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

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After a few weeks of double shifts, no lunch breaks and sometimes bringing home embarrassingly small amounts of money left by, yes, my own people, I, too, began to wonder if there was something to my colleagues’ comments. For the life of me, why didn’t my own people tip 20 percent or at least a paltry 15 percent?

I’ll never forget serving a family of five. Their tab came to $98. The older black gentleman praised my service and even asked where I’d be studying in the fall. He shook my hand, enclosing a folded $100 bill, and as he left he said, “Keep the change.” It was apparent that he was serious, and had no idea that I wanted to chase him out into the parking lot with a baseball bat, Joe Clark-style.

Perhaps he, like so many others, was clueless as to how little money waiters make in most states, unless you live in California or Alaska, where servers make closer to $8 an hour. This disparity translates, in most states, to waiters earning closer to $2, maybe $3 an hour.

Lots of restaurants are making out like fat rats, relying on their guests to pay their employees’ salaries. My reality was that I survived on tips. (As for our brothers and sisters with documentation issues, Lord knows how much less than $2 an hour they’re paid.)

If you’re rolling your eyes in disbelief over my tale, there is compelling research suggesting a link between race and attitudes about tipping. In The Root’s recent survey about tipping, 40 percent of blacks said that they tip 20 percent or more of the bill, while 57 percent of whites said they tip that much. When asked why they tip in the first place, blacks were twice as likely as whites to say it’s because they like to reward good service (30 percent vs. 15 percent), and significantly less likely to cite the low wages that waitstaff earn (33 percent vs. 42 percent).

Does this mean that all black folks are poor tippers? Absolutely not. That would be an overgeneralization. However, stereotypes stem from true events that get repeated enough times to leave an impression in the minds of many. So whether only a segment of black folks skimp on tipping is irrelevant because the net effect is that the stereotype determines the kind of service we may get.