The Problem of Othering and Tokenism in the Beer World and Beyond

March 2019

‘I’m not a dog playing the piano*’ Diversity, inclusion and the problem of othering and tokenism in the beer world and beyond

I’ll start with a brief disclaimer – a lot has been written on this subject recently, so apologies in advance to anyone who thinks I’m unnecessarily retreading old ground. This is my take on what I feel is a hugely important issue that just can’t be addressed enough, and to me, the fact that I feel the need to justify re-addressing it is indicative of the problematic nature of trying to reach a position of true diversity and inclusion, both in the beer scene and in the world more generally.

So, I’m a middle-aged woman of South Asian descent who likes beer. A lot. Sounds simple when you put it like that, but actually it’s anything but. Let’s start with my South Asian family, whom I love dearly, but to whom beer doesn’t resonate as a legitimate hobby, especially as I’m not even a brewer. The acts of drinking beer, appreciating beer and writing about beer are to them, to be frank, somewhat confusing. Beer is, after all, only a drink, one that primarily exists to accompany sporting events (please someone bring craft beer to Sri Lanka!). When I explain to them that beer does, indeed, come in many varieties, and, for those in the UK, offer them some to try, they’ll happily take part and usually enjoy the experience of being given something different and interesting to taste. All well and good, yes, but still the concept of this as a valid and significant subculture, and one that’s appropriate for a female family member to be partaking in regularly, requires more than explanation. It often requires defence. While the last thing I want to do it reinforce racial stereotypes by saying that most South Asian women don’t drink a lot of beer, to the best of my knowledge and experience this is the case at the present time. The reason this is relevant is that my interest in beer (amongst other things) others me within my own ethnic group.

Now, I know I’m not the only person in the beer-world who has issues explaining to their relatives why beer is special and interesting. That’s not where I’m going with this. And I am exceptionally lucky to be blessed with a father who has absolutely no preconceptions about what is and is not suitable for his daughter to be interested in, and loves trying out all the exciting craft beer I bring home for him – hoorah! No, it’s the issue of difference, othering and tokenism that I want to address. Reading Wiper & True’s Vic Helsby in the Independent saying that International Women’s Day risks becoming tokenistic unless diversity and inclusion become a reality in the industry really hit home with me, because I see this as the most important and under-addressed problem in beer and beyond – how to transform the cultural space into a place where we no longer need words like diversity and inclusion because everyone is seen as completely equal and no less or more deserving of special attention? How do we reach a point where we stop talking about women in beer and minorities in beer and just talk about beer?

Frustratingly, in my experience, some of the worst misconceptions about who should and should not be drinking beer come from outside the industry. In the mostly white, middle-class world that I’ve moved in for work and socially, I am very wary about telling people I’m interested in beer. Reactions can be positive, but in my experience these are usually from folks who have at least a passing interest in things beer-related. Being told ‘Oh, isn’t that interesting! You like beer!’ Or, even more pointedly, ‘You? Why?’, might not sound like a big deal but it is. Who is this you? This exotic other from whom different things are expected, who is interesting because they have an unusual hobby. It’s right up there with ‘So, you don’t like Bollywood?’. People don’t think they’re saying something offensive because they don’t even realise the extent to which they’re already pre-loaded with expectations and preconceptions. While everyone knows that changing perceptions can’t happen overnight, we need to reach a point in the industry where we no longer exoticise anyone who isn’t a white male by highlighting their presence as exceptional. Diversity must become the norm.

Dealing with the social dictates of what is and is not considered an acceptable interest for the likes of me is something that has plagued me my whole life. As a teenager in early 90s suburban England, I was usually the only brown face at Britpop and Indie gigs, in snooker halls and at dingy Home Counties nightclubs. Not pleasing either the white or South Asian communities with my choices is something I’ve learned to take in my stride, become bolder, louder, more defiant to prove that I don’t have to apologise to anyone for anything. Let me tell you, it’s bloody exhausting. Being told that you’re unusual all the time isn’t a compliment. Tokenistic, mascot-like pseudo-acceptance is just as degrading as open prejudice, and we as an industry and a subculture need to do much much better at eradicating this.

I feel extremely lucky that I have met so many amazing folks in the beer world who have supported and encouraged me without even the most subtle form of othering, thank you all of you! Yes, there have been times when I’ve been asked if I’m sure I’m in the right place, but these were (mostly) a long time ago, and were thankfully never aggressive or off-putting enough to make me think I wasn’t, in fact, in the right place. Having the confidence to know you’re in the right place isn’t always easy though, especially when you physically stick out like a sore thumb. Feeling that the onus is on you to ‘belong’ is both difficult and wrong. To make a truly equal and welcoming space, don’t say ‘Oh how exciting! Someone like you wants to be here!’ – talk to me like you would to anyone else. Ask me what kind of beer I like and why. It’s not rocket science.

I’m not here to be unique. I’m not here as a representative of a demographic. I’m here as a person who likes beer and wants to hang out with other people who like beer, so please check your expectations and preconceptions at the door.

*In Mad Men S1 Ep6, Peggy presents her ‘basket of kisses’ to Freddy, who is so shocked at the observational powers of a mere woman that he describes her insight to Don by saying “it was like watching a dog play the piano.”