City Hall

Kung Fu Saloon: Racist Or Simply Wary of Customers Who Like Air Jordans and Hennessy?

The group of 100 or so people who demonstrated in person against Kung Fu Saloon this Wednesday had no hard proof that the bar excludes black people. The official reason why they couldn't get in, their stories went, had to do with fashion.

"My jeans were too baggy," said Ryan Phipps, a 27-year-old black man, recounting his attempt to get into Kung Fu Saloon last month. The bouncers stopped him, blaming it on a pants style he insists he would never wear. "Who wears baggy jeans in 2014?"

While strict dress codes are common at bars in Uptown, along with rumors that bouncers are racist, the supposed dress code violations stand out especially at a tacky dive bar like Kung Fu, where there are no fewer than 11 television sets and 20 arcade games, and a $1 drink special on Sundays called "ninja pricing."

"We're not talking about the Four Seasons. This is an adult Chuck E. Cheese," DeAndre Upshaw, the self-described "loudmouth" who organized Wednesday's event told the crowd. His event, held at a nearby Italian restaurant, was more of a dinner and press conference than an outright protest, with a short talk and a non-confrontational walk around the block by where Kung Fu is located. It was the first live meet-up of the #NoKungFu campaign Upshaw started online last week. "If this is happening at a glorified mall arcade," he added, "imagine what's happening with other places around Dallas."

A company email provided by a former employee to Unfair Park suggests that race does play a factor in the screening process for Kung Fu, at least for blacks hoping to reserve bottle service and a party room ahead of time. The email, dated September 2012, is written by Ethan Minshew, the bar's general manager at the time. He instructs event coordinator Stephanie Guidry on bottle service requests: "If a request asks for Hennessy or cognac, it could be with a group that we might need to screen a bit more. I'll follow up with more on Monday regarding that."

His email ends at that, just an implication of racism. Cognac, and Hennessy in particular, are a cliched drink of choice for black people. ("Hennessy may be the unofficial official spirit of Black America," Ebony magazine reported that same year).

Minshew didn't respond to Facebook messages and an email we left him; a bouncer on duty at Kung Fu Wednesday night referred our questions to corporate, which has yet to respond as well. News stations in other cities where Kung Fu is located have leveled racism allegations at the Austin-based chain in past years, though the company has continued to deny it has a racist policy.

Stephanie Guidry, the event coordinator who received that email, reached out to Upshaw and agreed to show up to talk Wednesday. She'd been fired from the company more than a year ago, in January 2013. Most of the racism was unofficial, as she described it, with orders to call up people with ethnic names to make sure they didn't sound too ghetto. Guidry, who is white, told the crowd that she got fired after she allowed a large group of her Asian friends in one night. (In a follow-up email, she clarified that official reason she thinks she got fired was because of a billing fight she got into with a hair salon she patronized that was also hosting an event at Kung Fu.)

Black people can easily be spotted inside Kung Fu, and several black women said they'd never had personal problems getting in, but had seen their male counterparts targeted.

The feeling among young blacks who try partying in Uptown -- expressed in interviews with Unfair Park, publicly at the protest and on social media -- is that there's some kind of arbitrary limit set at the clubs. Blacks are allowed in bars, but just not too many, and the bouncers hide behind the dress codes as an excuse. "If it gets too dark inside they don't let you in," says Amaechi Egwuagu, giving his take on the whole scene. "I don't even bother with Uptown no more."

At Kung Fu, Will Copling went last summer with a group of 20 or friends, he says, and it was only the blacks in his group, including himself, who couldn't get past the bouncers. "They basically stopped us from going in because they said one of our guys' shorts was too long."

Jordan London says he got a similar response when he showed up wearing something like capri pants. Those shorts were also deemed too long.

Melanie Locke's husband Derrick wasn't allowed in when the couple showed up for a friend's birthday party, supposedly for wearing his tracksuit, says Locke, who is white. Her husband changed and returned, only to find that he was violating the dress code again with his Air Jordan shoes.

And, in October 2012, a Sikh man emailed Guidry and the rest of the staff about his experience trying to get into the bar wearing a turban: "I was told I'm not allowed inside with a do rag and that I do not look like I belong here," he wrote.

For Upshaw, his campaign and online petition began after he told a story of not being let in for wearing Converse high-tops. After he made noise last week, Kung Fu posted a generic dress code on its window and website. Among other clothing, it broadly bans "improperly fit clothing; baggy pants, overly tight clothes, or clothes that expose body parts or undergarments." There's no mention of sneakers or capri pants. Or a taste for Hennessy.

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Amy Martyn
Contact: Amy Martyn