Stuff Black People Don’t Like: Tipping

August 17, 2011  |  

So yesterday I was reading a Shadow & Act post about a new web series called “Black People Don’t…”  a satirical yet candid discussion with black folks around stereotypical things we, as a people, supposedly don’t do.  Anyway, there was one episode that really caught my attention on the subject of blacks not tipping.  Now I know what you’re saying —  “That is a racist untruth that does not dignify an answer, blah, blah, and blah….” — but before folks get all indignant I have a story to tell.

All through high school and pretty much through college, I worked as a waitress.  In fact, my very first on-the-books job was as a waitress at Friendly’s – you know, the place that makes those SuperMelt sandwiches and ice cream sundaes.  Anyway, my first few weeks of work was spent as a waitress-in-training, which meant that I had to follow around a tenured waitress, whose job it was to ready me for waiting tables of my own.  She took kindly to me, showing me the ropes on how to hold one of those large trays without dropping it, how to handle multiple tables at one time and dropping other pearls of wisdom to make my experience at Friendly’s more friendly.  On my first day on the floor my mentor pulled me aside and gave me one last tidbit of advice:  “Whatever you do, don’t take it personal.  Black folks just don’t tip.”  Huh?  I was stunned, short of offended, not only because she was brazen enough to say that to me but also because she was a black lady.  Surely, this lady was suffering from some sort of self-hatred issues.  Boy was I wrong.

One of my very first tables of the night was a four-top of two black women, one black guy and a black baby.  Before I could get the customary “Welcome Friendly’s may I take your order” out my mouth, I was already besieged with demands for appetizers, soda, more crayons and a gazillion questions about what could and could not be substituted on the menu.  After finally taking their orders I was summoned to the table a total of 12 times for more soda, a glass of water, another box of crayons, more napkins and ranch dressing.  It wouldn’t have been so bad if they had asked me for everything at one time, but these people were determined to work me hard.  But through it all, I gritted my teeth and smiled because I knew that my due-diligence in providing the very best in Friendly’s service was going to be rewarded with a big fat tip.  Boy, was I batting 0-2.  Not only did the bothersome-foursome not leave a tip, they had the nerve to leave $2 less than the bill.

At first I thought it was a Philly-thing, until I started waitressing my way through college, this time at Red Lobster, and noticed that the poor to no tipping policy by black folks seemed to be universal. It was so bad that most of the waitstaff – regardless of color – would moan and groan when they saw a table of black customers in their section.  Honestly, I would do it too.  I know it sounds ignorant, but as a poor college student, hustling through classes and 40 hours (or more) a week at work, I could not afford to be pro-Black.  That was until one day I began to reflect on my and my co-workers’ treatment of our black customers and thought, maybe it was us.  Maybe I had been so scared by the first bad experience with the black table of four and the words of my black mentor that I had just internalized this black folks don’t tip meme and began to treat them accordingly.

So for one shift, I instructed the hostess to make my section the unofficial “colored” section of the restaurant.  This sent shockwaves through the Red Lobster kitchen, especially among the waitstaff, who thought I was foolish, but were okay with it as my foolishness gave them an opportunity to make some real dough that night.  Anyway, all night I hustled through my tables, delivering trays and trays of ranch dressing, ketchup and a plethora of napkins.  I also smiled and engaged the customers more, even offering suggestions for substitutes, which I felt might be more to their liking.  At the end of the night, I counted up my tips and lo and behold, I still made less than what I normally did.  However, each one of my tables tipped me something, even if it was just a dollar per person.

So yeah, part of it is the attitude of servers themselves, however I would be remiss if I didn’t mention the other factors, including misinformation and the flat-out, “I’m just not doing it” rationale.  To those, who are misinformed or feel they shouldn’t have to tip, remember that it is customary to tip your server between 15 to 20 percent of your bill.  Sounds like a lot but not really, especially when you consider that the average server typically makes 2-3 bucks an hour.  That’s right, the person who has been on his or her feet for the past 6 hours, bustling from table to table, filling endless requests for water, napkins and more ketchup, makes less per hour than the guy who greets you at the nearby Walmart. This is because waitstaff employers are by law allowed to pay individuals engaged in occupations in which regularly receive more than $30 a month in tips, less than minimum wage.  This unfortunate reality means that wait staff must rely on the finicky, and sometimes abusive, demands of a public, who uses individual criteria of “good” service for their sole source of income.  In other words, you can have one table which is only interested in the bare minimum of food, water and bill and call that good service, while another table feels that they are entitled to work and berate you because you have a plastic nametag in the shape of a Halibut pinned to your shirt.  So whatever the reason, leave your waitress/waiter something because, unless they work at “Chez You Fancy, Huh?” on Beverly Hills Blvd, many of them are working-class folks, just like some of you, hustling and scrapping to get by.

But I will say that I’m not so sure if the reputation is ours to bear alone.  After my little social-experiment that day I started really monitoring who would and would not leave a tip.  I found that foreigners from countries where a livable wage is customary of service people, single white women with children and poor folks of all colors, did not tip regularly or appropriately.  The latter too was of course for economic reasons.  And despite their inability to tip me appropriately, they were always really nice and thankful for the service, which in the end, made my job much more pleasant.

Charing Ball is the author of the blog People, Places & Things.

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