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Seats at the Table: Tales of the Cocktail Foundation Addresses LGBTQ+ Black Inclusivity in the Hospitality Industry

When you look around your table, who do you see?

Earlier today, the Tales of the Cocktail Foundation presented “Black. Queer. And Still Here,” the latest installment of their weekly Full Hands In / Full Hands Out webinar series. Chris Cabrera, TOTCF Grants Advisory Committee member, moderated a panel of six LGBTQ+ Black bar professionals. They presented the first-ever LGBTQ+ education session in the history of Tales in 2019.

The panelists—Tiffanie Barriere, Lorenzo Cyril, D’Arel Miller, Simone D Mims, Rikki Nobre and Stephanie Simon—shared their experiences in both their personal lives and the hospitality industry, as did Cabrera. The conversation was englightening, uncomfortable, and at times disheartening.

I want to share a few things before proceeding. I’m a white, cisgender, straight male. My life and professional experiences have not been—and likely never will be—similar to those of the panelists who participated in this webinar. I acknowledge that I’m likely going to make mistakes when addressing the very real issues of diversity, inclusivity, race, gender, sexuality, and more in the hospitality industry and world at large. I’m listening and open to being corrected when I make mistakes.

Also, this isn’t about me: This is about pushing difficult conversations forward, so I thank each of these panelists for sharing their experiences and vision for the future of this industry. I learned a lot and have more to learn.

Caroline Rosen, president of the TOTCF, introduced this webinar by stating that it was “a fraction of a step” down the path toward addressing the many issues surrounding hospitality. As she said, a long-term plan for diversity and inclusivity won’t be created quickly.

There has been a lot of talk about the hospitality industry’s diversity problem over the past few years. Interestingly, Cabrera believes that hospitality is diverse and has been for several years. However, they made the point that Black and queer diversity hasn’t been addressed the same as it has been for others.

Cabrera also said they were curious as to why so many white people are uncomfortable saying the word Black. After all, it’s not a derogatory term, and neither is queer. Unless white people can get comfortable using those words, which are socially acceptable identifiers, said Cabrera, we can’t effect real change because we can’t have real and necessary conversations.

Mims explained that diversity and inclusion are two different things. Diversity, as she said, is the representation of different groups and communities—inclusivity is listening to and valuing all of those represented voices. Mims has been in the industry for over 20 years and has usually been one of maybe three (at most) Black people at the table. She has often been the only Black woman and the only queer person. In her experience, her qualifications and knowledge have constantly been tested even though they’re required of anyone who works behind the bar. Mims’ white counterparts haven’t received the same treatment.

Nobre shared that she has had similar experiences. She has walked into bars and restaurants and been made to feel as though she doesn’t belong. It has been only after identifying herself as industry that she has been welcomed. Nobre’s experience carries over to her personal life, as it does for the rest of the panel. Entering a space and immediately looking for another Black person so they feel safe and as though they may belong is part of daily life. Nobre said that when she travels to a new city she Googles whether it’s racist or not. When she explained that part of her life, the rest of the panel nodded emphatically—they have that same experience.

Another part of daily life the panelists discussed is alternating their vernacular, known as code switching. “Code switching is a national sport,” said Mims, a sentiment with which the rest of the panel and several attendees agreed.

For those unfamilair with this term, Cyril explained that every Black person learns to become an expert in code switching in order to fall within the contruct of professionalism, created by white people.

Barriere expanded on the topic, saying she was taught at an early age how to speak to white people, to speak only when spoken to, and even how to look at white people to stay safe and succeed professionally. She said that she wasn’t given what one would consider a Black name, and she was taught to perfect a “telephone voice.”

The rest of the panel nodded knowingly when Barriere mentioned not having a Black name and having a telephone voice. Simon, for example, has a first name and phone voice that lead people to believe she’s white. Some people who have met her in person after speaking with her over the phone have clearly been surprised to find out she’s Black. Currently living and working in Paris, France, Simon described racism in Europe as “polite” but also “formidable.”

Miller came up in the fine-dining segment of hospitality, working at venues in New York and Arizona. He grew tired of having to put on a face and voice that wasn’t really his just to work in fine dining, so he moved to clubs and more casual hospitality venues. It’s one thing to adopt the “prim and proper” conduct expected of those who work in fine dining; it’s quite another to feel as though showing your authentic self would get you fired, harassed or otherwise discriminated against.

Authenticity, as Cabrera and the panel pointed out, is a two-way street. If a white and/or straight person doesn’t really want to learn how they can become an ally, help effect change, and change themselves, this panel would rather you not waste anyone’s time pretending the opposite is true. Being an authentic participant in this conversation, becoming an authentic ally, starts with asking and actively listening. If one isn’t interested in embracing those two steps, they’re likely not actually interested in being part of change. As Mims said, “if you want to sit in your ignorance and” be blissful, so be it.

“If you don’t want to know the truth, don’t ask,” said Mims. The truth is uncomfortable. The truth of what Black, LGBTQ+, Latinx and other marginalized groups experiences every day of their personal and professional lives is ugly and heartbreaking. And it’s a truth that can’t be ignored any longer.

Miller strongly cautioned those who aren’t going to take this conversation seriously and approach it with open minds against pandering to marginalized communities in order to appear woke and look good in the public eye. Owners and operators of hospitality venues and brands aren’t going to fool anyone if they approach these issues in an inauthentic manner. Bringing more diverse voices to the table and actually respecting them should be part of every operation.

Cabrera explained that people who want to know the truth, be an ally and help bring about real change need to actively listen, not just “listen” as they wait to respond immediately. Active listening involves taking the time to reflect on what one hears so meaningful follow-up questions can be asked and answered. That’s how an authentic conversation about diversity and inclusivity must go if the industry—and society—is going to change and heal. One attendee summed up how to have these conversations by posting a helpful acronym ALOHA in the comments: Ask, Listen, Observe, Help, Ask again.

“We need allies, not saviors,” clarified Mims, illustrating the importance of listening and reflection during these conversations.

“I don’t want your black boxes on social media, I don’t want your well wishes, I want you to hire Black people,” said Cyril at the end of the webinar.

Simon explained that the discomfort surrounding the conversations we must have in this industry is part of the process. Anyone who asks difficult questions must be prepared to hear—and really listen to—uncomfortable answers. Consider and reflect on the following question and answer:

Q: Why aren’t there more Black and queer voices being heard and respected throughout the hospitality industry?

A: Because many operators, as well as they talk the talk about diversity and inclusion, aren’t seeking those voices out and hiring them. They’re out there, and not at all in small numbers.

Much more was discussed during this webinar and I want as many industry professionals as possible to watch it, so I encourage anyone reading this to click here or contact the TOTCF to learn how to register to view the recording.

Image by Free-Photos from Pixabay

David Klemt View All

I’ve been studying and writing about the hospitality industry since 2006. Like so many people, I started my journey in this business by working as a host, server and bartender. I was introduced to nightlife in Chicago, learning the ins and outs of nightclubs and after-hours hot spots.

After moving to Las Vegas nearly 20 years ago, I both co-owned a valet company and helped promote the club it serviced. That led to me taking on the role of editor for a Las Vegas hospitality industry publication.

A few short years later, I continued along my journey of hospitality industry reporting. I went from contributing to a major industry outlet to taking on the role of editor and content curator.

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