Discover more from The Both-Between
On beer, white privilege, scarcity and abundance, and speaking out.
Beer has always been a nexus for issues much larger, reflective and instructive; distilling complex concepts in a glass and grounding them in the body. So I suppose it’s no surprise that one of my greatest lessons came through a beer festival, bearing an emotional and political hangover that won’t, and shouldn’t, resolve.
It was the first day that felt like fall in Seattle’s increasingly indeterminate seasons, that familiar chill finally breaking the distended heat. I had been offered passes to a local fest, and while it was a more corporate event than I would typically attend, I was excited to spend the evening sipping autumnal brews and having a long-overdue catch-up session with a dear friend. Our spirits were high when we met; we even found good parking and felt it foretold a fortuitous evening ahead.
But things didn’t turn out that way. Over the course of the night, something I’d been realizing unavoidably hit home:
My hometown is, in fact, racist.
In some ways, it’s the most insidious kind, because the city considers itself, and is publicly perceived, to be incredibly liberal. Yet surreptitiously and perniciously, white supremacist attitudes and behaviors permeate interactions, ZIP codes, the way space is shared and navigated—and even my own thinking.
Granted, Seattle is much safer than many cities, but the place and its people often skate by on this reputation without actually doing the work. As recently as 1990, the city was 84% white; today, it’s still a resounding 66% majority. Asian populations (regrettably lumped together in Census data) are better represented at 16%, but you might have to travel to the Central District or even further south to the Rainier Valley before running into even a single person of color. These are historically Black neighborhoods because of the racist practice of redlining; in 1964, Seattle voters rejected an ordinance preventing racial discrimination in real estate by more than a 2-1 margin, and the practice remained widespread until nearly the 1980s.
Black and Brown people here have always known about the city’s quiet racism, daily living these histories; I, too, had grasped it academically. But I’m embarrassed to admit that I had retained some level of subconscious denial, for never before had I felt it as viscerally as I did on this day.
The festival felt off from the moment we walked in. It was eerily empty despite the pleasant climate, the atmosphere staged and sterile. When we got our first pours, we found out that the breweries hadn’t sent any actual employees, instead staffing the event through a catering company. Being industry folks, we were disappointed not to see our friends behind the bar, but tried to make the best of it. Maybe, we thought, it was better for the average attendee of such a festival to discover quality, local beers in this impersonal manner than not at all, so for a while, we enjoyed ourselves.
We shared tastes to try as many beers as possible, each going to different booths. Whenever we regrouped, I marveled at the fact that nobody was asking for my tickets, assuming it was because of the “media” badge dangling from my neck. But my friend, bearing the same lanyard, furrowed her brow. “They’re taking my tickets,” she said, and had a theory as to why. She is a person of color—others of whom at this festival we could count on one hand.
As we braced ourselves against the encroaching chill, she shared more about her experience in Seattle, this city we were both born and raised to believe was a liberal bastion, an emblem of progressivism in a rapidly polarizing world. This despite the fact that we had both grown up with the majority of our friends being white, straight, and cisgendered; our streets filled with faces of largely homogenous hue. Growing up steeped in this environment, the truth can too easily become obscured. Yet we had both spent much of the past year in more diverse places like New York, Chicago, and London—and there, we’d had our eyes opened.
Suddenly, we each had experienced what it was actually like to walk into a bar, brewery, restaurant, or coffee shop and find yourself surrounded by your people; to see so many faces that are not the white, cisgendered hetero-norm. There is not only the sweet sense of community and welcome, but a feeling of safety you don’t even realize you’ve spent your whole life lacking. My friend described the feeling of being able to exhale after a lifetime of holding her breath; finally, she was no longer the only Black or Brown person in the room. I shared the sensation of tears springing to my eyes when walking into establishments where I instantly read the crowd as majority-queer, wrapping myself in this belonging like a warm blanket.
But here, tonight, that was not the case. My friend recounted the horrible racism she’d encountered throughout her life, speaking of tokenization, patronization, objectification, and fetishization, my jaw dropping lower with each story. I was aghast at the things even younger people felt the right to say and do to her; the complete blindness others have to a life experience outside their own. I always knew the greater Seattle area was too white for its own good, but I hadn’t realized just how bad it was. It eerily echoed other conversations I’ve had with a queer person of color in the beer industry who regularly experiences racist slurs and rejections, but much of that was in the South; I guess I still believed the lie that we did things better here.
The harsh reality extends to other underrepresented groups. We pat ourselves on the back because there are rainbow crosswalks in Capitol Hill, yet that neighborhood’s queer spirit is being slowly extinguished by gentrification’s insidious spread; LGBTQIA+ people, too, have been driven ever-further south throughout Seattle’s history, from Pioneer Square to the Hill and now to White Center and West Seattle. Everywhere they go, they displace communities of color, a phenomenon that dates back to Seattle’s conception and is evidenced in cities all over the world. Today, new developments that include BIPOC-owned businesses are cropping up across the Central District as the neighborhood’s real history is being told, but not before rising rents drove many residents of color toward the city limits, and beyond.
While there is a larger Indian and South Asian community in Redmond, King County’s tech epicenter, that city now has the eighth-highest rents in the nation, displacing anyone without a Microsoft-grade paycheck. Japanese, Chinese, and Korean communities have been interwoven with the area’s cultural fabric for over a century, but the family-run restaurants and groceries that anchor the Chinatown-International District are still shuttering in the wake of the pandemic and rising rents. Then there is the fact, often conveniently overlooked in discussions of diversity, that the Japanese were taken from their homes, restaurants, and berry farms and shipped off to internment camps in the 1940s; today, people of Asian descent face escalating hate crimes everywhere.
Confronted with these stark realities of the city we call home, my friend and I decided to try an experiment. We went up to the same booth and ordered the same beer from the same person at the same time, both with our media badges prominently displayed. The staffer looked at my friend and asked for a ticket. Then they looked at me and simply said, “Thank you. Next!” We stood there staring agape at each other, no one behind the counter knowing why.
By the end of the night, only two servers ever asked for my ticket, while my friend’s supply steadily drained. I gave her the rest of my tickets, grabbing samples for both of us until I was well-inebriated and reeling in shock. Huddled at our table as the festival filled with increasingly raucous white bros, railing against the injustice, the gravity of our conversations landed in my body.
But when I awoke the next morning, I suddenly saw what had happened. We never actually spoke out. I didn’t ask the servers why they only wanted one of our tickets, and I realized I’d been going through my whole life this way—using my white privilege to try and get things for all of us, instead of opting out. My own trauma from childhood and growing up queer and nonbinary was at the root of this reaction, the instinct to grab all you can and circle the wagons, yet the white supremacist systems in which I was raised had blinded me to truths that I am truly seeing now.
What might seem like a micro-aggression, this unilateral ticket-taking, actually has a massive impact: It says that we, the white people, have the right to control the drinking of you, the Brown woman—but not the drinking of your white friend. We determine what is acceptable for someone like you to do and not to do, to know and not know; we are the gatekeepers of what goes into your body and how you live your life.
Offenses such as these are writ large with legislative assaults like the recent bans on trans youth health care and the repeal of Roe v. Wade; in violence and hate crimes. But they’re also suffered daily, on a small scale, by people who are not cisgendered, straight white men. And we let it happen, because that’s often the default when you’ve grown up in a constant state of trauma, inflicted from not only from the society in which you were raised but even your own family and friends; there’s not much choice when your life might depend on getting along.
So you get used to being sized up from the moment you’re seen, others projecting their expectations, fears, and fetishes all over you. You get used to keeping your feelings in, keeping yourself small, not picking a fight. You get used to not speaking out because it’s not worth it, you’re not going to change their minds, or so the story goes—and sometimes you have to do it for your own safety, but if you go through your whole life this way, then they keep winning.
I cannot, in this lifetime, truly comprehend my friend’s lived experience, and am not attempting to equivocate the racialized and queer journeys. But there are echoes of resonance across our stories, and I believe we can be stronger if we form a united, underrepresented front. For my part, I get misgendered nearly everywhere I go, and I almost always let it slide. There’s always some reason; the person seems nice, or they’re old, or they just wouldn’t get it. In liberal-ish places like Seattle, it’s easy to assume people mean no harm. Yet the world is full of this, people making assumptions and the rest of us suffering the indignities in silence.
When I have these kinds of conversations outside the LGBTQIA+ community, I’m often told that it’s a lot to expect of others; that the world is always going to read me a certain, gendered way. They say I can’t get upset every time someone assumes; that change is going to take time. I didn’t used to argue with this point, but now I’m starting to.
After all, the underrepresented want the same thing as anybody else: to been seen and known; to have our identities affirmed. Straight, white, cisgendered people almost never have to have this experience; they are, in fact, who everyone perceives them to be, and as a result, they project the same onto others. They’re people who have never had their bodies and souls denied; who have never been looked right through; who have never had to assert their basic existence, claim their knowledge, and fight for their right to take up space.
Yet it can happen to anyone who strays even remotely outside the hetero-norm, and maybe we’re all letting too many things slide. My sister is a fitness instructor, weight lifter, and personal trainer, and she told me how old white men often find it appropriate to approach her in the gym to “correct” her form because of her perceived gender. She usually smiles and waves them off, not bothering to tell them that they are likely the ones “doing it wrong.”
The liberties people will take, assuming your identity is any of their business, is truly alarming—I’ve even had people yell at me from passing cars to “eat a sandwich” because I’m thin—but I refuse to accept that older generations have to die before things can change. And I also see now that I have been part of the problem, growing up in my lily-white bubble. I want to actively work to become anti-racist, to deprogram my psyche as best I can from this privileged conditioning; to spend more time in places where everyone doesn’t look like me.
In Seattle, we look down our noses at places south and east of King County, denigrating whole cities and states and geographic regions, but the one thing you can say for blatantly conservative places is that at least there, you know what you’re getting. Offenses are even more upsetting and insulting when they happen in a place where you expect to be welcomed, a space you perceive as safe; committed by those you thought were on your side. Maybe, in a way, we’re the worst kind of white people: we think we’re woke, and this keeps us asleep.
I wonder what would have happened if I would have said something. I would probably have been dismissed as angry or drunk or simply unimportant. When I emailed the organizers after the fact, I got a token answer about how all employees went through diversity training, and was asked to name names. They were missing the whole point, and I didn’t even bother to reply. Anticipating this reaction, my friend later said, is why speaking out never crossed her mind; what incentive do you have to change a place that never wanted you?
I may have seen in my psychedelic journeys that we are all one, but you have to have a self before you can lose it. While it’s important to diversify existing industries, more than ever, I feel the urgency of creating spaces that are truly by us, for us. Underrepresented people need to stick together, building networks of safety and belonging—because every time we don’t speak up, when we let them assume, it carves a little piece from our souls.
The Both-Between is a reader-supported publication. To receive new posts and support my work, consider becoming a free or paid subscriber.