A Clapback to “Be Thankful for What You Have”
“Be thankful for what you have.”
In a world where mindfulness and positive thinking are held up as the sensible, sensitive way to look after our mental health, we receive regular messages about the importance of being grateful for what we have. And yes, gratitude and appreciation can indeed be good things. They can help us be kinder, more considerate people. They can enable us to enjoy life more. They can make us feel better and stronger when we are dealing with bad situations. Yes, there is a lot to be said for gratitude – but for marginalized groups there is another side to being told to be thankful.
Have you ever been made to feel that you should be saying thank you for something that you worked for and deserved? Have you been in a situation where you have been pressured to express gratitude for being included into a space you had every right to be in? Have you been casually dismissed with the caveat that you should be happy you were listened to or consulted at all? Have you been told that you are lucky, special, or ‘the exception’ because you’ve been allowed into a white cis male-dominated space? These are all examples of toxic gratitude – a way in which marginalized people are diminished, pigeonholed, held back, and controlled through the idea that they should be thankful for any and all privileges afforded to them by the dominant group, usually white cis men.
“Thanks” has been used as a tool of oppression since time immemorial. Occupied, colonized, and enslaved people have been told to be thankful for the aqueducts, the sanitation, medicine, education, health and public order, or some variant of this theme for as long a history has been written, and probably longer. The whole idea of colonization as a ‘charitable act,’ a ‘civilizing’ act, an act of pastoral care, has formed the backbone of its justification from ancient times up to the present. Our history books are filled with tales of freshly-bathed, educated Romans (who had mastered papyrus scrolls and under-floor heating) marching through Europe and the Middle East, bringing early development to ‘savages’ from Jerusalem to Winchester. Of course, the illiterate unwashed should be grateful – what could possibly be so good about their own religious and cultural practices?
While there are many, many colonized and marginalized groups worldwide who have been affected by the concept of toxic gratitude, I will give a brief analysis of how this idea has and continues to perpetuate the ideologies used to support slavery in the USA, the rationales upheld by Europeans and their white-American descendants to justify colonialism, and the undercurrent of toxic gratitude inherent in sexist, racist, and heteronormative beliefs and behaviors. I will then offer some research-based examples of how toxic gratitude manifests itself in the contemporary American workplace, with a focus on the beer world.
Moving forward, a crucial argument made initially in the defense of slavery and used later to justify Jim Crow laws denying Black Americans their constitutional rights is the concept of the ‘grateful slave’. This idea, namely that slavery (and the repressive racist regimes that followed it), could be justified by the conceit that African-Americans were grateful to white people for ‘civilizing’ them – that slavery inspired loyalty and thanks, and that white people were, in essence, doing Black people a favor by enslaving them. This argument, examined by George Boulukos in his 2008 book of the same name, was given early voice in Daniel Defoe’s 1722 novel Colonel Jack, whose central premise is to highlight the perceived difference in white and Black responses to enslavement, demarking black people as ‘natural slaves’ and laying the groundwork for institutionalized racism. Later works of fiction, including Maria Edgeworth’s 1804 novel The Grateful Negro put a ‘reformist’ spin on this conceit, using the idea that Black people are inherently thankful and subservient to argue for more ‘palatable’ form of slavery where ‘benevolent’ slaveholders reform working practices in order that slaves will accept their condition voluntarily, as she argues they are pre-supposed to do. This trope of the ‘grateful slave’, the ‘loyal slave’, the ‘contented slave’ can be seen across popular literature, from Uncle Tom’s devotion to Jesus to Mammy’s refusal to leave Tara to Homer’s unflinching loyalty to Arnold Ridgeway.
While there is plenty of contemporary critical analysis of the inherent ideological racism behind the trope of the ‘grateful slave’, there are still theorists who continue to promote and attempt to legitimize the idea that ‘Black people should be grateful for slavery’. In 2001, right-wing academic David Horowitz used his platform as founder of the David Horowitz Freedom Center think tank to publish his disturbingly skewed perceptions about slavery in the Center’s magazine, FrontPage. Central to his many misinformed tenants in “Ten Reasons Why Reparations for Slavery Is a Bad Idea—and Racist Too” is the conceit that “African-Americans “owe a debt” to America”, demanding “Where’s the gratitude?”.
Horowitz’s claims that slavery was a price that Black people should be grateful to have paid for the opportunity to be an American citizen, and that they owe further gratitude to the white soldiers and politicians who ‘saved’ them from slavery but ‘allowed’ them to remain in the US continues to be echoed by politicians. New Jersey Assemblyman Michael Patrick Carroll is on the record stating that “If slavery was the price that a modern American’s ancestors had to pay in order to make one an American, one should get down on one’s knees every single day and thank the Lord that such price was paid”. Donald Trump’s failed 1776 Report also attempted to whitewash American history using ideas of toxic and performative gratitude. Black academic and anti-racist activist Ibram X. Kendi commented “This report makes it seems as if […] since the civil rights movement, Black people have been given ‘privileges’ and ‘preferential treatment’ in nearly every sector of society, which is news to Black people”. This is not an idea that is going away, and its current revival as part of America’s ongoing ‘culture wars’ is dangerous and frightening.
“The Mother Country”
“The worst thing the British ever did was leave”. Throughout my life, my parents maintained that Sri Lanka, the land of their birth, was irreparably damaged, not by the arrival of the colonizing white man, but by his abandonment. The lack of the firm, authoritative governing hand of the British had led directly, they believed, to the civil war that ravaged the country for over 30 years. They would describe the days of the Raj as a halcyon time when everyone knew their place, the trains ran on time, government was efficient and a gentleman’s suit was always immaculate, even in the most scorching of temperatures. The British had brought Shakespeare, opera, whiskey, and that most essential element of civilization – ice cream. Without the influence of the British, they would still be babbling in their discarded native tongue, performing traditional dances rather than the ballroom variety, and eating only with their fingers. Hoorah for Britain – the home of progress, innovation and culture! The Mother Country!
This is a true story, and it is not just mine. Across Asia, the Middle East, and Africa, there are many folks, including academic theorists, who share my parents’ Macaulayist immersion in toxic gratitude – what amounts to colonial Stockholm Syndrome. In Amitav Gosh’s seminal novel The Glass Palace, this psychological strain of admiration for and striving towards “Britishness” while simultaneously being subjected to structurally racist institutions and behaviors is drawn out with care and precision. We do not need the British (or the other colonial masters) to keep glorifying their days as colonial masters (although they continue to do so), because their education system has indoctrinated enough of us so deeply through generations of conditioning that we now largely do their work for them.
As immigrants to the countries that took over our own, we are now expected to prove our worth and justify our presence by further pledges of our ‘Britishness’ – and we do it. We must eschew our own tongues and speak only English, for fear of causing suspicion or offence. We must make our food interesting and palatable to Western tastes. We must express both interest and knowledge of all items of cultural capital prescribed by the ‘Mother Country’, from football to fish-n-chips. But most of all, we must be grateful. Grateful to be allowed into the hallowed white space that is Europe, grateful to be feeding the economy of our oppressors. Whether they are in our country ordering us around or we are in their country, we will likely be being paid less than a white person doing the same job, yet we are always the ones expected to be grateful.
Asians in particular are viewed as being exceptionally obsequious and servile, and not without some truth – the weight of our colonial burden has indeed been deeply internalized. Even though the colonial mindset of “civilizing the native and educating the nation” has been critiqued as “enslaving” since the time of Mahatma Gandhi, the perception and the reality persist. This is an undoubted contributor to the perniciously backhanded compliment of being labelled the ‘model minority’, a subject I have covered at length. The character of Apu in The Simpsons can be seen as the clunky apex of this stereotype with his catchphrase “Thank you and come again” – fairly and essentially critiqued in comedian Hari Kondabolu’s documentary The Problem With Apu.
Yes, there is an increasingly vocal pushback from artists, musicians, and writers who want to celebrate their cultural heritage rather than conform gratefully to the standards of the colonizer, and from theorists and academics rejecting this ideology. Yes, statues are coming down and Western countries are being forced to examine the roots of their wealth and the behaviors of their ancestors. But there is still a huge pressure to assimilate, and to do it thankfully.
“Saved from spinsterhood”
Has there ever been a time when men haven’t claimed that women owe them gratitude? Let’s start with early Agrarian societies in Europe, when property was first formalize and passed through the male line, making women dependent on men for food and shelter. The degree of autonomy pre-historic hunter-gatherer women had was stripped away and women became another resource to be used and accumulated by men. Instead of desiring freedom and independence, women were supposed to be grateful for the physical and economic ‘protection’ granted to them by men. Often-mis-attributed to hunter-gatherer societies, this pseudo-science that claims women are ‘naturally’ dependent on men has provided a springboard for institutionalized sexism going back thousands of years, and with it the innate belief that women should be grateful for whatever a man has been generous enough to give them – be it father, husband, son or any other male whose attention they have been fortunate enough to attract. This is the ideology deferred to by the incel community, who haunt the darkest corners of the internet, determined to turn back the clock on women’s rights through violence and rape, yearning for a time when women ‘knew their place’ and observed the social mores created by men that included displays of gratitude for male attention.
This same line of theorizing has reduced women to the status of property to be paid for by dowry, domestic servitude, and enforced motherhood, all of which we have been expected to be grateful for in obtaining the protection of a man.
The myth of “the weaker sex” still exists – the very designation of “weaker” comes with an inference that men are stronger – therefore we need their protection and should be grateful for it. And a big part of that gratitude has meant falling in line, doing what we are told, fulfilling expectations they have set, and tolerating whatever behaviors they choose to meter out with a smile on our faces and a thank-you on our lips.
The idea that marriage – any marriage to any male – is a better prospect than being left a spinster is still dominant in many parts of the world, and has barely made an exit in the West. While there is, thankfully, now a contemporary push-back against this kind of indoctrination, until very recently our most popular children’s stories focused on the need for a princess (read woman) to be saved by a prince (read man) and live happily ever after in a gauzy debt of gratitude that’s meant to indicate romance. With expectations like this drummed into our heads at such an early age, it’s no wonder that so many women as well as men believe that they should be grateful to any man who comes along and saves them from perceived horrors of spinsterhood.
And it’s not just marriage and children we’re supposed to be thankful for. Should we express displeasure at being sexually harassed? We are told to be grateful for the attention. Should we protest at being paid less than men? We are told to be grateful to be allowed into the workplace at all. There are still many men and women who believe that if we go out at night in high heels, we should be grateful not to be raped, and if we are raped we should be grateful not to be murdered. Unless we are, in which case, it was our own fault.
Comments like “You drive well, for a woman,” “You can hold your drink, for a woman,” “You’re pretty smart, for a woman,” or “You’re very strong, for a woman” remain commonplace, and are always expected to be greeted with gracious thanks. Any attempt to highlight the inherent patronizing sexism they imbue will be met with accusations of being “uppity,” “ungrateful,” or of course “feminist” – heaven forefend. Why can’t we just be thankful for whatever faint and conditional praise that we are given? Why can’t we just submit to a Gilead-esque state of perpetual toxic gratitude? Why can’t we learn our place?
“You’re lucky to be working here”
But are we? Toxic gratitude is deeply entrenched in the American workplace – whether it’s the Amazon employees’ attempts to unionize or the BrewDog former staff members claiming to have labored under a ‘culture of fear’. The response from their employers is, consistently, that they should be grateful to be part of such a vibrant and trailblazing company. Never mind the low pay, the long hours, and cases of harassment – no! They should consider themselves lucky, not just to have a job, but to have that job. And this culture is amplified when it comes to marginalized groups, who are seen to be taking up roles that belong to white men.
In the beer industry, as in all cultural industries, this expectation of toxic gratitude is turned up to eleven.
In a previous piece, I wrote in detail about the process of cultural gatekeeping that prevents marginalized groups from entering creative industries, and specifically the beer industry, but what happens when you do make it in? The ways in which marginalized people are undermined, the double-standards we are often forced to live up to and the way that our success can be used against us to gloss over issues of inequality all contain a key component that is used to make us doubt ourselves, our capabilities and our sense of injustice – toxic gratitude.
When we set foot inside a brewery or any other creative industries business, marginalized groups are usually made immediately aware of our ‘privileged’ status – that we are the ‘chosen ones’, allowed into the hallowed white spaces where cultural capital is created.
Consider the now-infamous Founders racism case. Black employee, Tracy Evans, reported and refused to work with a white colleague who repeatedly used the “N” word and thought it was funny to label office equipment the ‘black guy printer’ and ‘white guy printer’. Founders refused to take Evans’ complaints seriously and instead fired him for supposed inefficiency. While not specifically stated, the clear implication of Founders’ response is that Evans should be grateful to have been allowed into a white space and should be accepting of the casual racism that comes from being in a white space.
A non-white male brewery owner (who wishes to remain anonymous) tells a similar story. “A colleague asked me whether ‘my people’ christened their children by throwing them off of roofs” he says in horror. “When I responded with understandable offence, I was told to be grateful that he was taking an interest in my culture!”. I’ll just leave that with you.
Betsy Lay, Co-Owner and Head Brewer at Lady Justice Brewing in Denver, CO has had her hard work and expertise discounted, being told instead to be grateful to male allies. “I tend to get this with people wanting me to acknowledge that there are good guys in beer who are sticking up for or looking out for me, as if the only reason I am welcomed at all into the brewing space is because of all the good men who let me in and supported me”.
This is not at all uncommon. Quebec-based beer blogger and influencer Amrita Kaur Virk, who also works in the baking and restaurant industries, has had similar experiences. “When diversity became cool… I felt like there were a lot of white beer advertisers that were creeping up on my profile and following me, but also expecting me to fully embrace them and be grateful that they finally noticed me,” she says. “I remember being approached by them like they were some kind of knight in shining armor and them asking for my experiences… I really feel like there are some white folks who are looking to just harvest my own personal experiences to appear to be ‘woke’ and virtue signal. Even the act of approaching/following me seems very performative. Like I should feel grateful for even being considered and approached”.
A friend shared her experience of toxic gratitude with beertender, Ashley Monroe. After having aced 4-5 interviews (at a different company) for a role, she was told she would only be considered for a lower position and would be required to complete another 3 interviews – but that she should be grateful because the company usually did not hire women at all. This kind of toxic gratitude extends beyond the beer industry. Jen Price, beer writer and founder of the Atlanta Beer Boutique, also works in construction, where she has experienced regular instances of toxic gratitude. “I feel I may have become numb to it because it’s so ubiquitous,” she says. “One example is when I was chosen, as a Black consultant, to do extra work for a Black community outreach program. I was denied additional pay for this work because they thought I should be grateful to be involved in the project”.
Beer writer, Jaamal Lemon, had a similar experience in the beer world. “I volunteered to manage the social media account for a local brewery. I managed it for 4-6 months with favorable reviews from patrons and co-workers,” he says. “I had a conversation with the owner about possibly managing the account for pay. That never happened and they hired an outside company to manage it”. Again, marginalized groups are expected to be grateful for low-pay and no-pay ‘opportunities’.
One of the most striking and identifiable expressions of toxic gratitude in contemporary literature lies in Zakiya Dalila Harris’ recent novel, The Other Black Girl. Set in the ultra-white monied world of the publishing industry, Harris’ story could just as easy take place in the beer world or the art world. Our heroine Nella, a young Black girl, is the only person of color in her office who doesn’t work in accounts or the mail room and is constantly reminded to be grateful for her position. She works longer hours than her fellow assistants, most of whom are in their roles through family connections – “Very Specific People who came from a Very Specific Box,” cleans up their mistakes, yet is overlooked for promotion – the underwritten message being that she should be grateful – “at least she had gotten her foot in the door”. Without giving away the whole plot, the pressure on Nella to display her gratitude through being a performative rather than authentic version of herself, a Black person who fits white people’s ideals of what a Black person should be, who constantly displays their gratitude by toeing a line of being lip-service diverse but not rocking the status quo – is at the heart of this frighteningly believable novel.
Beer writer, Beth Demmon, sums up this way in which toxic gratitude is damaging to marginalized groups and used as a power tool very succinctly. “Employers often pressure workers to do more than their job description allows for without compensating them fairly by saying things like, ‘there are plenty of other people who would do this job and be grateful for it’. It’s a way to groom people to do more and more with less and less, and it’s sick,” she says. “It’s also a way to gatekeep people from marginalized communities from even being able to enter the craft beer space. Historically, the people who can afford low pay and little-to-no benefits are those who have received or relied on generational wealth, which means they’re often middle- to upper-class white people”.
This lack of access, accompanied with the pressure to perform harder and be grateful for what you are given is also highlighted in Nathaniel G. Chapman and David L. Brunsma’s book on Beer and Racism. “When Black people enter these spaces, they must display their cultural capital in order to be perceived as welcome. As such, their identity performances are centered around beer knowledge and cultural taste. Black people in white spaces are assumed to lack the knowledge or cultural taste to appreciate craft beer. Therefore, when performing the ‘dance,’ they must prove to their white counterparts that they appreciate craft beer”. While toxic gratitude is not specifically mentioned, there is a clear implication that, on performing the ‘dance’ adequately and finally being granted admission into craft beer’s white space, those People of Color ‘chosen’ should be grateful. This is echoed by the reference to Latinx brewery owner Juan as a ‘unicorn’ in the industry – a special rarity who should feel grateful to be there. “The [brewery owners] are, largely speaking, young white millennials;” he says, “You don’t see a lot of different ethnicities… or other differences in the scene here”. And if you are one of the few different folks who’ve made it in, you’d better put your dancing shoes on and shimmy that thanks.
These examples of how toxic gratitude inserts itself into power-dynamic relationships and entrenches inequality and lack of access to opportunities for marginalized groups are by no means finite. The brutal and perverse way that white American colonists twisted Indigenous American spiritual beliefs by styling first their Christian god, then the King of England and finally the President of the USA as the ‘Great Father,’ to whom Indigenous Americans were indebted, is another egregious example of toxic gratitude as a tool of the white oppressor.
And in contemporary society, toxic gratitude is not limited to the workplace – unequal friendships and relations between groups and individuals with differing social status are equally infused with the hefty expectation of thanks due. Teen black comedy Heathers and incisive social-commentary novel (and now TV show) Little Fires Everywhere may appear very different, but both center on relationships oozing toxic gratitude.
The ways that toxic gratitude is used by dominant groups as a tool to entrench their position has also been borne out in empirical academic study.
In their 2019 research paper The Harmful Side of Thanks, academics Inna Ksenofontov and Julia C. Becker offer a detailed, research-based analysis on the ways in which high-power groups use expressions of thanks and gratitude to solidify existing power structures and undermine low-power group’s ability and willingness to protest or push back against the dominant group. Using simple exercises with student volunteers, the researchers were able to demonstrate the ways in which thanks can act as a form of manipulation and suppression against marginalized groups, highlighting the way that toxic gratitude can undermine and weaken the power of marginalized groups (in these examples, students and women) to take active measures against unprofessional and prejudiced behavior by members of the dominant group (respectively professors and male colleagues).
So, with toxic gratitude so deeply rooted and pervasive in our society, how do we go about breaking down its negative influence and reclaiming a meaningful kind of thanks? In their concluding notes, Ksenofontov and Becker advise that we “stimulate a critical reflection of gratitude norms and a redefinition of appropriate situations when to express thanks”. While they are sensibly clear that we should not cease the use of thanks altogether, they do suggest that marginalized groups are “encouraged to be more cautious of the power context and the type of help before expressing thanks”. This, I believe, is crucial in terms of untethering the chokehold that toxic gratitude has over so many marginalized groups and individuals who attempt to break into spaces dominated by cis white men. Creating an awareness of the issue and the ways in which toxic gratitude manifests itself within the dominant group is part of the prescription. However, it is equally important to equip those most vulnerable to the pressures of toxic gratitude with a supportive base from which they can take a stand and choose not to be grateful when it is not in their best interests.
We know that people should be seen and treated as equals and that thanks should be meaningful. Working towards the former will enable the latter, but with the practice of toxic gratitude reinforcing inequalities so deeply entrenched, it will take a major cultural rethink to achieve this.
There must be a willingness on the part of the dominant group to cede their power in a real and concrete way, not only by making space for greater numbers of minorities within traditionally cis white male spaces, but also an understanding that they should not be required to offer up a performance of gratitude as a price for their inclusion. Those from marginalized minority groups should in turn be prepared to stand up to belittling injustices and refuse to play the toxic-gratitude-centered game laid out for them when they are embraced by the dominant group, resisting the imperatives to accept less and to pull the ladder up behind them. While this can mean foregoing personal advantage in the short term and rejecting the conferred ‘exceptionalism’ that goes hand in hand with toxic gratitude, confronting and dismantling the ways in which faux-benevolence keep marginalized groups and individuals at a disadvantage is a goal worth pursuing – a collective rethink of what gratitude means and when it is appropriate to express it.
While the value of true, genuine thanks remains unquestioned, the practice of toxic gratitude that has infected and perpetuated hierarchical relationships needs to be dismantled. Ksenofontov and Becker begin their study with a quote from Malcolm X:
“How can you thank a man for giving you what’s already yours? How then can you thank him for giving you only part of what’s already yours?”.
We should not be thankful for being given what is, without doubt, already ours.
 The Other Black Girl, p.12
 The Other Black Girl, p. 108
 The Other Black Girl, p.151
 Beer and Racism, p.78
 Beer and Racism, p.75-6
 The Ballot or the Bullet, 1964