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?
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.
Rebounding from a hostile economy, one waiter named Lena (not her real name) spoke to The Root. She is a middle-aged freelance artist who was laid off earlier this month and took a job waiting tables at a popular chain restaurant in Prince George's County, a suburb of Washington D.C., known for its affluent black subdivisions. "There's something to [the link between] race and tipping. Honestly, I can't say that I have ever gotten a bad tip from an Asian," Lena said in a telephone interview.
My experience was that many of my African-American guests simply did not know that 20 percent is the standard tip. Barring terrible service, it should always be that. And if tipping is an issue, there's always the takeout option or the ubiquitous Golden Arches.
At the risk of being ousted from the black community, I'm going to take a stab at another of the reasons that some of us tip poorly. To reduce the matter to economic means would be a gross oversimplification, since I've received a 50 percent tip from a table of teenagers.
I think it's more about racism.
Think about it: For black folks, there are still relatively few opportunities (outside of therapy) to articulate our frustration with the unbalanced scales of power in our society. Even for those in the upper echelons, the playing field isn't level, and in our current economic climate, everything is in flux, making waiters easy targets. I found that the tables that demanded the most tipped the worst. It became painfully clear that I gave my distressed guest an opportunity to feel superior.
Though it's been nearly 10 years, I still think back on those early days when I was in the trenches with more than 2 million other people who work as waiters every year. Now each time I go to a restaurant, my heart breaks when I see my server force a smile, because chances are he or she is thinking that I'm going to stiff him or her. This is when I share my battle stories of waiting tables. Slowly the server's worry lines recede, and for a moment, my server and I are of one mind.
I can genuinely say, I know where these waiters are coming from: no lunch breaks, sick days or the dignity of knowing how much money they'll earn each week for an honest week's work — that endless waiting for that opening in the sky, hoping for a few silver coins that scarcely come.