The storied institution that is the western restaurant is often seen as an example of capitalist overabundance, with its overworked proletariat workers serving as potent symbol of capitalist oppression. Now there’s a quiet racial reckoning happening across the country’s diners to deal with painful racial trauma still being kept on life support — through insistence on the outmoded practice of tipping.
The act of tipping has a long and complicated history. Originally popularized in the Jim Crow era as a way to help maintain social hierarchy between white and Black people, tipping has been used to exploit women and workers of color for decades. While the racialized harm of tipping isn’t an issue for the restaurant industry to deal with alone — every industry that has normalized tipping has been colonized by tentacles of exploitation and white supremacy — activists believe that the practice should be targeted at the root.
They say that just like every other aspect of white supremacy, tipping is bad for everyone — customers, servers, and employers alike. Even white folks can hurt from it. To put it in simpler terms; tipping is a customary embodiment of white supremacy, and it’s time that we abolish it.
Thankfully, things are starting to change as Black folks and their Allies are emboldened to learn their history — and to learn the dark truth about tipping.
How the tipping system works
In case you’re not an American or you don’t go out often, we’ll explain the basics of the tipping system for you. In restaurants, servers, who do basically all of the work in restaurants, are paid mostly based on tips, and tips are in large part based on the socioeconomic status of the customer. And it shouldn’t be a surprise to our readers that BIPOCs are historically disadvantaged tippers. Know what happens next?
Exactly. The perfect storm for white supremacy’s most pernicious tentacle to shoot out of the ground: discrimination. Which is precisely what “small business owners” (restauranteurs cling to this term like a life raft despite being multimillionaires) and white servers want.
Firstly, the white servers focus on white customers, leaving Black customers abandoned while the white capitalist doesn’t need to pay much in wages. Secondly, the black customers, faced with less-than-stellar service, tip less because they received an inferior service. Then, as a result of the rightfully small tip to the white supremacist servers, Black people are faced with awful stereotypes and even pressured into giving up more of their money. Everybody wins, except folks of color.
Did you get all that? If not, we explain more below. But the important thing to note here is that the system of tipping is literally designed from top down, whether deliberately or accidentally, to actively harm Black people.
Tipping reinforces a form of slavery
Slavery in America never went away. In fact, the enslavement of African American people and other disadvantaged peoples is perhaps worse in the 21st century than it ever was before the white savior “freed” the slaves.
In the 18th century, Black people had families, a roof over their heads, and fresh food to eat from the farm. Nowadays, the white capital owners only pay a meager $7.25 per hour and expect Black folks to pay for their own housing, food, childcare, health insurance, and so on.
But it’s so much worse for restaurant workers of color. In America, service workers who receive tips aren’t even paid that meager $7.25 mentioned earlier. The Federal minimum wage for tipped workers is only $2.13 per hour. So there’s no arguing against the fact that, yes, that is a form of slavery.
Tipping hurts Black customers
Black folks will know what I’m talking about when I say that there’s no pressure quite like being a person of color and walking into a restaurant.
Here is what the Black experience of dining out is like: Wait to be seated while white folks look up from their tables, disappointed. Wait to get your food while white folks stare at you and communicate nonverbal hostility. Then, you receive subpar food, never see the server, and then wait to get your check.
For a Black person, the whole dining process can take an hour or more out of the day than it does for a white person — that is if you don’t quickly rush out of there after getting one too many of the mentioned looks from racist white customers.
Systemically designed under-tipping
So why do Black customers have such a poor time at restaurants?
The answer is of course the systemic nature of white supremacy. Black people are often thought of as “poor” or “stingy” by white servers, and that’s because Black people are the victims of system racism. Systemic racism means that every aspect of our society, which was created in a time when slavery was legal, is carefully crafted in a way to uniquely disadvantage non-white and non-Asian people.
As a result of this, Black people have less disposable income, which means they get less attention from racist white servers.
The practice of tipping perpetuates stereotypes
Black folks face a unique conundrum. As a result of the Black restaurant experience described above, Black folks have an inferior dining experience. Now this is where the impasse comes in. Traditionally, tips were seen as “optional” depending on the server’s performance. In other words, if servers are not attentive or there’s something bad about their service, the proper thing to do is tip them less.
However, Black people almost always have a terrible experience when subjected to white workers. So, if Black folks were to follow the traditional “white” advice to tip servers in accordance with their dining experience, they’d naturally tip servers less every time — and there’s nothing “stingy” or bad about that, it’s what they’re supposed to do.
But when Black folks follow conventional wisdom surrounding tipping, they will inevitably be labeled as stingy because Black folks will inevitably get inferior service. This racist stereotyping stems from the fact that white servers and white capital owners “set them up” by gamifying the conversion of their socioeconomic status into more and more hostility. Tipping creates an anti-Blackness spiral, or snowball effect of anti-Black sentiment. If you’ve ever used Reddit you’ve no doubt seen the anti-Blackness festering in the water communities:
“Even black people I work with say they hate getting tables with non-white males because they always get under tipped. It’s the hard truth to swallow.”
“Young black men don’t know how to tip. Period. I’ve waited on Pittsburgh Steelers, on drug dealers, on couples, on families, and friend outings. They just straight up do not know. It’s not that they’re assholes, or that they’re broke, they are ignorant. No one taught them.”
To make it all even sadder, the fact is that Black folks are community oriented and love to share wealth. They would tip generously despite paltry net worths if they just weren’t given bad service to begin with.
Tipping also hurts Black-owned businesses
Picture a successful restaurant in your head and you probably conjured a white-run restaurant in an affluent white district. Probably you imagined it run by an opinionated and entitled white man like Gordon Ramsay, who has extracted tens of millions from the industry despite being a white mediocrity.
Those images came into your head because this sort of systemic racism is ingrained in our minds, and the businesses that make the most money are also those that attract customers that aren’t burdened by systemic racism.
Tipping’s anti-Black hostility spiral is a system that is not easily broken because it so elegantly perpetuates itself. Workers will flock to white businesses because they know that they have white customers who will tip more than Black customers. As a result, all of the best talent is sucked away from Black-owned businesses. And since they have the best staff, the “best” or richest customers will dine there, and the system just keeps perpetuating itself.
Tipping, like all white supremacist constructs, hurts everyone. It’s time for not only Black people, but white people as well, to stop supporting this racist institution and stand in solidarity against tipping.
The racial reckoning in the restaurant industry shows no sign of slowing down. Until we see real change, Black folks and their Allies are leaving waiters with only this tip: go to your capitalist boss and demand restaurant equity now.
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