Cultural Gatekeeping: Preference, Prejudice, and Power
Why marginalized groups continue to need dedicated spaces, in the beer world and beyond
Welcome to Beer is for Everyone and thanks for being here. If you’re reading this, you probably already have a pretty good idea as to why Beer is for Everyone exists. You may have noticed, or experienced first-hand, the need to create this space, along with many others. A space whose purpose is to amplify, prioritize, enable, and encourage marginalized people. These are spaces created by and for people of minorities, who are un- or under-represented in the industry. Upon further analysis, there are essential questions that must be understood: Why do we need our own platforms? Our own festivals? Our own breweries? Because in an ideal world, we shouldn’t need them. Of course, everyone should be equally welcome everywhere, and we should live in a meritocracy where we all get recognition, space, and inclusion based on our own achievements. Except that we don’t.
If you’re a marginalized person trying to work in pretty much any kind of creative industry, including beer, you’re probably familiar with the stomach-clenching disingenuous phrase, ‘Sorry, you’re not quite the right fit’. You might have a great portfolio of work, be chock-full of ideas and enthusiasm, have sterling recommendations to boot, but often this isn’t enough. We like and want to think of beer as being progressive, inclusive, forward-looking – and yes, compared to many other creative industries, it is. Nonetheless, cultural gatekeeping exists. This phenomenon is the decision-making process that is defined by:
1) The decision of who and what is “in” or “out”
2) The decision of what does and does not count as “good,” “valid,” “interesting,” “relevant,” or “cool”
3) The decision of who will be granted the power to make these judgments
Most of the time cultural gatekeeping falls inside the hive mind of the historically and numerically dominant group – White Cis Men.
What is “Cultural Gatekeeping”?
Gatekeeping, as defined by the Oxford English Dictionary, is ‘The activity of controlling, and usually limiting, general access to something’. Furthermore, cultural gatekeeping is the application of this control in the context of the creative industries. It refers to the stranglehold on creative decision-making by the dominant group, and the means by which they reinforce that hold. It is a term and a concept that features in countless academic theses across numerous subjects. It is also common in popular science and is an oft-used phrase ascribed to acts of conscious and unconscious bias by diversity and inclusion advocates.
So, what is an example of cultural gatekeeping? An art gallery owner who decides which pieces of art are ‘good’ enough to be showcased. The gallery owner’s preferences directly affect what the consumer views in the gallery. Therefore, the owner is a gatekeeper in deciding what is viewed as art. They have the power to dictate what is defined as legitimate and valid. However, just because cultural gatekeeping is a recognized phenomenon, that doesn’t mean it’s always easy to spot. The line between preference and prejudice can be incredibly difficult to pinpoint. It’s a canny shapeshifter that lurks and creeps in the shadows. A nasty little tune that just keeps on playing. The roach that you chase and chase but can never quite catch.
A recent article from Hausman Marketing asserts that “Cultural gatekeepers inherently limit individuality and tend to smooth out the diversity in cultures. This isn’t a good thing and stops cultures from progressing organically, instead substituting proscribed notions of what’s acceptable”. So, cultural gatekeeping is often intrinsically tied to discrimination. Additionally, the harder it is to pin a form of discrimination down, the harder it is to prove that it’s happening. Cultural gatekeeping is more often felt than seen – a knowing nod passed between those who’ve experienced it. An eye-roll and a curse.
“Fit” or “Fact”?
The slippery nature of cultural gatekeeping makes it hard to identify, and hard to fight against. How do you prove the worth of your ideas, your accomplishments, and yourself, when they are being measured in the non-specific, internally defined language of ‘fit’? The idea of ‘fit’ presented as fact offers those in control a way to retain power while pretending to offer equal opportunities. Claiming that questions of gender, sexuality and ethnicity have been put to one side, that you have been evaluated fairly but just happen to not be the right ‘fit’, is a sneaky, deniable way to retain their dominant voice. The White Cis Men, who control access to most major cultural outlets, including the beer world, love to bang on about ‘fit’ because it’s a simple get-out-of-jail-free card that enables them to control the shape and nature of the narrative. Cultural gatekeeping is a term that means nothing and everything at the same time. A cultural glass ceiling where access to control over ideas, topics of discussion, products, and presentation are limited according to a narrow, yet unspecified set of rules, belonging to the dominant group. In this way, that group is able to retain their historic and numerical control of the decision-making process and perpetuate their position as cultural arbiters, while purporting to give fair consideration to every person and every idea.
Back to Beer
The most recent Brewer’s Association sample survey data indicates that women account for 22.6% of US brewery owners – not a huge proportion but that sounds like a lot next to the 2.4% of US breweries under Hispanic ownership, just 1% of breweries with Black ownership, 3.9% owned by Native Americans, and 1.9% owned by Asians. Unfortunately, there isn’t data available at present on LGBTQ+ brewery ownership, or a cross-referencing of these statistics. So, it’s impossible to know for certain the exact percentage of breweries owned by White Cis Men. However, it seems fair to assume it’s the vast majority of that 77.5%. In this context, it’s easy to see why cultural gatekeeping is still a huge problem in the industry. When we think about what beers are brewed, how they are branded, the language used to describe them, the cultural reference points in discussions around beer, the content and context of beer journalism and beer art, what beer events and festivals exist, how they are organized, who is invited, what is drunk, and what is discussed, each of these decisions is subject to a set of norms that comes out of a pre-existing narrative – one that is most often controlled by the numerically dominant group.
What does Cultural Gatekeeping Look Like?
Cultural gatekeeping can take many forms. For example, your ideas for recipes, beer names and artwork may have been regularly deprioritized or put down as irrelevant or uninteresting. Perhaps, you were rejected for a front-of-house role because you didn’t ‘have the right look’. Or, have you had your skills and knowledge dismissed as inadequate or ‘niche’ before you could even assert them? Furthermore, have you found yourself pigeon-holed in lower-responsibility tasks despite being capable of more? If you’ve been ignored, overlooked, abused, or shut down just for being ‘someone like you’ – even if you can’t prove that’s why it happened, you’ve probably experienced cultural gatekeeping. When you’re always being told to wait a little longer, work a little harder, keep doing what you’re doing, that it will be your turn, but it never is. Whether it’s a stare, a smirk, a politely condescending ‘Sorry but no’ or outright slamming of a door in your face, it all can be potentially attributed to gatekeeping and none of it is okay. Personally, I’ve been told I didn’t have ‘the right presentation’ for a role, and seen it go to a far less experienced White blonde girl – someone who is more recognizable for the dominant group. I’ve had my work questioned and undermined by White Cis Male junior staff. I have had my creative input ignored in favor of ideas from less experienced White colleagues because, of course, mine just weren’t the right ‘fit’. And, obviously I’ve tolerated the assumption that I work in the IT department. Or, was it Accounts?
Many of us in the beer world have experienced first-hand the cruel hostile vitriol of the ‘beer bros’ who openly hate minorities. We are hit by their angry invective on social media every time we push back against their sexist, racist, homophobic branding, their nasty, prejudiced attempts at humor, and their deliberate efforts to exclude and undermine us. We are accustomed to their bitter, furious insults, use of ugly, phobic slurs and crude, baseless generalizations. Sadly, this is still the world that we live in. These unsavory groups are easy to spot though, and thankfully they are taken less and less seriously by the mainstream. It’s the more insidious and earnestly delivered acts of cultural gatekeeping that are the hardest to fight back against – a bias that’s so deeply ingrained that the perpetrators themselves are sometimes unable to see or acknowledge it.
By Accident or Design?
How much cultural gatekeeping is intentional? It’s impossible to say. The existing set-up enables acts of both conscious and unconscious bias, and only the groups and individuals involved can know for sure what their genuine intentions are. Those holding the keys to the kingdom might tell themselves and each other that we’ve been given an equal chance, an equal hearing. However, this often translates to our skills weren’t up to the task, our ideas were off base, and we just didn’t ‘get’ the vibe that they were looking for. Whether they understand this or not, by prescribing each of those things, by laying down specifications based on their own experiences and value systems, they are automatically privileging those from their own backgrounds. Most of these conceptual specifications were created without any input from under-represented groups, which automatically precludes our ability to slot ourselves or our ideas neatly into the existing framework. Instead, we are expected to contort ourselves to perform in ways that communicate to a White Cis Male audience, to force ourselves inside their lens in order to be included. The very nature of which nullifies our own voices and our own stories. By gatekeeping the very form of the story, the dominant group ensures that our narratives cannot be heard in any authentic, meaningful way. This forces us to either take on their ideas, culture, and worldview to make ourselves acceptable to them, or to return to our own limited community platforms. Both of which are effectively shutting us out of the mainstream.
Fighting Back Against Cultural Gatekeeping
Why does beer have cultural gatekeepers? Why does anything? Does anyone actually like giving up power? The concept of ‘breaking culture’ comes from the idea that real change can only be created through disruption, through a clean and thorough overhaul of cultural norms and expectations. That means breaking down these ideas of what constitutes a good ‘fit’ – creating a new normal, or better still removing the idea of ‘normal’ completely. Creating diverse spaces like Beer is for Everyone where these norms can be questioned and challenged is the first step towards dismantling them. However, the fact that these discussions are happening primarily outside of the mainstream shows how far there is still to go. Furthermore, the framework for any mainstream discussions on diversity is still being set from within the confines of the norms defined by the dominant group. This ultimately undermines the authenticity of the conversation – we are placed within a ‘diversity pen’ where we can happily chase our tales having the same conversations on repeat while achieving very little. Instead, we can create our own spaces and raise them up, making them powerful and authentic. We can then use these platforms to break down existing ideas of ‘fit’ and rewrite what is acceptable, appropriate and most of all interesting. In this way, we can make better use our resources to pro-actively fulfill our potential. As marginalized and under-represented groups create our own spaces and raise each other up, we offer opportunities to each other that we might otherwise be denied. We can create flavors, tell stories and work, think, act and create in ways that are authentic to ourselves and our experiences. We can push back against the dominant forces of cultural gatekeeping from a position of power and viability to remake the industry as truly diverse and representative.
Gatekeeping: Definition of Gatekeeping by Oxford Dictionary on Lexico.com also meaning of Gatekeeping. (n.d.). Retrieved October 30, 2020, from https://www.lexico.com/en/definition/gatekeeping
Hausman, A. (2020, October 16). Cultural Gatekeepers are Disappearing: What That Means for Marketers. Retrieved October 30, 2020, from https://www.hausmanmarketingletter.com/cultural-gatekeepers/
Hurdle, L. M. (2018, July 19). When Culture Becomes Conflict. Retrieved October 30, 2020, from https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/breaking-culture/201807/when-culture-becomes-conflict