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CraftBeer For All 21+

I am not the diversity police

A post factum explanation

“I’m not the diversity police. I’m the diversity ambassador.”

Though I had said this a number of times since late April, when I was announced as the Brewers Association’s first-ever Diversity Ambassador, I’d never said it on record. But as a casual conversation with beer writer Kate Bernot wound to a close in mid-May, I let it slip–a declaration that was as honest and loaded as it was tongue-in-cheek. “I’m not the diversity police. I’m the diversity ambassador.” That isn’t the most controversial thing I’ve ever uttered…by far. And my guess is that the majority of those who managed to make it to the end of Bernot’s Thrillist interview registered that quote as glib and little more. But at the time, my ambassadorship was less than a month old and I was (and still am) hypersensitive to the ways that I overtly and inadvertently define the role.

So, I was concerned when I saw that this statement made it into the published interview. Actually, it didn’t just “make it in.” It was featured in a pull quote, in 20- or 30-point font, in all caps, and underlined in red. This isn’t a complaint. I would’ve pulled it too. If you read the interview, you’ll know this was one of the most coherent things I said. Still, I’ve wanted to clarify that statement since it was published. I’ve wanted to dodge accusations that as Diversity Ambassador, I lack the courage to confront sexist or racist craft beer labels or that this issue is somehow beneath my lofty academia-infused agenda. Explanations, however, take time to write and in today’s information economy, the provision of context, nuance, and explication offer only the most meager returns on investment. Moreover, appearing to backpedal does little to solidify one’s credibility (particularly when one is a member of more than one group of people who operate with a systemically-inherited credibility deficit). I’m not happy about this, just a realist… A very busy realist.

And then, I saw a tweet (Lord, if I had a dollar for every time I began a story like this). Nick Moreira posted two images of the label art for Naughty Native American India Pale Ale along with the incisive commentary, “There’s nothing about this beer that’s not offensive to me.” Nick, I feel you. When I zoomed in, the label art elicited a long, exhausted, world-weary sigh that comes from a deep dark place where a lifetime of little dehumanizations have been compartmentalized away in the interest of making it from dawn til dusk. It’s the kind of sigh that makes me tired for having let it escape–tired of being tired.

I composed and deleted no fewer than four tweets in response. All of them contained some combination of indignation, sarcasm, compassion, and professorial reaction to a teachable moment. I will admit that column A and B were somewhat overrepresented in the mix. But, I deleted them all because “I am not the diversity police.” You see, that declaration was for my benefit as much as anyone else’s. That declaration is my version of the critical pause.

As I’ve gotten older, settled in, and become a parent, I’ve recognized a marked change in my politics. Not so much in my stances on issues of public and personal importance (though some of these have no doubt evolved), but in the ways that I choose to engage these stances. I have chosen to abandon what I have called in my more judgmental moments, “the politics of blame.” This is an unfair characterization. But, I will say in my defense that it responds to the orthodoxy of critique that so often passed for enlightened deliberation during my graduate school years. Call it silly, but I was devastated and profoundly disillusioned when I stepped back and realized that, when taken together, the theoretically-brilliant ideas that anchored my hopes for a better world effectively constituted an impenetrable, often elitist, and alarmingly cannibalistic call-out culture.

I realize there are benefits and drawbacks to embracing the pause.”

Slowly and deliberately, I have turned my energy away from policing–using a collectively-constructed platform of ethical and moral authority (feminism, anti-racism, egalitarianism, etc.) to make transgressions against the cause of social justice visible–and toward problem-solving. This change of tactics, one I hold to be intimately personal and not one I believe everyone should make, is a direct outcome of “embracing the pause.” The temporal nature of this metaphor is no accident. Policing, for me, is a fast impulse triggered by righteous rage and quickly deployable through any number of public and semi-public digital platforms. Problem-solving is a slow, contingent process. Often one with complex and messy outcomes that cannot offer the neat satisfaction of a 280-character snark bomb.

I realize there are benefits and drawbacks to embracing the pause. My responses to pressing issues often feel neutered, so measured that they float above the ethical and political stances I intend to take. I appear to pander, to be unwilling to be boldly upsetting when the moment requires. I let the air out of important conversations that need internal pressure to continue. I create more questions than answers. I accept these inevitabilities with the confidence that there is no shortage of soldiers in the cause who continue to fight with the sharp edge of critique. Though I have chosen to lay down that blade, I recognize its necessity. I have simply come to accept that in my hands, for too long, it was a weapon carelessly wielded.

“What do we do when a group of people trades in the symbolic economy of its own oppression?

It was in the pause, then, that I asked myself why a brewer would make the decision to create and distribute label art like this, that I considered the name Feather Falls Brewing Co., that I developed a suspicion that was confirmed when I arrived at the Feather Falls Casino and Lodge website. There, atop the short list of sub-pages in the “About Us” menu, was a 1,300-word Tribal history of the Concow-Maidu people–presumptive owners and beneficiaries of the Feather Falls Casino and Lodge. Though I have not delved too deeply into the ownership structure of the Feather Falls Brewing Co., this May 16, 2018 job posting for a Brewmaster, seems to suggest that the brewing operation is wholly owned and operated by the Casino management (with a direct report to the General Manager, the brewery referred to as a “department” of a larger entity, and the hiring contact as the HR Director for the Casino at large). This beer label, it seems, is the product of the decision-making of an organization that was created to improve the financial position of the Concow-Maidu Tribe and whose stated goals include cultural preservation. In their words, “to give Tribal members a renewed sense of community and, with time, an appreciation for their cultural identity.”

The pause cast an interesting light on my series of deleted tweets and on the Naughty Native label. Not the light absolution. This label is, without question, sexist and racist. And yes, I unequivocally believe that it is possible for an individual to participate in racism against the racial group to which he or she belongs. In fact, I believe it is one primary reason contemporary racism is so widespread and difficult to address. The light, rather, shifted from the harsh pinpoint focus of a policing spotlight to the broad, omnidirectional (and ridiculously unwieldy) gaze of problem-solving. The question, “Who is responsible for this?” fell away and a set of (what I consider to be) more interesting questions took its place.

What do we do when a group of people trades in the symbolic economy of its own oppression? Where do we draw the ethical lines to guide our responses when doing so is profitable for those who have been stripped of, and then denied access to, the foundations of profit-making (or even basic subsistence) for generations? If we are to invest in accountability, who do we hold accountable–individuals who are complicit in their own subjugation by embracing harmful stereotypes or the culture that makes doing something so counter to the basic drive for self-preservation a rational course of action? How do you hold a culture accountable?

I don’t have answers to these questions…at least not now. As I continue to puzzle them out, I hope to hear other people’s takes on the matter. That is, I hope that I will have effectively shifted, for one or two thoughtful people, the focus of this conversation from impugning those who are responsible for this (IMO colossally sophomoric) particular label to questioning how we can change the cultural conditions that make the existence of labels like this possible.

I know this is a shitty wish–to turn other people to a Sisyphean task, one that will undoubtedly shrink relatively little in our lifetimes, because I have chosen to do so and have been given a platform. I suppose I bear some responsibility to say, this is an infuriating intellectual and emotional space to occupy. One in which you will expend tremendous effort, question yourself relentlessly and encounter almost no avenues for clear action that you do not create for yourself. So, there. I’ve said it. And I will also say, fuck it. I don’t feel bad about wishing for this in the least.

See, I’m not completely unwilling to be upsetting.