Your Imaginary Bartender


By Clair McLafferty

Picture, if you will, the stereotypical craft-cocktail bartender. Your bartender is probably wearing suspenders, possibly arm garters, and a well-pressed shirt. He also probably sports a well-coiffed mustache. He is also, dollars to doughnuts, white.

When I was behind the bar full-time, I was the only woman bartender. I learned how to bartend and banter with customers by watching my male colleagues. But if I was direct with a customer who was too loud and wasn’t smiling or used the same body language as my male colleagues to flag down a barback, customers and co-workers complained that I was rude. At one point, a male co-worker complained that I didn’t ask nicely for him to do his bar-backing duties, a complaint he never raised against any male co-workers.

Customers often had questions about spirits, and especially about our whiskey selection. At least once a week, a customer would dismiss me and wave my male bar-back over to ask a question about our selection. After a preliminary back-and-forth, the bar-back would direct the customer back to me. Without fail, customers were always surprised when I could answer their questions and direct their experience based on their preferences.

I’ve written about other parts of my personal experience of being a woman bartender. There’s a darker side to this double standard: others have written about the wage gap for women in the industry and other startling statistics. Groups like Girls With Bols have been started to build a stronger network and community to help women lean in. That’s not even to mention the brave women who started the conversation on sexual assault in the industry. It’s been the subject of a slew of articles this year, and inspired some to found Bartenders Against Sexual Assault.

But the whiteness of your imaginary bartender is influenced by a very real lack of diversity behind the bar, especially at fine dining establishments. According to a study done by Restaurant Opportunity Centers United, “Women and workers of color are largely concentrated in in the lowest paying segments and sections of the restaurant industry.” For people of color, jobs tend to be concentrated in the back of the house, especially in hourly kitchen, busing, or dishwashing capacities. For women, this tends to translate into lower paid serving jobs rather than cushier fine dining or bartending gigs.

Not being able to see yourself represented in a role also has a huge impact on recruiting talented women and people of color into the bartending world. I wish I could say that my little sliver of it is perfect, but it isn’t. Those outside of the industry may have missed the scandal surrounding a Tales of the Cocktail co-founder making a Facebook post in blackface during Mardi Gras and the subsequent lackluster apology. The incident has started conversations about racism and privilege in the service industry — most particularly a Facebook Live interview of the Tales of the Cocktail co-founder by a bartender of color, who has also led sessions on racism at an educational industry event called Bar Institute.

But this should only be the beginning. If we as a community are truly committed to seeing diversity behind the bar, we have to be able to visualize what that looks like. Next time you call to mind an ideal bartender, try redefining your mental image. Imagine a bartender of color. Have them lose the mustache. Bend their gender. Try harder. 

Treat bartenders based on their service, not their race or gender. And most of all? Don’t be a dick.