Commentary: Which Came First, Poor Service or Bad Tipping?

A report from the University of North Carolina says discrimination against Blacks in the restaurant industry is widespread.

Posted: 04/25/2012 08:56 AM EDT
National news, resteraunts, waitresses, tipping
gratuity, tipping, University of North Carolina, tableside racism, National News, Cord Jefferson

(Photo: GettyImages)

For as long as I can remember, the story in the service industry has always been that African-American customers are bad tippers. Many of my friends who have worked in the restaurants have told me the same story: As soon as they started, their coworkers warned them to look out for tables of Black people. “I’m not racist,” their colleagues would say. “It’s just that they tip way less than white people. That’s just the way it is.” But is that really just the way it is? A new study says it’s not as simple as some of these anti-Black servers are making it.

 

Allow us to introduce you to “tableside racism”: According to a new report out of the University of North Carolina and published in the Journal of Black Studies, for which they interviewed dozens of white servers, server hostility toward Black customers in restaurants is a widespread phenomenon, with a full third of restaurant servers practicing discrimination toward African-American guests. This from the report’s press release:

 

"Survey results showed that 38.5 percent of servers reported that customers’ race informed their level of service at least some of the time, often resulting in providing inferior service to African-American customers. Findings show that many servers perceive African-American customers to be impolite and/or poor tippers, suggesting that black patrons, in particular, are likely targets of servers’ self-professed discriminatory actions. 

 

"The survey also found that 52.8 percent of servers reported seeing other servers discriminate against African-American customers by giving them poor service at least some of the time."

 

When it came to having or hearing conversations about how Black people are poor restaurant customers, the number was overwhelming: Only 10 percent of servers had never heard or engaged in “racialized discourse.”

 

Does this mean that some Black people aren’t bad tippers? Of course not. In fact, very many Black people might be bad tippers. But what this study suggests is that maybe Black people are leaving poor tips because their servers are treating them poorly. If a server walks into an interaction with a Black customer assuming the they’re not going to get a tip, that could potentially lead to a self-fulfilling prophecy when they treat the Black customer different from the way they would a white customer. And that’s not the Black customer’s fault.

 

The opinions expressed here do not necessarily reflect those of BET Networks.

 

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