Motiv nightclub needs to change dress code; Santa Cruz ‘isn’t noticing or calling out its own latent racism’

Black Lives Matter activist Faith Brown
Faith Brown outside Motiv on Pacific Avenue in downtown Santa Cruz.
(Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz)

Motiv nightclub in downtown Santa Cruz has a dress code that prohibits visible tattoos, “gang-affiliated” colors, excessively baggy clothes, sandals and flip-flops. UC Santa Cruz student and Black Lives Matter activist Faith Brown writes that the policy is an “invitation to racism.” Motiv refused to talk to Brown, but told Lookout its dress code is not regularly enforced.

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I stand out at UC Santa Cruz.

I’m 19 years old, a first-generation college student, and one of the 3% of students who are African American.

I also stand out in Santa Cruz County — where African Americans make up 1.4% of the population. I became a Black Lives Matter activist and organizer in the summer of 2020 after I watched the video of Derek Chauvin killing George Floyd. The killing made me physically sick.

It stirred something in me, and I had to act.

I became the public face of several Black Lives Matter protests in Felton and Santa Cruz. I received death threats because of my activism. It was terrifying — especially since the police told me they couldn’t do anything to help me. It was also — sadly — not my first experience with racism in this community.

I was adopted when I was 8, and I grew up in Felton — which is 88% white — so I’m used to being a minority. I love this community, but sometimes I do feel uncomfortable, especially when I wear my hair “out,” in an Afro.

I am light-skinned and can’t remember the last time I wore my hair “out” in public. I typically keep it in a neat, tucked bun or braids, because when I do have all my big hair out, people often stare and ask me intrusive questions — like, “Why don’t you do something with it?” or, “How do you get those tiny curls?”

Or they touch my hair without asking me. Sometimes I feel like a zoo animal.

People love to stare, even if they are pretending not to, simply because I’m “out of the ordinary.”

Imagine my surprise when I recently went downtown and saw a dress code sign that — to me — is blatantly discriminatory.

When I called to ask about the policy, the manager was rude and wouldn’t talk to me. A manager also told a Lookout reporter recently that the dress code has been in place for “a while,” but is only sporadically enforced.

A while?

Only sometimes enforced?

Here’s the sign. What do you think?

The sign on Motiv's door outlining the nightclub's dress code.
(Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz)

Let’s review.

No visible tattoos. No gang-affiliated colors. (So no red or blue, I guess?) No sports apparel or hats. No excessively baggy clothing. No sandals or flip-flops. It screams racist to me, even if that is not the intent.

It’s also patently ridiculous since every other person in Santa Cruz has a visible tattoo and wears sandals and sports apparel (who doesn’t since the pandemic? Some leggings cost over $100). Flip-flops sometimes come in heels, and a lot of people wear red or blue.

Santa Cruz is a hippie beach town. Motiv is five minutes from the beach. Why is casualwear such a problem?

I called some friends who have been going to Motiv for years to ask their thoughts. They had some of the same questions I did. We wondered who decides what “neat” and “conventional” looks like. Who will be flagged for tattoos and who won’t be? Who decides when to enforce the policy?

The final dress code line reads: “We reserve the right to refuse service to anyone.”

Hypothetically, let’s imagine two men walking into the bar, one white and one Black, both wearing red shirts with tattoos showing, shorts and sandals. Would they both be asked to leave? Would skin color play a role in the choice? What if one was Hispanic? Is a Hispanic male in red with tattoos more likely to be thrown out or refused service?

As I said, it’s an invitation to racism.

Also, why am I the only one noticing this? Why has a supposedly progressive community like Santa Cruz allowed this policy to remain for “a while”?

Our community isn’t noticing or calling out its own latent racism. That makes me feel even more isolated.

I did some checking and learned some scary ways people have flagged restaurant dress-code racism in the past few years and the community reaction to it.

For instance, in June 2020, a Baltimore restaurant refused to serve a 9-year-old Black boy because he was wearing athletic shorts, although a young white boy wearing similar clothes got served. Also in June 2020, a Detroit-area bar received backlash over its dress code that stipulated “no ghetto gear.” And in Buffalo in 2021, a pool club outraged patrons when it initiated a policy that outlawed “ripped jeans, hoodies, flat-brim hats and women’s headwraps.”

In all cases, the management apologized.

Did Motiv not get the memo?

I asked Vilashini Cooppan, a UCSC literature and critical race and ethnic studies professor who teaches a course on how fashion intersects with race, ethnicity, gender and class, about dress codes. She explained to me how across history, those in power have policed fashion and used it to identify, surveil, oppress and distinguish others. We talked about the way slaves got marked and coded by clothing, about Mexican men wearing zoot suits in Los Angeles in the 1930s and 1940s, and punk rockers wearing Doc Martens and safety pins in the 1980s. We talked about queer fashion, hoodies and Trayvon Martin, baggy clothes, backward baseball caps, and rap.

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“Fashion,” she told me, “has a long history of being used as a signifier of a subculture, but also has been used by the dominant culture to target folks.”

That’s what I feel the policy does. It targets people like me.

Cooppan agrees.

“Some of the things [Motiv] lists we know are associated with communities of color. It’s a not-subtle way of saying we are closing our doors to certain folks. That is what the message is communicating.”

I checked around for other local restaurants. Shadowbrook, one of the fanciest restaurants around and also close to the beach, has a policy that says “beachwear, untailored shorts, tattered jeans, tank tops, caps and flip flops are prohibited in all dining room areas.” The restaurant allows beachwear and flip-flops in its outdoor dining areas.

That’s better. Clearer. It still could be misused, but it’s not openly racist, not openly targeting dress associated with specific people.

I still think all dress codes are ridiculous, passé. A part of the past I am glad is essentially gone.

I wish Motiv would get the message. It should either drop its dress code or explain publicly how it enforces it.

Santa Cruz should not allow latent racism to persist.

Faith Brown just completed her first year at UC Santa Cruz. She hopes to become a nurse. She organized Black Lives Matter protests in the summer of 2020.

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