One Step Forward, Two Steps Sideways: How White Feminism Is Holding Coffee Back

One Step Forward, Two Steps Sideways: How White Feminism Is Holding Coffee Back

We are so quick to call progress.

Don’t get me wrong; women killed it this year at competition. (They kill it every year at competition, tbqh.) Between Knoxville and Austin, women came in with a vengeance and did their thing. I was among them.

Coffee exploded in celebrations particularly after the Austin competition round because women were represented in top-scoring spots in Barista, Brewer’s Cup, Cup Taster’s, and Roaster’s Competition. In an awesome editorial posted a few days ago, Ashley Rodriguez (Barista Magazine, CRO Café) breaks down the “progress” people talked about:

“And yet, that sentence—“at least half of the top six were women”—is incredibly confusing and mars the rest of the results of the competition. In Austin, while half of the top six finishers were women, only five out of the top 18 were women. In Knoxville, only four out of the top 18 were women. That’s far from half. And to point to the top six being female, using that as a sign that gender equity is fixed, and we no longer need to work on underrepresentation of women in competition—that is misleading and dangerously incorrect. Likewise, to comment on the gender of the top finishers completely ignores not just that none of the top finishers were black or brown or of any different skin color, but that very few black and brown people competed to begin with.”

She’s absolutely right. We can and should celebrate these achievements, but the fight for diversity and inclusion is far from over. Not in competition and sure as hell not industry-wide. This jump to pat ourselves on the back and call it a day is an example of white feminism, and it seriously plagues how our communities in specialty coffee view and handle social justice.

Wikipedia defines white feminism as “a pejorative term for forms of feminism that focus on the struggles of well-off white women while failing to address the distinct forms of oppression faced by women of colour and women lacking other privileges.”

Many of the unique challenges further marginalized groups of women face are overlooked and erased because of our strictly gender-centered conversations. Due to the fact that our society is based on white/cis/heteronormativity, by default, that is where our ideas of feminism are centered.

Those of us who don’t identify with the “default” are forced to raise our voices, hoping our oppressions as they relate to gender inequality are heard and also fought for. Failure to acknowledge these issues is erasure. To be truly feminist is to be intersectional as fuck.

I have been conscious of the efforts coffee professionals — men and women — have been putting forth to be gender and race-inclusive. I’ve been grateful to see the engagement of those responsible for establishing company culture. A lot of us do want change!

While well intentioned, I still see the overstepping of the (very) thin line into tokenization. Coffee companies making strong, forceful declarations of equity (“We are so diverse! Look at all these women we have on staff! Women run our company! Educators! Managers! We have POC on staff, too! Here’s a pic!”) is an example of this.

More often than not, I still don’t see women of color and women who identify as trans, queer, or gender non-confirming in those declarations. If they are seen, are you, as a coffee company, manager, etc, just drawing the line there? In a social context, visibility takes multiple forms and it’s up to you in a privileged position of influence to make sure all of them are enacted and maintained.

So, what does visibility look like?

Visibility is still seeing. Social media shout outs, shifts scheduled during peak business hours, opportunities to attend industry events, subject content in coffee marketing— big or small, these types of efforts to let marginalized groups of women physically be seen goes a long way. But as previously stated, stopping there is opening up the possibility for your people to feel tokenized.

It’s listening. All women face challenges for being women, but as the number of intersections of a woman increase, the challenges become more unique and complicated. I am a Black cisgender woman, so I’m vulnerable to acts of racism and sexism. A Black queer trans woman would be vulnerable to racism, sexism, and transphobia. I can’t speak to the experience of a Black queer trans woman because of my cisgender privilege, but I can listen and fight for their voice to be heard and considered. The same goes for the coffee professionals you employ.

Baristas of varying intersections are going to have experiences from customers, peers, and superiors that you may not understand because you can’t relate. No matter what, getting defensive is never the first response you should have. If you find yourself feeling that way in a situation, set it aside. We didn’t evolve into having one mouth and two ears for no reason.

Shut up and listen. Practice empathy. Fight past your privileges so that you can fight for your people. Everyone should feel heard so that they can feel valued and taken care of as they pursue their passion for coffee.

It’s making room, inspiring, and empowering. If you’re a coffee company that regularly sends people to competition and events, allow staff to organize external and internal community gatherings, or you practice promoting from within (to name a few examples), ask yourself: who am I choosing to take part? Who am I opting to engage about career advancement, coffee culture, coffee science, etc? Who am I allowing grace and room for growth? If the patterns you draw do not or very minimally include women AND women of color AND women who identify as queer/trans/non-conforming, you need to reassess.

If you’re reading this blog, you’re likely someone who doesn’t see coffee as just a job. Coffee is your career and you are filled with a burning passion for it. An unknown number of those reading this are women and marginalized women, and most of them are also career coffee professionals who share that passion. You are doing a disservice to those women, yourselves, and specialty coffee as a whole by not doing what is necessary to make sure that fire is fueled.

We must work to create safe, cultivating environments for our people because specialty coffee— in science, innovation, and education — depends on it. 

Complacency is complicity and a silent killer of progress. Placing women at the helm is only just the start of that progress. Until ALL women are offered the same opportunities to be at the forefront of specialty coffee, we will continue to fail.

We must not get so hung up on our step forward that any more steps than that are sideways. Some of us are still being left behind. We all deserve a spot on the bar. If you don’t think we can fit, demolish it and build a new one.

- m.


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