The Untold Story of Racial Bias During Edinburgh Fringe

After the media coverage of BBC actor Layton William’s accusations that Fringe venue Assembly had racially profiled him, the question of underlying racism at Fringe has become a more mainstream topic of conversation. 

In mid-August, The Student reported on Layton William’s tweets regarding what he believed to be racially bias treatment from security guards at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival venue Assembly. Williams had been allegedly denied access to the venue because he ‘looked similar to an attendee who had jumped the fence a few weeks prior.’ After tweeting about this and his later exchange with security guards who had threatened him, William’s tweets received over 4,000 likes and retweets. 

Amongst the online responses to this event, many other performers and attenders of colour at Fringe came forward with their own accounts of negative treatment during the month long festival. The Student reached out to a few of them, who were able to recount their experiences. All names were kept anonymous for the safety of the individuals. 

In one account, a female comedian of colour spoke about how she felt familiarity in Layton’s recount of his experience. When asked to further explain, she said: 

“I feel like this is something a lot of the audience and performers at Fringe who are not of colour don’t realise or think about. You think about Fringe and get so excited until you realise that this is Edinburgh — which is extremely white. I feel like there’s always a sense of distrust in the way you’re treated as a person of colour compared to other performers and audience members. You become an outsider automatically whilst moving around the city…it’s almost as if people are uncomfortable with your presence, especially when people of colour are together in groups…this comes out in odd ways…taking longer to be served, or having your credentials being constantly questioned ” 

When asked how she feels this impacts performances and shows at the Fringe Festival, the comedian went further to say: 

“It makes it much harder to celebrate people of colour at the forefront of the Fringe because it still lacks so much ethnic diversity — especially with shows that aren’t free. As that is a privilege, you often don’t see yourself reflected in your audience. Instead you become a spectacle or token of some sort.” 

Another source also spoke on her experiences witnessing Black men who were denied entry to the Assembly Club Bar whilst their white peers went by freely without passes or identification. She reported: 

“My friends [people of colour] that I had asked to meet me at the venue were not able to get in, even after another friend of mine with a pass went to security to try and help them. It was bizarre. Whilst all of this was happening and multiple security guards were told not to let them pass, groups of white people were being let in without passes at all.” 

Both women The Student spoke to mentioned the major issues with security at the Fringe festival, describing events the included denial of entry to venues, being removed from premises when they were not as intoxicated as others, and even being unable to get into their own venues: 

“I was denied entry to my own venue by a security guard. I could see posters of my face on them behind the guard but was still ignored. What was frustrating wasn’t that I was asked for ID — it was frustrating that whilst I was trying to download the correct documents, white men were let in without another glance. I felt humiliated. It feels arbitrary that while most people can go through their Fringe experience untouched, people of colour have to jump through hoops.”

Another actor and director, Emma Dennis-Edwards spoke to The Student on her treatment at the Mash House, where she was told to “get out” of Edinburgh by other clubber, and ignored by security guards, who instead took to other witnesses of the event for information. 

After asking sources whether they still find Fringe worth it, both commented that it continues to be a special month that offers a unique platform of all “beautiful, like-minded people,” and that this is extremely important in terms of “exposure to the industry.” 

Whilst Assembly issued a public apology to Layton Williams after his complaints, tweeting that “We are currently looking into the situation with our security contractor and will be investigating this further. We would also like to reassure all performers and audiences that we are committed to making sure that our spaces remain welcoming for everyone attending and using our venues.” 

Irregardless, many of the other alleged incidents, including the tens of replies commenting on similar treatment, have been not been addressed. In many ways, racism at Fringe continues to be unaddressed entirely. 

The Student has also reached out to the Fringe contacts, and are awaiting comments on how racially bias treatment is avoided at the Festival. 

Image: Martie Smart via Flickr

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