A few housekeeping notes. First, I suppose that it’s not a great thing that my first real post violates my pre-9am rule. But, late last evening, I got into a protracted Facebook discussion about tipping, and I ended up staying up later than I should have. If my blog is supposed to be like that first pancake of the day, then I offer myself a minor dispensation for a weekend brunch. Pancakes at noon are acceptable on a Saturday. Second, this blog is about a very common sort of disagreement that can arise between black folks and white folks, but that disagreement was never mean-spirited. That is, though I think that there are sometimes problematic aspects to how such discussions shake out, I do *not* think that the white people with whom I was talking were racist in any meaningful sense; indeed, at least for the people I actually knew, to the extent that a person can know another person’s heart, I feel quite certain the opposite is true.
This discussion focused on the why it is that black people tip less than white people, and when I strolled in, the conversation was at that point entirely had amongst white people, which is (of course) fine and to be expected. You can’t always have your black friend when you need him. We’re a rare and precious commodity, and our time gets pulled in many directions. Anyway, this is a subject that I have long had some interest in, so seeing them knock about without getting to the meat of things, I offered my take. Before getting to that, let me begin with the assertion of a fact: on average black people do indeed tip less than white people. This is true even when you control for a host factors, including income, education, geography, etc.*
I made a two-part argument. First, tipping in America, as white people practice it, has to be seen as something of an oddity. Most places in the world don’t tip the way they do, and the very structure of it as a means of paying waiters and waitresses is more than a bit odd (and more than bit cruel, but that later). In fact, among the other prominent groups that get singled out for bad tipping are immigrants (even from Europe) and tourists. The reason being that in the scope of how humans generally conduct commerce, the expectation of a tip as occurs in white America is an aberration.
Second, as with most examinations about why blacks and whites behave in different ways or experience different outcomes, you have to begin with the basic fact that blacks and white exist within somewhat different realities, and bring with them to various encounters a starkly different set of concerns, aspirations, experiences, expectations and histories. In any number of situations involving cultural practices, it simply does not make sense to assert that because white people do it, black people should also do it. This is doubly true when that practice is an unusual one. A metaphor might be a redheaded child raised in a family of redheads. His experience within his family might be that everyone he meets is a ginger, but given that this is a recessive and rare trait, it would speak to a certain inability to see and understand other people’s realities to be confused about why the outside world isn’t populated with redheads. And certainly, it would be a highly problematic practice to condemn non-redheads as deviant.
I thought that this was a fairly straight-forward series of points that, while they did not answer definitively and directly the tipping gap, at least provided a platform to start. That is, I’m not sure that this conversation makes much sense if you don’t at least acknowledge what you’re really asking: why don’t black Americans also engage in the same particular unusual activity that white Americans do? I got lots of responses that largely fell into three categories: 1) anecdotal evidence taken from particular people’s experiences, 2) an assertion that tipping was not a racial norm but a national one, and 3) to talk about white and black differences being justifiable is to buy into a reality that doesn’t exist anymore, and an ugly one at that. The first argument is easy enough to dismiss out of hand. If someone goes full nerd on you and provides you with descriptions and links to five different studies on the matter, beginning a sentence with, “in my experience as a waitress…” is not likely to shed much light on anything at all. Points #2 and #3 were often conflated, as in this reply that I received:
“Brian, but tipping is common in society, so not sure what your point is. Not WHITE society, but ALL of society. I don’t understand your delineation of blacks here. We’re all from America. If you want to argue classism, you’re talking to the wrong formerly impoverished and discriminated-against white chick. If blacks don’t tip it’s not because white people do. Bollocks.”
I’ll just dismiss the argument by personal assertion. My response, typed in at 3am- is below:
“C, your argument is obviously wrong on its face. The very point of the discussion at hand is to ascertain why blacks tip less. Such a question, to be a meaningful endeavor (indeed, if it is even to make sense as a matter of basic English), necessitates it being true that at least a segment of society (black folks) does not tip at the same level. Thus, to say that blacks should tip because everybody tips cannot make sense. Are not blacks some constituent of the group “everybody”? Unless your assertion is that blacks are nobodies. This, I fear, may be what you’re missing. The point I raised was that obviously groups of people live markedly different lives in America. “We’re all from America,” is about as empty a statement as one could make. George Wallace and Martin Luther King were both Americans, and their experiences couldn’t have been more different. Or, more temporally relevant and immediate, you and I are both Americans, but I would bet a substantial amount of money that our experiences are markedly different, in no small part because our races are different. This, to me, is a painfully obvious point that I think you would agree with if you paused on it for a moment. Given that our experiences in general are different, it would be unusual to think that every particular aspect of it (such as tipping) would be the same. I’m not arguing classism at all. I explicitly made the point about class and income in my initial comment when I pointed out that there were demographic similarities, but that the black tipping bell curve simply had a leftward shift.”
What struck me about this exchange were two things. First, that in a discussion whose very premise was about how blacks and white behaved differently, “C” refused to acknowledge the underlying fact that blacks and white behave differently. I’m not sure that I’ve ever seen a more distilled and obvious example of how the naïve aspirations of post-racialism make people incapable of seeing the obvious. Second, underlying this comment –and indeed, if we’re being honest, most of the comments- was the assertion that a deviation from white practices are improper, impolite, unacceptable or even immoral. This, despite what an unusual practice tipping is.
The natural response to the point I’m making is to take a step back and attempt to offer a more objective assertion: tipping is the moral thing to do. The best summation of this argument is offered by Harvey Keitel’s ‘Mr. White’ to Steve Buscemi’s ‘Mr. Pink’ in “Reservoir Dogs.
To this, I am personally sympathetic This is why I always tip well. On a human level, it’s hard to have an interaction with someone who’s probably busting her ass paycheck to paycheck, and use her as your moment to make a broader point. But, I don’t hold to these views so tightly that I’m willing to condemn others for not doing similarly. To this, let me make two points. First, to blame black tippers for the poor state of affairs that waitresses find themselves is unfair. Waitresses depend on tips because of a culture and legal system that allows restaurants to sidestep having to pay their employees a decent living wage and because our government has failed to provide a robust system that makes sure waitresses have things like health insurance, low-cost childcare, access to education, etc. That, and not a negro with alligator arms, is the true source of the problem. Pay waitresses $17/hour, remove the expectation of tips, have a national healthcare system in which care is viewed as a core human right, and this conversation goes away. And, of course, I would bet that there weren’t many black faces in the room when the system that victimizes service employees was put into place. So, fine, wag a finger and condemn black folks for tipping less, but act with moral consistency and also make a stink about restaurants that refuse to pay their workers well and politicians who fight for a person’s right to carry a gun, but won’t move an inch to make sure that a child gets an education, a mother has health insurance, and everybody gets paid well. Don’t get distracted from what the genuine evil is.
Second, there’s another aspect to the tipping debate that often gets ignored. Black waiters and waitresses receive about 30% less in tips from white patrons than do white waiters and waitresses. There hasn’t yet been a good definitive academic study that explains why black people tip less, but if I had to speculate, I’d bet that at least part of the discrepancy stems from the fact that black people don’t see the process as equitable and good. Most reactions that you tend to get from white people to the idea that blacks don’t tip as much tend to fall into the category of moral indignation, which would suggest that there is the belief that it is morally outrageous not to tip. It would seem that it would only make sense to feel outraged about someone not doing something if that something that they weren’t doing was a good, fair and just thing to do. But, if your experience with tipping is that it is yet another thing that perpetuates unfair treatment, you won’t be enamored with it, and may do it rather more begrudgingly (and thus less generously) than the rest of the population.
All told, I would just remind my white friends that us brown people occupy the same geographic space, but we often live parallel lives. It is unreasonable, then, to expect that we would always have intersecting values and habits, particularly as pertains to things that black folks are not inclined to see as fair. At the risk of making a sloppy generalization, I think that experience has trained black folks to be a bit more sensitive to the smell of unfairness, and as an institution tipping is a bad and unfair one.
********************* WHITE PEOPLE STOP READING ****************************
Really, white people, stop reading. Even you, man. Yeah, “ghetto passes” aren’t real, so get out. Okay, we’re alone now. Come on, black people, tip your damn waitresses. They work hard and many of them have kids to support. Get it sorted, and quit using politics and racism as an excuse for being cheap.
* For more on this phenomenon, see: