Where are all the Black people?
I asked the question aloud as my husband and I pulled into Downtown Asheville one October weekend last year. We were weary from the road—the drive from Atlanta felt more like a steady climb as we headed up the Piedmont towards the Blue Ridge Mountains—but excited to explore a city we had fallen in love with years before.
Autumn brings a dazzling display to the region, but even without the golds and auburns lining the highway, the drive to Asheville is one of breathtaking views. I would love to say that beauty alone inspired us to return to Asheville like the faithful to Mecca, but that’s simply not true. We came for the beer.
[Editor's note: This piece was originally written and commissioned in March, prior to COVID-19 lockdowns and the current uprising, and was held back at a time when most taprooms were closed. It has since been updated to reflect the events of the last several months.]
Asheville was known as “Beer City USA” for many years, even if it lost the title to Grand Rapids, Michigan in the last public poll. Still, it’s rightly considered one of the best beer cities in the country. Even better for us: while a journey to Seattle, San Diego, or either of the Portlands would have adequately satisfied our thirst, Asheville is only a five-hour trip from Atlanta.
As we drove through the streets of Asheville that day, I watched as families and couples strolled down the sidewalks of the mountainous city. Every face was White, which felt like a shocking contrast to Atlanta. The numbers back up that impression: according to U.S. Census estimates, 83% of Asheville’s residents are White, while 51.8% of Atlanta’s residents are Black.
I hadn’t noticed the difference on my previous visit. Or maybe I did notice, but my recent, heightened attention to diversity in the beer community made the reality of Asheville’s Whiteness more apparent.
Like Asheville, Atlanta has its own moniker. In the 1970s, it became known as the “Black Mecca” of the South (Harlem was the original “Black Mecca” in the 1920s, during the Harlem Renaissance). The term “Black Mecca” signifies that a city is home to a thriving middle- and upper-class Black community, and that Black businesses, educational bodies, and arts and cultural institutions enjoy prominence and respect. Atlanta has provided Black people with opportunities that are harder to find in other parts of the country. Leaving our comfortable environs was a stark reminder of that fact.FOREIGNER IN A STRANGE TOWN
Atlanta’s beer community reflects the diversity of the city, but it hasn’t always felt that way. I remember the first time I stepped into a brewery about 10 years ago, unsure and precautious as I waded through the sea of White people dressed in white and blue polo shirts and khaki pants. My husband and I made our way through the crowd and ordered with some guidance from the server behind the bar.
With my glass in hand, I became more intrigued by the surrounding atmosphere. Everywhere, there were groups of young, White men who looked like the frat guys who roamed the halls of my college. Their postures conveyed how comfortable they were in an environment that was foreign to me. I felt like an outsider, an unwanted guest encroaching on someone’s private space.
Though the place was foreign, the feeling wasn’t: it still pops up whenever I find myself in an all-White space. One of the first times I felt it was during a family trip to the Florida Panhandle when I was a kid. The excitement of spending my days jumping waves and floating in the ocean was peppered with moments of feeling like my family didn’t belong. The questioning looks from strangers are still seared into my memory.
Only later did I come to understand those looks as microaggressions: subtle actions and words that show another person’s intentional or unintentional biases. Though fleeting at the time, those small actions spoke loudly, and shaped my understanding of the world and my place in it. They felt like unspoken rules that tried to designate where I was allowed to go, and restrict me from places where my presence wasn’t welcome.
Unlike my experiences in Florida, my first brewery visit wasn’t an unpleasant one. We continued to visit taprooms across the city. We found one where the vibe was more in sync with our tastes. We later got married there. Sure, it still had the same crowd of White, bro-y dudes decked out in their uniform of white and blue polos, but the occasional Black or Brown face could still be found behind the bar or out on the patio enjoying the summer sun.A SEA OF WHITE
My relationship with this country is fundamentally different than a White person’s. My race and gender are a key part of who I am, and they are the lens through which I see the world. My identity affects how I interact with the world, and how the world interacts with me.
For instance: as a Black person, you often find yourself questioning your interactions with others. Why did he give me such a detailed explanation of their IPAs? Does he do that for everyone? Or did he do it because I’m Black? Or a woman?
Whenever I walk into a room, I count the number of Black people in it. I’m not the only one who does it. Other Black people do too. Some of my White friends who consciously think about inclusion do too. It feels lonely when I walk into a taproom and see that I’m the only Black person in it; though my complexion makes me stand out, I feel paradoxically invisible. Not even an afterthought. It’s this isolation that motivates Black people to establish their own spaces.
Navigating all-White spaces can be tough. My defenses go up. Not high-alert, but casually cautious, because I don’t know where an interaction will lead. I remember one conversation with a group of coworkers. They were diving into the music of their childhoods. Several people threw out a few big names that I recognized, but if you asked me to comment on their catalogue of works, you would receive a blank stare. I continued to listen to the conversation, having nothing to add since the genre of music up for discussion was largely foreign to me.
At some point in the conversation, my coworker asked my opinion on a particular band. And that’s when I had to remind him that I was Black and didn’t grow up listening to that type of music. That’s not to say that Black people are a monolith—I know Black people enjoy listening to music by White artists. I happen to be one of them, but when I was young, my parents filled our house with music by Prince, Marvin Gaye, Al Green. It was an innocuous conversation on the surface, but one that made me feel othered—even in my coworker’s attempt at inclusion.
Everything from simple cultural references to outright insensitive and offensive statements can turn a regular conversation into an impromptu lecture on Black identity. Statements like “That’s so ghetto” or “I don’t see race” can send my spidey senses into high alert. They trigger an internal struggle. Should I address this? Should I bring up race? Will this make things awkward? At the root of these questions is my fear of alienating White people—my fear of making them uncomfortable, despite the fact that their words did me harm.BEER AND BEYONCÉ
As my love of beer evolved, I became more entrenched in the Atlanta scene. My current community consists of a diverse group of women, many of whom look like me and share my experiences. While I can have a conversation with anyone, nothing beats sharing a beer with someone who understands your perspective of the world.
Now, my “beer scene” looks like meeting up with women who swap tasting notes, discuss the cultural importance of Beyoncé’s “Homecoming,” and plan how we can encourage more Black women to fall in love with craft beer—all in one night. I’ve shared beers with women who challenge us to extend our idea of “diversity” beyond women and Black people. I have the privilege of walking into Atlanta beer events and seeing familiar faces from all walks of life.
I’m comfortable here. Not just because I know the faces of the people behind the bar, but because I know I’m welcome in these spaces. And as I’ve learned in life, there’s a difference between being accepted and being welcomed.
After settling down at our Airbnb in Asheville that October day, we headed towards the first stop on our carefully curated list, armed with my DSLR and excitement for the adventure ahead. But upon arrival, a quick scan of the taproom confirmed we were the only Black people present.
That moment triggered the same quick, involuntary reaction that my brain seems required to perform whenever I walk into unfamiliar, all-White spaces.
Anyone who has seen a Western or biker bar scene knows this cliché. An outsider walks into a bar, and for a moment, the newcomer goes unnoticed. The bar patrons continue to sip beer from thick glass mugs, shoot pool in the back corner, dance to the music winding out of the jukebox.
Then that moment abruptly ends. The bar patrons simultaneously pause and look towards the door where the outsider stands. In that moment, the patrons determine how to react. Is this newcomer a friend or foe? Friends are welcomed into the fold. The music switches back on, and the patrons continue on as if someone pressed the play button on a remote. Foes aren’t so lucky.
After we’d become so comfortable in the Atlanta beer scene, walking into a brewery in Asheville felt like a return to long-ago fears and discomforts. As we continued our trip around town, we remained the only Black people in all of the taprooms we visited. This wasn’t a new experience, but an old one we thought we’d left behind years ago. I wanted to get lost in the beauty of the mountains, the beer we tried across the city, the hearty breakfast I devoured at Tupelo Honey. But the fact that we were so often the only Black people around kept nagging at me.SAVED BY FIREFIGHTERS
On the final night of our trip, we walked into the last brewery on our list, which was in the midst of a huge Halloween party. A coven of witches stood closest to the door and looked at us when we walked in. My internal movie screen flickered on right on schedule, but it was interrupted by my intrigue. How often do you encounter a coven of witches? I asked the women if I could snap a picture of them, and they happily obliged. A man dressed as Jesus photobombed the shot.
The brewery was electric with the energy of costumed people shaking off the stress of the week. I performed my typical scan of the crowd, looking one more time for a Black face. And to my surprise, I found two Black people, standing in a group near the bar. I rushed over and introduced myself. It turned out they were a group of firefighters, enjoying an after-shift beer. I shared my observations of Asheville and its lack of diversity in the many taprooms I visited. They acknowledged my comments with a collective shrug, which seemed to say everything: Asheville is White, and its taprooms Whiter still.
Our conversation evolved into less serious topics, like my love for “Chicago Fire.” We laughed and joked around for a few more minutes before going our separate ways. The interaction was one of the most memorable experiences I had on the trip. Though I left Asheville with lingering disappointment, that moment was a shining light.
Since my trip to Asheville, our world is strikingly different from what it was before. Taprooms around the country have closed their doors in an effort to reduce the spread of COVID-19. I’ve watched as nationwide protests against racial inequality and police brutality start to catch the attention of White America. Black squares from people and businesses flooded my Instagram timeline on Blackout Tuesday. An awakening seems to be occurring across the country.
It’s also an awakening that demonstrates the privilege of having White skin in this country. Every day, I live with the injustices assigned to my skin color—but until now, White Americans had the ability to distance themselves from the struggles of living in a society steeped in systemic racism. Watching this awakening was triggering. It amplified my feelings of invisibility, but at the same time, I started to feel hopeful.
I’m hopeful that breweries around the country will make a genuine effort to be welcoming to all. As beer businesses start to open and bounce back, I want them to consider how they can diversify their taprooms and other spaces—whether that’s hiring more Black and Brown front-of-house and brewing staff, or hosting events that cater to the Black community. Shaping a welcoming and safe environment for Black and Brown people requires a genuine desire for inclusion. There isn’t a checklist that can be ticked off to get there. But it starts with education, which is followed by action.
Before the pandemic and awakening of White America, I was resigned to the fact that, as I explored breweries across the country, I would continue to wrestle with my disappointment in the lack of diversity in the taprooms I visited. I’m cautiously optimistic that, as the country moves past COVID-19 and as we start to roam the world again, I will begin to see a change.
If 2020 has shown us anything, it’s that we need each other to survive. The world won’t be the same after the pandemic’s over. At least I hope it won’t.Words, Stephanie GrantIllustrations, Colette Holston