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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