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Black in Beer: Inclusion from the Outside Perspective

Inclusion – both a word and a concept that is often lost in an abyss of perception when spoken. Some see its pursuit as imperative, yet elusive, while others show ambivalence to spaces both with, and without it. Still others claim to see it as a forced threat to true egalitarianism. How does the melting pot concept that is often applied to “cultural exchange” manage to slip out the back door like an extramarital affair when it comes to diversity and inclusion? Is there value in welcoming marginalized groups into spaces that have largely been occupied nearly exclusively by cis, straight, white men? What does true diversity look like, and how is it brought to fruition?

Those of us with younger siblings can recount dozens of instances of them looking to be involved with whatever we might have been doing, and some of us remember hearing, “Mama said you can’t go if y’all don’t take me!”. These memories can bring about feelings of nostalgia for some and annoyance or contempt for others. Unfortunately, the latter is the view that many have when it comes to inclusion and diversity in the craft beer industry. In a world where events involving yoga, rock and country music artists, and golf have become ubiquitous, it can be difficult for those of us in the minority to find a space that feels like we are more than an afterthought. The industry insists that it isn’t targeting a particular demographic, but whether consciously or unconsciously, products are being marketed to a very specific type of person. Would a restaurant advertise steak if it intended to market to vegans? Would a television network air commercial after commercial about alcoholic beverages if the intended audience were school-aged children? Marketing is generally well thought out and research-based, and inclusion must be just as deliberate. Saying “We welcome everyone!” is not enough.

Folks seem to love inviting exotic food trucks and advertising the Americanized construct that is “Taco Tuesday” and blasting Biggie and Pac in suburban taprooms but make little effort to include people from either of those cultures as patrons. I would venture to assert that the majority of us see value in honest and equitable cultural exchange, but the same value that people assign this exchange of ideas and artistry should be assigned to inclusion and diversity as well. Anything of value takes work (at least it does for those of us who didn’t start out with a “small loan of a million dollars” from our parents), and the work of painting a canvas of diversity in craft beer must begin with making it accessible to different demographics. Accessibility is the mother of inclusion, which in turn, begets diversity – without it, hopes of either become elusive pipe dreams, and no, opening a brewery in a neighborhood predominately occupied by ethnic minorities in hopes of benefitting from a “transformation” (read gentrification) is not an expression of a commitment to inclusion.

Many are evangelical in their crusade for “independence,” but one thing this movement is truly independent of is accurate representation of minorities. Many of us experience being the only [insert minority demographic here] in a space on a daily basis, both professionally and personally, and the last thing some of us want to do after spending all day in a room full of straight, white men, some of whom have no interest in seeing or treating us as equals, is go to a taproom where no one – from the employees to the patrons – looks like us or identifies with our culture. Members of the majority need to be honest with themselves about how they would feel if every space they entered had no one with whom they could relate culturally. How many Christians would be comfortable living in a society if its nationally observed holidays revolved around the Islamic faith? How many white men would be comfortable if the demographic makeup of every festival they attended mirrored the Essence Festival? How would a white man feel if every day at work, all of his actions were somehow tied to stereotypes, and he shouldered the responsibility of positively representing an entire demographic to which his coworkers have had limited exposure, because the only interactions they have with a white man are with him at work? Folks don’t bat an eye when a space is occupied exclusively by whites, but when it comes to creating spaces for minorities, kicking and screaming, followed by accusations of exclusion ensues. Those with privilege see inclusion and equality as oppression all too often, especially when we all live in a society constructed specifically for them.

“Big Beer” gets a bad rep for unethical practices and “bullying,” but from our vantage point, craft is the space that struggles to employ us, include us as patrons, and avoid appropriating our culture in the process. We are even seeing lawsuits unfold with claims of racial discrimination that reach deep into our personal pits of misery to exhume memories of our own experiences at work that we long to keep buried for the sake of day-to-day function. We don’t see larger beer companies encroaching upon our cultural space or usurping the intellectual property and likenesses of dead hip hop artists. All of this, yet craft claims to be better for the community. The pressing question being, what communities does craft think it benefits? The evangelical crusade of seal seeking floods our social media timelines imploring us to join the search party for labels that often elude us. Why should we search for this token when little to no effort is made to make it accessible to us? I could never justify sending my black relatives, some being from housing projects (and there have been entire pieces written on how this country’s ugly history has perpetuated poverty and a lack of opportunity for people of color), to suburbia in search of a seal where they will be labeled as “suspicious” as Chad stares nervously and Becky moves to the other side of the room for fear her purse will be snatched. I have no interest in advocating a movement supporting a group that turns a blind eye to the microaggressions, and at times blatant racism, faced by those of us in the minority.

If craft wants us on board, it needs to create a welcoming space where we are both represented in the industry and courted like its other consumers. We can’t “support local” if the product is not local to us. We don’t benefit our communities by driving across the city to spend money in someone else’s, because a product is otherwise inaccessible. We don’t support our advancement as a people if we make commitments to patronize places that, for whatever reason, have few, if any, employees from the African American community. If you take a page from the book of the spirits industry, they have us on board, and have benefitted because of it. There are black executives. Black celebrities and entrepreneurs are creating their own brands of spirits. Free advertising exists in everything from rap songs to hood club flyers. We can show up at any corner store and find an endless selection of spirits, but craft beer is ostentatiously absent. Craft, y’all ain’t checking for us like that, so why should we run behind you with the thirst like a thot behind a celebrity looking to come up? As you ready yourself for your accusation of conjecture, keep in mind that we don’t need to research something we’ve lived all of our lives. We out here craft beer. Do y’all want us, or nah?

Toni Canada