a prime example of their institutional racism. It is clear as day when you look at the contrast between the positions that Black people and people of color in this organization held versus the roles of their white counterparts. This is a template we see in the staff of other clubs and creative spaces around the world. No matter our experience or dedication or abilities, Black and Brown people are delegated to the most exploitable roles and blocked from stepping into decision making positions.
It is unethical to foster a work culture where white employees are held to lower standards of conduct than Black or POC employees are. It is unethical to isolate and tokenize your Black & POC employees, while expecting more work and energy from them than their white counterparts. People who consider themselves champions ‘for equality’ and people who flippantly ‘posted black squares on that Tuesday should also find it unethical.
Yet, this plays out all the time in every single industry. It plays out in the nuances of social interaction. It is especially murky in the nightclub environment where drinks, late hours, and substances are involved during work. That’s why it’s ironic that a lot of fans of De School condemn racism abroad in America, while simultaneously assuming there is nothing akin to racism happening in their own communities, jobs, families and social spheres. They will just talk about their hedonistic fun nights at De School and not about the problems that have been surfacing for a while now. They can’t see what is in front of their faces because they do not want to see it. It makes white people uncomfortable to have to grapple with such things directly.
I’m a queer Black woman and it makes me uncomfortable to face racism, homophobia, and sexism as well, but unfortunately it’s unavoidable for me. When you question and furthermore gaslight Black people in your immediate vicinity, when they share their experiences with racism and the trauma that it creates, you are enacting and upholding white supremacy.
Lon and Jochem admit that concerns and complaints sent to the general email were never treated seriously. They would internally say “well that’s just the way it is” even when faced with complaints about racial profiling at the door and other racist issues continually affecting Black club attendees. ‘Laissez-faire’ leadership is what I call such a flippant response: “Why didn’t you take action in the face of complaints over the years? Why didn’t you follow up when 5 women of color reach out to consult De School on restorative justice steps you could take to rectify and repair the situation?”
In the Q&A section of this podcast, I heard Black people standing up for themselves on that microphone. It both broke my heart to hear the problematic behavior they endured, but it mended my heart that they seized this moment to speak their truth and ask for accountability. They expressed the nuances of the racism that persisted behind the scenes at De School through their traumas and stories along with calls for the leadership of De School to either step down and give concrete plans to do better.
Here is a break down of certain moments during the Q&A that I found especially telling of what went wrong at De School:
Here there is a question and following discussion about what is missing from the “aesthetics first” approach of De School. Things mentioned: a lack of critical thinking, a lack of empathy, a need to hold connection to humanity (or community) over aesthetics, how their ‘safe space for all’ PR spin was based on internal subjective satisfaction, not the function the club had in it’s immediate neighborhood of Amsterdam West or the wider dance communities’ range feedback about the space.
Here a Black man confronts Jochem for being rude, racist and dismissive of his problems with De School’s security on the night of his birthday. This regular of De School emailed ahead and had a special guest list approved by the office, only to be denied entry by security. Even when his voice shakes, he delivers the truth succinctly and passionately, “I have the emails and all the receipts. You told me I wasn’t welcome here, so I didn’t come here for 2.5 years, but now I’m here and telling you so we can get growth, ok?”
Here Team De School is asked do you think this is an isolated incident? The answer is a glaring and obvious NO, yet Jochem fiends ignorance to avoid having to face the facts or even apologize.
Here is where the 5 women of color who offered to consult with De School about how to improve and were not followed up with because the staff were ‘scared’ to reach back out to them. The next 10 minutes show that there was no accountability up until this point and that there wasn’t a concrete plan to move forward other than having the black people who ‘demanded’ space in the office come up with a plan.
Here is a glaring example of how the outsourced security team and sometimes even the front of house staff were not abiding by De School’s idealistic ‘safe space’ image. One example, I mentioned earlier, of a queer man of color being propositioned for sex in return for security not calling the police on their alleged illegal drug possession at the door of De School, is discussed in this sound bite.
Here Jochem hesitates to say that De School will consider not using this same security company. This is what the youtube comments on this podcast are calling ‘bullying’. The community present is urging him to make a decision that will show good faith and a push to change De School’s direction, but he buckles and implies it is a business decision he will have to make behind closed doors.
Here the panel is asked why Ernst, the other co-owner of De School, is not present for the panel. This brings up his self professed ‘burnout’ with the club affairs and other personal reasons as to why he could not be at the panel that day. (He probably sensed it couldn’t and wouldn’t go well for Team De School.)
Let’s talk about burnout. All the Black and POC people complaining to De School are also burnt out. They have been speaking up for years. They have been “calling in” (emailing, conversing, and confronting in friendly, direct, professional manners) before calling out online De School for years. They have been pointing out the holes in De School’s policy of inclusivity for years and the local and international community has been reluctant to see it. We were blinded by the cool DJ lineups and fancy wine menus, and utopian PR spin of a school building turned nightclub. However, now that it’s all out in the open, we need to amplify these Black and Brown voices and ask that all white-staffed electronic music institutions everywhere grapple with the same question: how deep does institutional racism actually run here? It’s time to stop being performative and start putting all the lip service into tangible actions that are steeped in anti-racism, and real equity and inclusion.
I’m burnt out seeing Black people die at the hands of the police over and over again in my own country, the USA. It doesn’t matter if I wake up in a good mood or bad mood, I still have to live through the daily trauma of being seen as disposable by the system in place to ‘supposedly’ protect me. This has a direct parallel to the dissonance between what was going on behind the scenes at De School and how this club presented itself to the outside world. It is straight up white privilege to yield so much power and still act blissfully unaware of how your actions reverberate into the lives of others. There should be a basic standard of respect given to everybody, not just artists and attendees who match the aesthetics of your club. Aesthetics are not everything.
So how does one repair the broken promises and bad decisions that directly caused the long held discomfort and boycott of the club by Amsterdam’s Black, POC and LGBTQAI+ community? There is no way to fix it, but to do the work of uprooting their failures and committing themselves to a different aim altogether than the path that De School as an institution was built on, they would have had to turn away from a focus on aesthetics and profit towards the actual work of being a community-minded space.
In the end, they didn’t want to do that work. The nightclub section of the business closed, which it’s imperative to remind everyone that this was going to happen anyway before they extended their lease on the building until 2022. It’s very disappointing that this space for Amsterdam’s dance community could not and would not fight to be everything that everyone in the scene, not just what their comfortable white cis-hetero or white gay male audience, needed it to be. If you say, you’re for everybody as an institution, we’ve just learned that’s a lot to live up to. Diversity of race and perspective starts with who you hire (inclusion), how much power you give them (equity and equality) and especially how respectfully you treat them (autonomously, not as a monolith). Hype and good press around your nightclub and party isn’t enough. It’s smoke and mirrors.
Having respect for the origin of dance music is more than a trendy facade for your online profiles. It must be reflected through your actions, especially if you are in a position of leadership. We (the Black descendants of the innovators of this music) won’t allow it to be an afterthought for institutions looking to make money off of electronic music. There are so many white people in the electronic music industry thinking they’re showing respect for LGBTQAI+ community, Black people and POC by profiting off of this music that originated from us, while paying us crumbs, giving us no credit and barely including us. This is not an adequate sign of solidarity.
Your actions are transparent and we see right through them. There is always more to do and please trust that we are always grappling with our own calls to action, but we can’t right all the wrongs on our own. That’s what allies are for, to be in the room when we can’t be there standing up for what’s right. Nightlife Industry leaders like party promoters, bookers, club owners and even DJs need to expect and accept the criticism and concerns of their wider community, so that the next club that comes along will know that it has to be and do better than this to survive.
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