The Sound of Silence: Burnout and Allyship in Beer DEI

Here we go again.

Trying to sift through the enraged fog of my blistering thoughts for precise, coherent and most importantly easily-relatable ways to communicate the wrongness of another – yes, another – clear instance of racism in the beer world on the alligator-swamp that is social media in a way that will elicit empathy and engagement rather than bored dismissal.

This is not an easy task.

Everyone, myself and other members of marginalized groups included, is experiencing some level of DEI burnout by now – of that I have no doubt. DEI has gone from being the hot new poster-topic to the we-have-to-tick-this-box-or-we’re-in-trouble essential to fall off a cliff into the oh-god-can-we-shut-up-about-this-now burnout territory over the last decade, and right now we are at the bottom of that cliff, with those of us who still give a shit screaming at the top of our lungs but no one is listening anymore. And up to a point I understand why.

We’ve been through it all now, scandal after scandal, reckoning after reckoning, open season in the culture wars on both sides of the Atlantic. I’m not going to bother detailing the last few years in beer accountability because anyone reading this can use Google, but from Founders to Brewdog, beer’s #MeToo moment to CAMRA’s diversity policy backlash, we’ve seen it all and we are tired. The lack of demonstrable consequences in all but the most extreme circumstances has shown us the futility of protest, the inevitability that nothing really changes in our industry. Rereading this piece I wrote in 2020 feels positively Sisyphean. It’s unsurprising there is a lack of interest in getting involved again.

So, along comes an Essex landlady and her gollywogs.

While this story could easily have been buried in page six of the local rag, home secretary Suella Braverman, the latest in a line of Tory POCs determined to win the far-right vote, decided to wade in and publicly condemn the local police’s response of seizing the gollywogs as ‘inappropriate’. Suddenly the story is front-page news from the Mail to the Guardian, and the beer-culture-wars are off again.

Except, at first at least, they’re not.

While other people of colour in the industry were expressing their outrage online, my beer-focused feed was surprisingly silent on a story that had made national news. As the plot thickened, with revelations of the landlord photographed in a Britain First t-shirt and comparing the hanging gollywogs to the hanging of Black people in Mississippi emerging, and the landlady insisting she would replace the gollywogs in defiance of police orders, still there was an eerie quiet online.

My growing rage at the situation and the silence around it made me force myself to step back. I’ve learned the hard way that posting when angry leads down just the one road – the one where the trolls live. Instead, I forced myself to clear my head and think about what I could say that would help to inspire people to care, that would help to break through the exhaustion and resonate with how wrong everything about this situation is. To put my emotions to one side and try to be strategic and logical rather than sound like the Angry Brown Woman. Even though, right now I am the Angry Brown Woman, and I have a right to be.

As a Brown woman, I don’t have the luxury of ignoring situations like this. I can’t let burnout and exhaustion make me immune to instances of racism. Because if I ignore this woman and her gollywogs I am accepting, countenancing even, a direct attack on myself and every other person of colour who wants to go to the pub and not be subjected to racism. For us, engaging is not a choice, DEI is not an optional issue. If we bend under defeat we will break under subjugation.

I don’t enjoy being pigeonholed as someone who writes about DEI. I write about multiple other things and would love for my skills and knowledge in other areas to be recognized, but that’s not the way it goes. Speaking with several people from marginalized groups in the drinks industry, I know I am not alone. We are looked to for DEI guidance, leadership, advocacy and problem-solving, and are often expected to provide these free of charge because these issues are seen as our responsibility. We didn’t make the mess but we are expected to clean it up. And because we have no other choice, we often just end up doing it, taking on the extra work – the physical work and the psychological work, of stepping up on issues that we are the most immediately affected by. This can be dressed up in the guise of deferring to our expertise, but is often a simple reflection of the fact that no one else can be bothered. Sad but true.

We don’t have a choice as to whether we bother or not. I have several imminent deadlines sitting over me that I should be working on as I write this, but I can’t not write it because I can’t ignore what is happening because every time someone comments on an article about this story or on social media saying that this is a fuss about nothing and gollywogs are just dolls and people of colour are oversensitive I am receiving another message that people like me are not welcome in pubs. It’s that simple.

I can’t demand allyship and I don’t like begging for it, but I want to create an understanding as to why it’s important – why the burden of engagement is falling too squarely on the shoulders of those who are the worst affected and who have already done more than their share of advocacy. If we, as a community, really want to make our community an inclusive and welcoming space, the work has to come from all of us, from individuals to leadership bodies.

Those of us from marginalized groups will continue to put that work in, do not doubt it, and we appreciate and value genuine allyship when we encounter it. But you don’t have to be within a marginalized group in order to speak up for equal rights. Anyone who has educated themselves on issues of prejudice and bigotry can and must get involved if we’re ever going to make this right. Fear of being told off for stepping on our toes or speaking on issues that don’t concern you may be holding some people back, and there may be some who don’t consider it their place to speak up. But just imagine for a second if you didn’t have a choice. Think of the playground bully who hit you or the boss who undermined you at work and multiply it pretty much indefinitely. That’s the pressure marginalized groups face every day, in every walk of life.

We just want to go to the pub and feel safe and relaxed. It really should not be this hard.