21c’s Instagram account is full of Black art.

The museum-hotel chain, made up of eight locations and three on the way, boasts rotating art exhibits. On Instagram, there are posts upon posts of Black artists’ work, especially the work of Black women. The captions mention Black history, Black childhood, and Black culture.

The first photo you see from the 21c Durham hotel is from the reopening in July. Non-Black faces greet the photographer at the front desk.

A week later, they shared a simple graphic: a black background with white letters, saying “THIS IS NOT OK.”

“This week, we received reports of experiences which are not in keeping with our culture and are frankly difficult to hear,” the post caption reads. “We immediately conducted an inquiry into the issues raised, and have taken swift action to address our findings.”

The caption doesn’t mention the hotel where an incident occurred, or even what the incident was. But commenters were quick to make the connection to a recent testimony out of Durham.

On July 18, former banquet captain Shakerah Obery posted about her experiences with racism and misogyny at 21c Durham on Medium. The post, titled “Ain’t I Diversity? Inside Durhams’ Most ‘Progressive’ Museum Hotel from a Black Woman,” led other employees to speak of their experience at the downtown Durham location.

We reached out to 21c on Friday afternoon to clarify any incidents Obery and others have publicly posted about. We also asked about steps they were taking to change issues in the workplace.

“Though privacy issues limit our ability to discuss the details, we can share that we have received reports of experiences which are not in keeping with our culture, and which are frankly difficult to hear,” Sarah Robbins, chief operations officer at 21c Durham, said in a statement mirroring the Instagram post. “We immediately conducted an inquiry into the issues raised and have implemented corrective actions.”

The company also plans to have 30 percent minority lead leadership by 2023, according to a Diversity and Inclusion statement that was shared Friday.

Obery detailed experiences ranging from day-to-day microaggressions in the hotel kitchen to sexual harassment and racist comments from customers that were not handled by management.

“White people think that racism is blatant, in your face,” Obery told the INDY. “Calling people the N-word. So if it doesn’t look like that, it’s really hard for them to pick up on those cues.”

She says she could sense annoyance from head chef Thomas Card and the kitchen staff whenever a Black group would hold an event at the hotel. They made jokes about cooking up fried chicken or complaining that they’d have to cook the food longer because of the stereotype that Black people like their food well done. They would use “Blaccents” and mimic African American vernacular when trying to speak with Black employees. Obery also says the chefs, all white, would refer to Black busboys or line cooks as “boy.”

Another former high-ranking employee, who asked that we not use her name, said she also heard microaggressions from the kitchen staff, particularly from chef Matt Bishop. When Bishop would make any Asian cuisine, she says he would call it “ching chong sauce” or “ping pong soup.” He also made comments whenever she would crunch numbers, saying “I thought Asians were supposed to be good at math.” 

The hotel would not confirm whether Card or Bishop still work at 21c, although Obery said Card and one other chef were let go.

But these weren’t singular occurrences. The former employee says they happened constantly.

Obery also detailed a few instances of sexual harassment in her post. Since sharing, other women have sent messages to the company about their experiences with sexual harassment. Black women had not received replies from human resources, Obery told the INDY, while non-Black women had, although she says this may be because the Black women she spoke with were not current employees. She says other women received cookie-cutter apologies.

“One thing I learned growing up as a Black woman is that when there’s racism, sexism is not too far behind,” Obery wrote in her post. 

She described comments and gestures from the kitchen staff that made her uncomfortable: people touching her hair without permission, non-consensual touching, and staring at her breasts while she was speaking to them. One employee asked her how big her nipples were. Another commented on a different server not wearing a bra.

And in some instances, racism and sexual harassment overlapped.

Obery detailed an incident that occurred when a company was holding multiple events at 21c over a week. She says a customer who was the point-of-contact for several events that week sexually harassed Black male servers, excusing her behavior by mentioning that she was married to a Black man. She kept trying to get them to dance with her.

Linea Johnson, Obery’s former supervisor, went into further detail about the event with the INDY. She says that during the incident, the woman put her arms around the waist of a server, asking him to dance with her because “all Black people know how to dance.” Johnson said that later on, the woman told her that she didn’t want to tip the Black women working the event, but would tip the others. An anonymous former employee confirmed that the event happened but said the company didn’t address it at the request of the waiter. He also says that at the end of the night, the woman left a tip that was then handed out equitably by management.

When the entire incident was brought up to upper management, Johnson says she was told that the banquet staff just needed to deal with it. Then, the customer said she no longer wanted to work with Johnson, instead opting for her white assistant.

Johnson, when speaking with the INDY, says Obery’s experiences were similar to hers. As Event Manager, one of her first experiences in the position was helping a Black bride and groom plan their wedding. The couple had been through several managers, who told Johnson that the clients were hard to work with. 

When Johnson met them, she says she realized they had been promised concessions for the inconvenience of being passed around. These concessions were not being given to them. When Johnson spoke with them on the phone, the marketing manager at the time grabbed it and yelled at them. 

One former male staff member, who asked not to be named, verified the incident to the INDY, but also said the manager would likely do the same to other couples too.

When she was let go in 2019, Johnson posted on her Instagram account, detailing her experiences of racism within the company. She says human resources reached out to her once and asked for names, saying they would investigate.

She says she’s never had a follow-up to this day.

21c is headquartered in Louisville, the hometown of Breonna Taylor whose death at the hands of city police sparked Black Lives Matter protests in the area. In July, Change Today, Change Tomorrow, a Louisville nonprofit, said they would no longer be doing events at Garage Bar, the 21c Louisville restaurant. They shared on Facebook that the hotel’s corporate managers refused to provide shelter for protesters, and turned them away.

A month before, the hotel posted a virtual memorial for Breonna Taylor and the “Say Her Name” movement, called “SHE ASCENDS.”

“Suddenly, it appears, floating in space as a way to interact with and visit the memory of this moment,” the caption reads. “The fight for Breonna Taylor, Black women, and community justice.”


Follow Digital Content Manager Sara Pequeño on Twitter or send an email to spequeno@indyweek.com

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