Sexism & racism in the coffee industry is real. It’s time to take action.

Previously titled: “Follow up to gender and racial equity in the coffee industry”

Jenn Chen
Jenn Chen
Jul 18, 2016 · 10 min read

Tl;dr: Most people actively read & sympathized with my previous article, but others ignored the premise. I examine the common responses. Some asked for more action items & those are included, too.

The piece linked above was my very first personal essay on intersectional feminism that had any sort of public reach. I didn’t realize I had to throw in a huge paragraph of disclaimers. Apparently, without disclaimers, people like to pick apart everything you write. So here we go.

That giant paragraph of disclaimers.
I write from a place of privilege. I work for myself. I have no worry that my employer might retaliate against me, either by firing me, writing a poor performance review, or excluding me from social activities. The people I work with will not exclude me from social activities or write poor peer reviews. I work in the specialty coffee industry in a consumer country. Not the tech industry, where similar articles have led to the doxing of and death threats to writers. I show my values clearly on my website and I choose to work with clients who have similar values. I have the privilege to choose my clients. I’m in a leadership position in the coffee community, where I organize local events and am not worried about retaliation. I wrote the linked piece from the viewpoint of a heterosexual, able-bodied, able-minded, financially stable cis-woman.

Aside from my own catharsis, I have nothing to gain from this. In fact, I and others who write, have more to lose. In a recent study on diversity initiatives and those who promote them, there was “clear and consistent evidence that women and ethnic minorities who promote diversity are penalized in terms of how others perceive their competence and effectiveness.” View the full study here.

The entire point of the piece, to spell it out, was to shine a light on what one person (me) experiences in the coffee industry.

It was NOT a whining piece, NOT a broad representation of every cis-woman or Asian-American working in the industry, NOT a woe-is-me-I-hate-everyone article.

I’ve received a huge amount of support from the last story. Many people shared their personal experiences, some publicly, some privately. There are a remarkable amount of people — unsurprisingly — who relate. Thank you. It took a long while to write that piece. And it has taken another while to write this one. Talking about race and/or gender is supremely uncomfortable. But it is needed and the industry, as a whole, needs to move past this uncomfortable stage to reach the action stage.

What surprised me the most from some of the responses are the attempts to discredit my personal experiences.

I wrote this on Twitter & I’ll repeat it all here.

Just because something has not happened to you — or you’ve never seen it happen — does not invalidate someone else’s experiences. If you feel defensive after reading an article about gender and/or race in coffee, please internally examine why. In my daily life, I get angry about many recent injustices — whitewashing, the Stanford rapist, deniers of sexism, Trump. It’s exhausting to put emotional energy into all of these, so you pick and choose your battles. And if you’re now watching your words & getting mad about that, think about the LIFETIME minorities & women (and other marginalized people) have spent watching their words. Finally, remember that essays are personal. Please don’t tokenize.

Work is part of my life. When I was a barista, there was no division of <here’s the street harassment> and <here’s the cafe harassment>. Everything bleeds together. You know when you’re being sexually harassed as a barista, because you experienced it on the street. You recognize casual sexism in the workplace when your questions and suggestions are brushed off, because you’ve experienced it in your day-to-day life. You understand it’s racism in the cafe when someone tries to speak to you in a different language for the umpteenth time in your life.

Below are common responses that I’d like to address.

Was that really racism? This one time I was told I looked terrible, but I didn’t get offended.
Thank you for dismissing my experiences. On the scale of racism 1–10, it was not a racist 10. I quoted the one racist remark, because it was the most recent, NOT the most horrible. This is not a one-time occurrence, it’s a repetitive series over a lifetime. It’s the ever-present feeling like an “other.”

Racism comes in many forms. Some of it is casual, some of it arrives as a fetish. Some of it is so subtle that you don’t realize it until it’s happened for years.

Have you ever been racially fetishized? I was once told by a man that he wanted to have sex with me, because he’s never had sex with an Asian woman AND he’s been told by his friends that Asian women are really something in bed. I was told by another man that I must be obedient, because I’m an Asian woman. I might be quiet in real life, but fuck you if you really think that means I’ll stand idly by and be okay with being harassed.

Did you grow up with families on TV, actors in movies, and action figures/dolls who look exactly like you? Because I didn’t. That game that people played in middle school, “Which actor do I look like?” ALWAYS gave me the same result: Lucy Liu. Even though I look nothing at all like her. The male alternative answer was Jackie Chan.

For the first time in my life, I voted in a primary that had Asian-Americans on the ballot. I live in a city with an Asian-American mayor. My “I voted” sticker had four languages on it, including Chinese. As a kid, I never contemplated being a politician, because I never saw a politician who looked like me.

Do you have time to listen to all my experiences as an Asian-American woman? Don’t tell me it wasn’t racism, because I’ve lived with this my entire life.

Be more confident.
If you don’t know me, then sure, questioning my personality as a flaw could be a valid argument, except it isn’t. I am very confident in myself. Do you think I walk out into the world without emotional armor? I am prepared for racist and sexist insults every time I walk onto the street.

Confidence may help you ask for a raise or even gather the courage to compete. It is the uncomfortable fallacy of the “Lean In” idea. It ignores privilege. What happens if you’re working in coffee, in a small city, you’re reliant on your barista wages + tips, but your boss is sexist? Do you keep your job, because it’s the best shop to work at to develop your skills? Or do you speak out and risk losing your job?

That’s not sexism.
Again, thank you for dismissing my experiences. You are missing the point. Please listen.

That doesn’t exist where I am.
Oh? I don’t believe you. Perhaps examine why you feel so defensive about this. One-third of the discrimination charges received by the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) in fiscal year 2015 involved workplace harassment.

Leadership positions are earned.
I agree. However, you are not acknowledging the unconscious bias at play here. One study found that men applied for promotions when they met 60% of the qualifications, while women applied only when it was 100%. But it is not a confidence issue. It’s a hiring process issue. The “required qualifications” section of the job listing was interpreted by women as “must-haves” instead of “suggestions,” which was how men were interpreting it. How many of those qualifications are really “required”?

Another study found that there is gender bias in play when giving feedback, regardless of the manager’s gender. Words like “supportive” and “helpful” showed up in reviews of women almost twice as much as for men. Conversely, men’s reviews consisted of words like “drive” and “innovate” twice as often as the women’s reviews.

I’ve never experienced that. (Therefore, it does not exist)
Truly, that is wonderful. I am jealous. I’ll repeat: just because you have not experienced that does not mean it doesn’t happen.

Here are a few more action items:

  • Examine your own unconscious biases. Everyone has them, it’s what you do after acknowledging them that matters. Take a few tests to figure out yours.
  • As a business owner, make it a priority to diversify your staff (but not in a tokenized manner). Create a comfortable atmosphere where the staff feels empowered. The loudest person asking for a raise or promotion may not be the one who deserves it. Make your values clear and that you will back the baristas if they feel like they are being harassed at work. Ensure that your baristas know that can throw a customer out of your cafe if they are feeling harassed. Let your staff know that internal harassment is also not acceptable. Examine how your hiring & promotion practices work and if unconscious bias is accounted for.
  • As an individual, examine your own network. Does everyone look like you, come from the same city and socioeconomic class as you? Make it a priority to diversify your group NOT because you need to meet a quota. (Remember, do not tokenize.) But because people with diverse experiences enlighten life in general.
  • As an individual, call out the shit. As I mentioned before, it gets exhausting to expound emotional energy into every microaggression. When you’re silent, you are complicit in keeping the status quo of white patriarchy in place.
  • As an individual, support companies and organizations in line with your beliefs.
  • As an individual, if you are the third person in a line of judges or the last recruited in a panel, examine the others and see if you are part of the all-male panel.
  • As a coffee community organizer, create a Code of Conduct for your organization. You are welcome to adapt the BACC’s Code of Conduct for your needs. Make sure that it applies to all your events. THEN, at your events, make it a priority to create a diverse panel, competitor pool, judges. Encourage blind tasting.
  • As a sponsor of said events, make it a priority to work with organizers who will be cognizant of diversity. Ask for Code of Conducts. Write a sponsorship agreement and/or guideline for events. Make it so that if these guidelines are violated (e.g. Poster is sexual in nature), that sponsorship will be pulled. I wrote a sponsorship policy for Acaia, which I hope other companies can also adopt. As a company, Acaia is no longer supporting events that feature all-male panel speakers and judges.
  • As a designer, work on equality within promotional photographs and gender-neutral or diverse representation on flyers.

And here’s a final disclaimer: I very much love the coffee community. I’m honored to be a part of it. The people in it and the passion they have for this product is what keeps me moving forward.

Additional Reading

And if you would like some additional reading, here are several industry colleagues who have spoken out.

Perhaps we need to start by building infrastructure that nurtures women into higher positions. Perhaps we too need to have blind performances. All I know is that by lacking female role models, less women will want to be involved and the more of a circle jerk this industry will become.

There’s still a power imbalance between myself and the coffee professional because he’s a well-respected individual, and often represents members of our community in large-scale events and forums. I still feel hesitant to share my story because of this dynamic.

Stop tokenizing the baristas of color you do have. It feels like shit to be “The Black barista”. Yes, I’m a Black woman. I’m also a barista. Judge me for the quality of drinks I serve, the service I provide, and the steps I’m taking to improve the coffee community.

There’s a certain percentage of my guests, regulars or not, who seem to carry an expectation that they and I are friends. And not just low-key, nod to each other on the street friends. Good friends. Hanging out on weekends friends. I’m-going-to-guilt-you-if-you-bail friends.

The entire June/July 2016 issue of Barista Magazine is dedicated to exploring the topic of women in coffee.

And some other related reading, not particularly about the coffee industry.

Workplace representation or advocacy is often non-existent; casual employment that gives little guarantee of stable week-to-week income, leave entitlements or even basic job security is rife; and in a small business there’s often no reporting line or recourse for unfair treatment.

If you think that this violence has nothing to do with bro talk, you’re wrong. When we dehumanize people in conversation, we give permission for them to be degraded in other ways as well. And even if we don’t participate, our silence condones this language.

Jenn Chen

Written by

Jenn Chen

SF-based freelance coffee marketer, writer & photographer. Inspired by donuts, colors, and culture. / @thejennchen

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