Black Artist Kahlil Robert Irving Wants NYC Hotel to Acknowledge Alleged Racist Incident

·5 min read
Courtesy Kahlil Robert Irving
Courtesy Kahlil Robert Irving

On Monday, Kahlil Robert Irving, an artist who’s logged exhibitions at Mass MOCA, the New Museum and the Whitney Museum of American Art, filed a racial discrimination complaint against the High Line Hotel in Manhattan’s West Chelsea neighborhood due to an instance of alleged verbal assault and trespassing the artist says took place in January.

“On the morning of January 22, 2022, two days into Mr. Irving’s stay at the High Line Hotel, the hotel manager entered unannounced into Mr. Irving’s hotel room at around 7.30 a.m. while he was asleep,” the complaint, filed with the New York State Division of Human Rights by Irving and his attorney, Laurence Eisenstein, and which was reviewed by The Daily Beast, states.

His room door had not been left entirely shut. The manager allegedly asked if Irving was OK, and then half an hour later returned with an associate. “The two men are said to have verbally abused and threatened Mr. Irving, targeting Mr. Irving because he is Black. The complaint says the men stated they were calling the police and accused Mr. Irving of being a homeless person.”

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After showing the hotel employees his key card and the reservation on his phone, Irving, 29, managed to deescalate the situation, the artist told The Daily Beast on Wednesday. The incident was first reported by Hyperallergic.

“To state the obvious: As a twenty-nine year old Black man, it was highly traumatic to be confronted by two older white men who barged into my hotel room unannounced while I was sleeping, screaming at me and saying that I needed to leave immediately and that the police were being called,” Irving writes in the complaint. “Can one seriously believe that this incident would have taken place and would have unfolded in such an aggressive and malicious manner, for any other reason, and absent hostile, racial stereotyping?”

“Talking to the wrong person in the way they did—they could have given somebody a heart attack,” the artist told The Daily Beast, adding that the alleged incident has affected his sleeping patterns since it happened. “I haven’t been able to necessarily sleep all through the night, and haven't really wanted to go to sleep.”

With the help of partners of Luhring Augustine Gallery who had arranged the artist’s reservation at the High Line, Irving sought acknowledgement of wrongdoing from the hotel shortly after the alleged incident took place, the artist told The Daily Beast.

However, Irving realized he would need legal assistance “after the manager of the hotel said that we couldn’t record the conversation that we were going to have with him,” Irving told The Daily Beast, “He said that if we were to record, he would have to escalate the conversation and the occurrence to the corporate level. I didn’t mind that, but I just knew in that moment of the conversation, that it wasn’t going to be handled or dealt with, that it was just gonna be swept under the rug.”

The High Line Hotel has not responded to The Daily Beast’s requests for comment.

One as-yet unanswered question is, if hotel staff suspected an interloper in the room, why not first check their reservations system? If they had, they would have seen that the room was occupied by the person who was sleeping in its bed.

The explanations Irving says he received are equally strange.

“Every time the staff would say something, it was consistently different,” Irving told The Daily Beast. “I was told that there was an unhoused person who had been injured in the hotel, and they couldn’t find this person. I was told they were thought to be on one side of the hotel, but in fact, they were on the other side of the hotel. Then someone in the staff said that there wasn’t anybody in the building.”

“In my mind, this is a clear case of racial profiling,” Eisenstein told The Daily Beast on Wednesday. “I can’t imagine this would have happened if the person making the complaint was a white woman, and the level of hostility [from management] was completely disproportionate.”

With the filing of their complaint with the New York State Division of Human Rights, Irving and Eisenstein hope to prompt a response from the hotel and its parent company MCR Hotels.

Without acknowledgement of the alleged incident from the High Line, there’s “no way to know if this is a pattern,” Eisenstein said. “They need to be disciplining the people involved and drawing up new procedures.”

Shortly after the alleged verbal assault took place, Irving told The Daily Beast that another hotel staffer approached him. “She told me how problematic it is to work there and how she faced a lot of issues, and she wasn’t surprised at what I experienced,” Irving said. “I asked her, why doesn’t she escalate the situation? She said that with the managerial staff, the turnover is consistent and she just felt too uncomfortable to be willing to communicate because of her own position, and inability to navigate because of power structure and power dynamic.”

Among the instances of racist treatment he’s experienced in his life, the abuse Irving says took place at the High Line Hotel “is pretty up there. Just the fact that the hotel won’t respond and be willing to hold itself accountable just shows that it’s just part of the structural issues that people are working to upend. I just want things to be different.”

Read more at The Daily Beast.

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