So what CAN an elderly white middle-class English beer writer say at a time like this that won’t sound like trite virtue-signalling?

I read this tweet thread by Garrett Oliver, brewmaster at the Brooklyn Brewery, at the weekend – if you haven’t read it yourself yet, please do so now, before we go any further – and I thought: “Apart from retweeting that, so hopefully some more people get the message, I cannot think of anything to say that won’t sound trite, petty, or virtue-signalling. Indeed, even retweeting is almost too virtue-signally.” [add: I meant to say here that, of course, accusations of “virtue-signalling” are themselves a form of virtue signalling.]

Then I read my home-boy, Lewis Hamilton, who grew up in the same town as I did, berating his fellow Formula One drivers – all white, of course – for their failure to speak out over the death of George Floyd in Minneapolis, telling them: “Please do not sit in silence, no matter the colour of your skin.” He’s right, of course. It’s not a time for silence, even if you’re worried that anything you say will sound trite. It’s a time for anger, and for expressing that anger. We all must be angry at anything that lessens and demeans and squashes down. When it actually kills people … And righteous, justified anger will never sound trite.

Still, here am I in my nice white enclave in one of the cosier parts of West London, living a nice, white, privileged life. I don’t have anything meaningful to add to Garrett’s experiences, because I have had no experiences like his. Even when I’ve lived in places where I’ve been a minority – the UAE, Hong Kong – it’s still been from a position of privilege. Chinese shopkeepers calling me “gweilo” – that’s not racist, that’s just amusing.

So: what do I do that’s not mere gesturism? What positive actions can I take that will help reduce the marginalisation, the oppression, the “otherisation” of other people, that actively includes them as part of “us”, deserving the same treatment we expect? Because if people like George Floyd had not been “othered”, seen as “not like me”, “not worthy of equal treatment”, then that Minneapolis copper would not have been kneeling on his neck for nine minutes without anyone saying anything. And that “othering” of people like George Floyd springs from a history of “othering” going back hundreds of years, of course. These advertisements comes from a newspaper published in the southern US in 1819: you see those kinds of ads all the time if you, as I have been doing recently, research old American newspapers on the web. The 18-month-old child up for sale there with his mother, like a cow with a calf or a horse with a pony, hopefully lived until he was freed by the Civil War 45 years later, maybe he had children: his grandchild might have been George Floyd’s grandfather. Does that make you angry? It makes me angry.

There is no answer that does not include us all, but it’s not, I think, mere gesturism, to yell out when we see things that need yelling out about, and to ensure, meanwhile that all we do is inclusive, does not unconsciously exclude. And “unconscious exclusion” is, unfortunately, too easy. It’s ironic that three of the most famous people today from Stevenage – Lewis Hamilton, the Guardian journalist Gary Younge, the footballer Ashley Young – are black, because Stevenage when I lived there was, in the words of Greg Dyke, “hideously white”. There were exactly two black kids at my senior school, and one guy from an Asian background. (As it happens, he became one of the most successful people from my year at school, CEO of a FTSE 100 company: I had lunch with him – and on him – at the RAC in Pall Mall a few years back: excellent selection of cask beers in the basement bar.) When I still lived in Stevenage, my then girlfriend worked in Finsbury Park, North London. She had one of her work colleagues up to stay in our flat, and we went out to a pub for a drink. The young woman looked around the bar, and remarked, with surprise, that there were no black customers. She, of course, was black. We, of course, had never thought about the absence of black people before.

The point I am trying to make, probably badly, is that we DO need to think, think about how not to make people feel “othered”, to make all our lives as inclusive as possible, and to show the racists that there are no “others”, that we are all one. Do the organisations, the groups, the movements we belong to unconsciously exclude people, not deliberately, but because nobody has ever thought about the need to ensure that everybody feels welcome? Had that young woman been on her own in that Stevenage pub, I don’t believe any effort would have been made to ensure she felt welcome there.

As someone said recently, it’s not about diversity, but about inclusion, and I have to say that if you’re not doing something about inclusion, then you’re maintaining the ghastly racist status quo. Is the British beer scene inclusive enough? Is this a silly question, like asking “Is the British train spotting scene inclusive enough?” I don’t think so: inclusion in the beer scene is not as important as, say inclusivity in the media, but probably more important than inclusion in the train-spotting scene. But I’m an elderly straight white beer writer, and in no position at all to talk about inclusivity from anyone else’s viewpoint. Is the beer writing scene inclusive enough? I’m sorry to say that the British beer history scene is hideously white, middle class and mostly biased towards the grey end of the hair colour spectrum, but I don’t think that’s because we’re exclusionary, it’s more than most people under 50 recognise there are many more interesting subjects than long-vanished breweries. Beer writing in general, I’m pleased to think, appears to have had no problems recruiting younger cohorts, without, as far as I’m aware, any particular efforts from those of us who have been doing this for 40 years and more to be inclusive: do minorities feel excluded, though? Should more be done? You tell me.

4 thoughts on “So what CAN an elderly white middle-class English beer writer say at a time like this that won’t sound like trite virtue-signalling?

  1. Having learnt a lot about slave society in the South since moving to VA in 2009, my initial reaction to the ad selling a black woman and her 18 month old son is that the child was likely the “master”‘s child and perhaps there was too much similarity in looks for this to go unremarked upon by their social peers, even though the tradition of the “shadow family” was very real.

  2. Great article as always – my favourite pastime – motorcycling must be 98% white in the UK – is it because we don’t encourage other groups to join us – I don’t think so – I’m not sure why it is that way. When we were in the states last year we rode with two black biker gangs, they enjoyed our company and there was never a them and us we were all bikers together. As a friend of mine said to me this week the only need for colour seperation is in a washing machine!!

  3. As an elderly white middle-class man who grew up in a relatively privileged area of West London, I then spent over thirty years teaching in a deprived northern industrial town with a large multi-ethnic community. I agree that we all, individually, have to examine our behaviours, attitudes and values but they count for nothing when coming up against a political system that doesn’t lead and support the efforts of individuals. In spite of the efforts of so many people, I watched as the schools self-segregated until I was left teaching in a wholly white school. Two miles away was another school that had been very culturally mixed but became overwhelmingly Asian. The riots that inevitably engulfed the town in 2001 was a wake-up call to the local council and steps were made. But since 2010 the whole edifice has been threatened by a government that doesn’t see that it should support change. Money is more important. I feel that people were undermined. Yes, every individual should strive for change but without political support it won’t go far. And that is why there are demonstrations and riots. It would be good to feel that change might come but life can make one cynical.

    On a happier note I am picking up great beer from Millstone Brewery tomorrow and I will enjoy that until the revolution starts.

  4. I didn’t notice the colour of anyone in that photo. Just the XK on the cask. What does that say about me?

    On a more serious note, some very good points.

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