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Oslo Has 'Racism Inspectors' Who Police Discrimination at the City's Nightclubs

The City of Oslo has been hiring people to wait in lines at clubs to see if they get turned away because of their skin color since 2010.
February 18, 2016, 3:50pm

Illustration by Joshua Hanton

This article originally appeared on VICE Denmark

This week, our Danish colleagues heard that Copenhagen's mayor of integration, Anna Mee Allerslev, wants to outfit the city with "racism inspectors"—a team of undercover agents tasked with registering and fighting discrimination in the Danish capital's nightlife. The idea is to have young Copenhageners of immigrant backgrounds visit the city's bars and clubs to see if they are turned away at the door solely because of their skin color.

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The proposal is part of a larger plan of action to combat discrimination, to which the city council has allocated 4.9 million kroner [$731,000] in 2016. Having initially been voted down by the Danish right wing, who don't feel it is the city's responsibility to prod around Copenhagen's party scene, the initiative has now been revised and is set to have its fate decided by another vote on February 22.

A similar arrangement, however, has already been implemented by Denmark's Scandinavian brethren in Norway. Since 2010, the city of Oslo has been hiring people to check if bouncers are sending clubbers away because of their skin color. The punishment is a temporary suspension of the establishment's liquor license, which effectively means it must shut down until further notice.

The inspection of an Oslo nightclub entails two groups of 2–5 people positioning themselves in the line outside. The only visible difference between the groups—who pretend not to know each other—is that one consists exclusively of white people, while the other is made up of non-white Norwegians. The two groups are similarly dressed and also consist of a similar male/female ratio.

A total of 278 inspections have been carried out since 2010, with the anti-racism squad successfully clamping down on a total of 12 establishments. Gunnhild Haugen, the administrator in charge of Oslo's initiative, has no doubt that the plan has been working. We caught up with her to find out more about what these agents are actually up to in the lines of Oslo at night.

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VICE: Why carry out these inspections?
Gunnhild Haugen: We're doing this because we receive a large number of complaints from people claiming that they have faced discrimination at the doors of Oslo's nightclubs. But there is a huge amount of uncertainty surrounding how widely this is actually happening, so our initiative is also meant to discern the true extent of the problem. Racism is often hard to document; it's up to each individual to report it, and then he or she needs to actually prove that the discrimination was based solely on skin color. That's why we feel it is our society's duty to get to the bottom of this.

It's true that keeping Oslo's nightlife clean costs money, but it's worth it. The benefits of battling racism obviously outweigh the costs.

How do you find the people who carry out the inspections?
For the non-white group, we recruit students and people from activist organizations. This way, we're sure to find inspectors that won't be recognized. For the group of white Norwegians, we use inspectors who work for the city.

How are the instructors trained?
We explain our objectives and the mission—what they're allowed to do and what they can't do. The inspectors we hire are primarily trained by our own employees. They are obviously strictly prohibited from inciting or provoking any action from the bouncers themselves.

How do you pick out their outfits? Are they all identically dressed—same shirts, same trousers, same shoes, same haircuts?
They're almost identically dressed—within reason of course. There are slight variations in the outfits. We dress them in a way that ensures that the establishments won't be able to claim that the people in Group 2 were denied entry because they were dressed differently. Then they get in line next to each other, and we see if both groups make it into the club.

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How do you document the exchange?
We don't film or record anything. We carry out the inspection, write a report, and present it to the nightclub in question. The owner is then allowed to comment. We have attorneys review the entire thing before we draw any conclusions.

How do the nightclub owners react, when confronted with your exposé?
No one has ever admitted to racial discrimination. They'll say things like, "They weren't adhering to the dress code" or that there was a guest list, or that it was a private party. But then, it naturally becomes a problem for them that our group of white Norwegians was allowed to enter despite not being on the guest list or invited to the private party. And they rarely have a good explanation for that.

What is the worst example of nightlife discrimination you've come across?
I think the worst kind of discrimination is the discrimination we don't see—in nightclubs or outside. There are people experiencing this up close and personally, and I think the worst happens when we're not around. But we're trying our hardest to expose the nightclubs responsible for discrimination.

You've carried out 278 inspections and found 12 examples of discrimination. That's not a whole lot. Is it worth the resources that are being spent on inspecting?
I think 12 cases in five years is a lot. It's true that keeping Oslo's nightlife clean costs money, but it's worth it. The benefits of battling racism obviously outweigh the costs.

Has Copenhagen gotten in touch with you at all?
Yes. Copenhagen has showed great interest in the inspections initiative—it has asked about how we carry them out and what results they've yielded so far.