Check, Please: Black Folks and Tipping

A writer who waited tables breaks the silence on a racial stereotype pervading America's restaurants.

Woman in restaurant with waiters

The summer before I started college, almost 10 years ago in Baltimore County, I became a waiter. It was a rite of passage into the workforce, albeit an unglamorous one. Working in a restaurant gave me my first real experience interacting with all sorts of people in an intimate way. At the end of the day, regardless of socioeconomic class, a hungry person is a hungry person — making people unpredictable, and their tips negotiable.

Elderly people, the soup-salad-and-bread-stick thrifty types: horrible tippers. And those high-rolling suited professionals who were quick to flash their American Express cards: shamefully bad tippers. And to my kinfolk in the black community, I must say: If slavery wasn’t acceptable when we fought the Civil War … (more on this later).

I was 17: wide-eyed, high-spirited and poised to wow all who passed through the doors of the popular restaurant chain, known for its Jack Daniels-glazed fare. Old-school manners in full effect. I would arrive early, my uniform always cleaned and pressed, and I made sure my salt and pepper shakers were always full. I rolled silverware in white handkerchiefs and made sure my section was spotless.

Within a week of starting my job, I overheard casually racist comments from my colleagues about different ethnic groups, particularly African Americans. Whenever groups of black people were seated, a white exodus into the kitchen would ensue. It was a white waiter’s version of a silent strike. They’d snicker comments like, “That’s Cherry Hill over there.”

It got so bad that at one point, many of the white servers told the hosts not to seat any black folks in their section. So this meant, for a spell, de facto segregation at the restaurant, as white servers who wanted to wait on nonblack parties left the black waitstaff to wait on black parties — which was cool, right?