Does race play a role in the way we tip?

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When Darcelle ‘Darcey’ McGinnis opened her seafood café last fall she counted on her signature garlic blue crab dish and a little Southern charm as a way to satisfy her customers. Although her Atlanta area restaurant is relatively young and most likely prone to new start-up headaches, one of the things that McGinnis never expected was the way that some of her African-American customers failed to leave behind a tip or gratuity. Almost right away McGinnis, a 38-year-old former social worker turned entrepreneur, noticed the difference between the tips she received from her African-American and white clientele.

According to McGinnis this past week an African-American NFL player patronized the café and left without tipping. “He pulled out not a small amount of money, but a wad…I just had to experience [this] firsthand,” says McGinnis who runs Bushels Seafood Café, a mom and pop style establishment with her husband and one additional worker. “I never paid attention before but I’ve noticed [here] that our white customers tip more than our black customers who come through.”

McGinnis says that her food item prices range from $8 to approximately $25 dollars for a meal. While some restaurants go as far as calculating or even including the gratuity as part of the bill, at the café McGinnis says that she prints a straight bill or receipt for the food and service she delivers. “It’s up to them whether they tip,” McGinnis adds.

Dr. William Michael Lynne, a full professor of consumer behavioral marketing at Cornell University’s School of Hotel Administration has been examining the relationship between gratuities and race since the late-80s but due to what he saw as a politically sensitive topic, Dr. Lynne only recently began to discuss some of the implications attached to the subject. “It’s a dirty secret in the industry that there is a wide spread perception that blacks don’t tip well,” says Lynne. Because of this perception, Lynne believes that African-Americans might often receive inferior service.

Beyond the perception however, Lynne who has conducted surveys in targeted areas of he U.S. as a well as telephone interviews across the nation, believes that at least some of the evidence from a compiled research paper titled, “Race Difference in Tipping”, first published in 2006, supports the negative perception of blacks and tipping.

According to Lynne, one study from the paper concluded that among whites, blacks, Hispanics and Asians, blacks gave or claimed to give the lowest average tip. In another survey from the same report blacks were more than twice as likely as whites to leave a flat dollar amount instead of a gratuity reflecting a percentage of the bill. Part of Lynne’s research also came from opinions and data collected from restaurant servers. (It is critical to note that Lynne’s studies, at this point, did not take into account blacks or whites from other countries who may have adhere to different gratuity practices from abroad.)

Lynne’s research also revealed that a third of whites within the study did not know the standard amount accepted for gratuities. Lynne who has continued to update his research findings, believes that there is no single answer as to why blacks might tend to tip less. At the same time Lynne also believes that the data can point to potential difficulties for restaurants operating in African-American neighborhoods. “Ultimately, says Lynne, ” the restaurant industry… is less likely to open up restaurants in black communities even if they are affluent communities because of this race difference in tipping.”

Dr. Wendi Williams, a Southern California native with a doctorate in counseling psychology, believes that even if blacks and whites have similar socioeconomic backgrounds the difference in tipping etiquette might have to do with the actual amount of disposable income within a black household. “Class-wise, it may appear as if [certain] blacks should be dining out but I think that blacks carry more debt and less wealth…what we know about black wealth is that it’s different, few black people have wealth,” says Williams.

Along that possible nuance, Williams who dines out approximately at least once a week says that she has noticed a difference in service when dining out with blacks versus eating out with mixed groups at restaurants. “I never receive poor service when [dining] out with whites [or] Asians and it never happens if there is a white male in the group,” adds Williams. “I’ve heard of the stereotypes [yet] I believe that [some] blacks are over tipping in order to not be identified as that sort of black since we tend to internalize oppression and prejudice.”

To head off potentially negative perceptions at the door, Frank Klein, an award-winning West Coast based restaurateur and restaurant consultant believes that it’s critical to properly train waitstaff employees. “There are definitely perceptions [about race] among waitstaff,” says Klein, ”[but] there is no difference in the way that racial demographics tip.”

Klein who maintains that he has represented both white and black owned establishments and trained waitstaffs across the country also says that many different groups (including single diners, heterosexual couples, and prom dates) have become associated with similar discriminatory perceptions when it comes to gratuities. For example, “I think a major perception in the restaurant industry,” adds Klein, “is that a group of women are going to tip less than other demographics, I’ve never seen numbers [that] prove that women don’t tip as well.”

For McGinnis in Atlanta, part of the differences in the way her customers tip might actually come from home. “My mother never taught me as a child about tipping and we went out to eat all the time, says McGinnis. “We as parents need to educate our children and tell them ‘why do we tip?’…it has to start with educating our kids.”

Anna Brathwaite, a New York based musician and educator, imagines that black restaurant patrons and waitstaff with black clientele should probably assume the best of each other as opposed to relying on stereotypes. “I think you should behave the way you think you should behave,” says Brathwaite. “Your tipping them or not tipping them is not going to change their opinion of you, ultimately if they already have such a pre-judgment. If you think that their service was good then you should tip well, if not then you don’t have to …I don’t think you should let another person’s ignorance spoil your ability to go out and enjoy a [meal].”