It’s Easy to be Intrepid When You’re a White Bloke

Illustration: "Odd One Out".

Wandering into strange pubs in strange towns, perhaps even in distant countries, isn’t as fun for some people as it is for others.

This is some­thing we’ve been brood­ing on for years, trig­gered by a pass­ing con­ver­sa­tion with a friend. We sug­gest­ed meet­ing in the William IV in Ley­ton and she winced and shook her head. “I don’t feel com­fort­able in there,” she said. “I feel like peo­ple are star­ing at me because, you know… I’m a bit brown.”

To be clear: noth­ing ever hap­pened, noth­ing was ever said, but she sim­ply did­n’t feel at ease – and unease, after all, is a fine­ly honed human sur­vival mech­a­nism.

Even with­in this house­hold there are dif­fer­ing thresh­olds. There are pubs which Ray (an aver­age-look­ing white bloke) has vis­it­ed and enjoyed, but where Jess felt on edge, and cer­tain­ly would­n’t par­tic­u­lar­ly rel­ish vis­it­ing alone.

We hint­ed at some of this in our piece for All About Beer on read­ing the codes of Eng­lish pubs – a hint which @rahulricky picked up on:

You might be tempt­ed to bri­dle at this, to evoke the spec­tre of Emi­ly Thorn­ber­ry, to com­plain that this means Eng­lish peo­ple are being denied the right to cel­e­brate their flag but, as two white Eng­lish peo­ple, it strikes us that the flag is some­times used by pubs as a sig­nal.

Of course it’s com­plex and com­pli­cat­ed but we cer­tain­ly would­n’t blame peo­ple for decid­ing to give all flag-bedecked pubs a swerve, just to be on the safe side.

As for being intre­pid abroad… Well, of course we’ve nev­er had any trou­ble in Poland (Jess lived there for more than a year) but when we saw this Tweet from @amethyst_heels

…we did­n’t doubt for a moment that it hap­pened.

We con­tact­ed Ruvani and asked for more infor­ma­tion and she kind­ly took the time to put into words a fuller account of her expe­ri­ence, and how it made her feel:

It’s a pro­found­ly unset­tling feel­ing to know that your very exis­tence offends some­one based pure­ly on how you look, with­out them know­ing a sin­gle thing about you.

The craft beer com­mu­ni­ty has, in my expe­ri­ence to date, been pret­ty inclu­sive and friend­ly. There will always be the odd guy behind the bar who imme­di­ate­ly offers me a fruit beer or asks if I’m sure I can cope with a 6.5% IPA, and while these assump­tions are a lit­tle patro­n­is­ing, they’re easy enough to gen­tly cor­rect.

My expe­ri­ences at Cat­head and Degus­ta­tor­nia in Gdan­sk were on a com­plete­ly sep­a­rate lev­el.

I was delib­er­ate­ly made to feel more than unwel­come, treat­ed with dis­dain and dis­gust and oth­ered in a way that was delib­er­ate and cal­cu­lat­ing.

At Cat­head, I ini­tial­ly thought per­haps I was imag­in­ing it, being over-sen­si­tive, but when my Cau­casian com­pan­ions were offered smiles, tasters and polite­ness while I was giv­en abra­sive answers to my ques­tions and told I wasn’t allowed to try any­thing, it was impos­si­ble to ignore the fact that the staff didn’t want me in their bar.

At Degus­ta­tor­nia, the sit­u­a­tion was sig­nif­i­cant­ly worse. The bar staff ini­tial­ly refused to serve me, tak­ing orders all around me as if I didn’t exist.

My (Cau­casian) hus­band even­tu­al­ly moved in front of me and was able to attract the atten­tion of one of the bar­tenders, but when he pushed me for­ward to order, the bartender’s demeanour com­plete­ly changed and it would not be an exag­ger­a­tion to say that he phys­i­cal­ly recoiled.

When I asked him what was good, I was told ‘We only sell good beer’. Friend­ly, then. When I asked a ques­tion about two of the beers they were serv­ing, I was told ‘Well, you can’t com­pare a 5% beer and a 10% beer, are you stu­pid?’. Nice. I polite­ly explained that I wasn’t ask­ing for a direct com­par­i­son, but which was the supe­ri­or in rela­tion to its own style, to which he respond­ed with ‘I only drink Pil­sner’. Yeah, right – he works in a craft beer bar.

Again, when I asked for tasters I was told they weren’t avail­able despite oth­er peo­ple at the bar being offered them in front of me, and when I asked a ques­tion about a dif­fer­ent beer was again met with rude­ness and eye-rolling con­de­scen­sion.

Even­tu­al­ly I was able to get a flight of beer out of him but which was in some ways a hard-won tri­umph but in oth­ers just hard-won.

Clear­ly the idea that a South Asian lady might have an actu­al inter­est in beer was com­plete­ly anath­e­ma to the bar­tender, and the con­cept of a South Asian lady drink­ing beer in his bar was more than he was able to cope with.

He might not have been shout­ing exple­tives in my face, but to me that kind of demean­ing, belit­tling, down­grad­ing of me as a human being is actu­al­ly worse because it’s hard­er to pin­point or argue with direct­ly, falling more into the cat­e­go­ry of bul­ly­ing than abuse.

In a for­eign coun­try, you’re very lim­it­ed in terms of means to recourse in this type of sit­u­a­tion, and per­pet­u­al­ly mind­ful that either man­age­ment or law enforce­ment could well be of the same per­sua­sion as the per­pe­tra­tors. You’ve basi­cal­ly got to suck it up in a way you nev­er would at home.

For any­one read­ing this who think, oh, this was just a rude, surly bar­tender, let me assure you that I have dealt with many, many grumpy bar­tenders and it is always very clear when they are just being rude, and when they are sin­gling out minori­ties to attack. If you’re for­tu­nate enough nev­er to have been on the receiv­ing end of this kind of behav­iour, just ask any­one you know who falls into any kind of minor­i­ty and they’ll tell you how the eye­brows raise and the vocal tone changes.

Expe­ri­ences like this will not ever stop me from going any­where I want to go, doing any­thing that I want to do, and drink­ing any­thing I want to drink. They are, how­ev­er, real­ly upset­ting and unpleas­ant, and I would much rather they just didn’t hap­pen.

We’re glad that Ruvani is defi­ant – intre­pid indeed! – but that any­one should have to treat going for a beer like going into bat­tle is a ter­ri­ble shame.

We’ll give the last word to Amer­i­can beer writer Car­la Jean Lauter who often com­ments on this top­ic:

11 thoughts on “It’s Easy to be Intrepid When You’re a White Bloke”

  1. Whilst I’m hap­py to be the gaw­ping tourist in prac­ti­cal­ly any pub or bar, even the ones with Eng­land flags, I make judge­ment calls all the time about which ones my part­ner is like­ly to be hap­py in. She’s ok with me tak­ing the lead on this because she’s not a pub per­son any­way so isn’t entire­ly hap­py in any of them… A recent vis­it to a sin­gle bar town local con­flict­ed me some­what. My kind of basic drinkers pub, but the exten­sive col­lec­tion of gollys behind the bar did­n’t exact­ly sig­nal ‘inclu­sive’.

  2. The pub-going pop­u­la­tion gen­er­al­ly used to be very white & very male, and I think some of the more con­ser­v­a­tive (small c) landlords/ladies uncon­scious­ly hark back to those days. Does­n’t make them big­ots per­son­al­ly – but the fact that they’re not big­ots does­n’t make their pubs any more com­fort­able, if your face does­n’t quite fit.

    But as a white male I can basi­cal­ly go any­where with­out inci­dent (apart from occa­sion­al­ly being tak­en for a mem­ber of the IRA), so I’ll shut up. I’d be inter­est­ed to know what peo­ple more direct­ly affect­ed think about unknown Spoons, though – a bit risky (because you get any­one in there) or basi­cal­ly safe (because you get any­one in there)?

    1. like you, I’m a tall white man – old enough to avoid the “what you look­ing at” crap. I would be in trou­ble if I took my fam­i­ly to one unless the train sta­tion toi­lets were closed. It’s the depress­ing vibe more than any hos­til­i­ty

  3. Although this is absolute­ly cor­rect 99% of the time, I would nev­er have gone in the Hay­field Hotel in Chapel­town, Leeds, back in the day, as a white male… and there was a pub in Birm­ing­ham where not being Irish was enough to make me feel very uncom­fort­able indeed. So there are some exam­ples, but they’re obvi­ous­ly uncom­mon in com­par­i­son.

  4. I usu­al­ly see ‘spoons as a safe bet if I’m on my own – I think it’s because for me a larg­er space feels much safer. (Plus staff are usu­al­ly trained well). I’ve nev­er felt uncom­fort­able in one, despite encoun­ter­ing some very inter­est­ing indi­vid­u­als.

    1. .…and isn’t that one of the pos­i­tives about Tim Mar­tin and his vision behind the Wether­spoon chain, the spaces (and the enclosed cubi­cles which used to be a fea­ture in his pubs) and the all day food offer which encour­aged a wider cus­tomer base. He start­ed off his chain when the ‘big four’ still had pubs which hid behind nico­tine net cur­tains and it was usu­al­ly a sticky walk across the car­pets, this is pre-All Bar One and the real­iza­tion by the big chains that they were alien­at­ing 50% of the pop­u­la­tion. Often the reac­tion of a brew­ery area man­ag­er faced with falling sales, was to intro­duce a lunchtime strip­per; there were very few back in the 1980’s who gave Wether­spoon a chance of being suc­cess­ful

  5. I love pubs with a 70s rock juke­box. I under­stand that this excludes 90% of the pop­u­la­tion. On a more seri­ous note, we all have to recog­nise that mak­ing every­one wel­come is vital to the future of the beer retail mar­ket. No-one can afford to see some­one’s pounds and pence turn around and walk away. If you lack the moral decen­cy to see that hos­til­i­ty is wrong, maybe the finan­cial con­se­quences will sway your opin­ion

    1. I agree com­plete­ly about moral decen­cy and no hos­til­i­ty, but I do think that cater­ing for (legit­i­mate!) niche mar­kets can make a lot of sense for some pubs, be it 70s rock (with you there!) or what­ev­er.

  6. In 1992, at a pub in York – I can’t remem­ber its name – I saw a man refused ser­vice because he spoke with a Scot­tish accent. Before any­one jumps to con­clu­sions, he was sober and as far as I can tell, had not ripped up any turf or pulled down any goal­posts.

  7. Wild­ly OT but – Can­ter­bury green hop fes­ti­val is on this week­end, my favourite fes­ti­val even if it’s a bit sub­dued this year as the Foundry have been dis­tract­ed by the whole mov­ing thing. Ini­tial ver­dict – the sun­ny weath­er came a bit too soon for the hops, the vin­tage is like 1996 claret, quite firm bit­ter­ness with­out the fruit of some years.

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