I’m a Black Customer in Your Restaurant and I Have a Dilemma with Tipping


When I was a child, my family went out to eat every weekend on Saturdays, or on Sundays after church. It was one thing we did as a family on a regular basis.

When the check was presented I’d stare down at the receipt as my dad signed. He always left big tips. One day I asked him why he left such big tips.

He told me, “Because white people think we don’t tip.”

His words stuck with me.

Now as an adult, I’ve been on both sides of the table. I’ve watched servers do everything possible to avoid Black customers.

They run to the bathroom. They head to the back of the restaurant.

They look at each other and sigh, “I’ll take them.”

Waiters and waitresses will whisper to each other, “Have you had them before? Are they okay?”

I’ve read their eyes and I’ve even seen them play “Not It” games.

Sometimes it seems like I get a nonwhite server by default.

I suspect I’ve received poor service because “white people think we don’t tip.”

But what difference does it make if white people think we don’t tip, especially if I like the food?

Should I care what they think of my tips if my order is correct and the wait staff doesn’t get rude?

According to an article in the Washington Post, What’s behind racial differences in tipping? we should care because it makes a big difference.

If the tip money isn’t right, restaurants won’t open in some areas. If the color of the clientele leans one way, some restaurants may struggle to hire and retain wait staff. Patrons file lawsuits for discrimination and restaurants payout all because of the tipping stereotype.

This thought about Black diners is bad for business.

And, of course, it’s bad for the Black customer too.

I understand the tipping protocols. I give 20% as a standard. It’s just easier for me to add that way.

But when the service is substandard I get into the weeds. I feel a dilemma.

Should I tip well to prove a point? I don’t want this waiter to blame the Black race for their less than stellar tip.

Are there some restaurant wrongs I need to redress by tipping? Should I compensate for what they think of my race?

Are my tips intended to provide sustenance and social education?

Really, there’s no time to tell my server how Black Americans give more of their disposable income to charities than white Americans.

There’s no way for me to give them an itemized statement, line for line, about their service.

For the numbers I leave on paper, the server won’t be able to see my mathematical work. They won’t understand exactly how I got my answer to the question about their service.

All I have is a tip.

My tips have the weight and awkwardness of a heavy baton. In my mind, it’s not a light baton. It’s an imaginary baton for races.

Every dollar counts for something. And how I pass my tips to the server is how the next Black customer gets served.

My tips are a twisted form of pay it forward and pass-through experiences.

I do believe my tip is my communication tool. It is a financial form of feedback. Plus, it takes less time and effort to tip accordingly than to speak to a manager.

But if I tip well for bad service, to prove a point, my message is unclear.

It’s a conflicting place to be when the service is bad.

As a Black American, I nodded my head when I was told I must be twice as good in every way. At the restaurant table, there’s a temptation to prove I’m different. There’s a tension to prove I deserve their respect. There is a cost if I do, and a cost if I don’t.

For that moment, after I leave the restaurant, I don’t want the waiter to assume I must be poor.

And, if I should come back to the restaurant, I know servers remember customers. I don’t want to be labeled a bad tipper.

Sometimes when I’m at the tipping point, I’m not sure if — “Because white people think we don’t tip” — turns into appease and please white people.

As a child, with my dad, I learned to recognize relief on the faces of the wait staff. It was like they won the lottery racially and financially with us. Other servers were sad they passed on us. I learned to relish those faces.

But now I don’t want to be put in the position to appease or please.

As I got older, I noticed the restaurant managers all knew my dad. They’d high-five him and call him by name.

I figured they saw us as green customers and not Black customers.

Which if you think about it, people say these things aren’t about color but class.

It’s about the dollar. But people who see me as a dollar sign cannot comfort me. The dollar doesn’t level the table. The dollar is precisely the problem.

I’ve always been green. And in the United States, it’s always been about color, and the color green.

Slavery was about dollar signs. They saw me as green. The prison system is about dollar signs. They see me as green. Even government programs and nonprofit organizations see me as green.

I feel green in the ways of a country run by white people.

So, I want to save the green I have. And I don’t want you to see me as green. Those eyes for green are dangerous and they have a bad track record.

And for the record, I know this tipping dilemma isn’t just about Black people. I know even some Black servers have assumptions about Black customers. But I also know other groups of people get labeled cheap by servers too.

I wonder if diners from other countries feel this burden? Do they feel pressure to tip to US standards? And if they don’t, are they vilified like Black customers? And why is it that we never see the tips from some Black customers as being more in line with international standards?

Maybe we should push more for a livable wage in the restaurant industry, so we are less reliant on tips.

Maybe if servers get more green, they won’t see us as green.

I don’t know. I just know I don’t like the dilemma. And really, I don’t want to contemplate or calculate social issues while I chew.

It leaves a bad taste in my mouth and it gives me heartburn. I just want to eat my greens in peace.

So, I’m pushing back on this dilemma. I’m sending this dilemma back to the kitchen. I will not own it and I will not pay for it. I refuse to acknowledge it on my bill.

This dilemma belongs to the restaurant industry. So, I will address them squarely — will you treat me like a human being? Are you going to respect me and those that come after me?

I know you can read menus and read people, but can you let go of your bad experiences? Even if they happened earlier today?

You know, it’s nice to see the open tables, thank you.

But I need open minds too.

I can wait for tables to open, but I can’t wait for minds to open.

Are there any of those here?

Put me in that section, please.