Are Black people bad tippers?

OPINION: Ann Coulter's dig at Black people and tipping is obnoxious but is it off base?

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Editor’s note: The following article is an op-ed, and the views expressed are the author’s own. Read more opinions on theGrio.

I hate Ann Coulter. She’s an obnoxious troll who seeks to spread misinformation and outrage. She’s a central part of the right-wing media cabal that’s a cancerous growth damaging the collective mind of America. On Saturday, the NAACP issued a travel advisory for Florida, basically discouraging Black people from going there because the state has become “openly hostile toward African-Americans.” In response, Coulter tweeted, “NAACP issues warning to African Americans to avoid visiting Florida; employees in restaurant and tourism industry brace for 0.00% drop in tips.” 

That sort of overt racism is unacceptable. She’s saying who cares about Black people not going to Florida because they don’t tip? She’s dismissing Black concerns about Florida with the back of her pasty hand as if it’s OK to ignore Black protest against Florida because, you know, Blacks don’t tip. Ha ha ha. This is the modern GOP — Republicans say racist things in public and then wonder why most Black and brown people don’t even consider voting for them.

That said, part of why Coulter’s tweet is so annoying is that … there is a there there. I hate to say it, but I know some of us aren’t big on tipping. I know some of us think of the tip as a place where we can save a little money. It’s also true that many of us, like me, tip 20% automatically any time we are out at a restaurant, and some of us overtip as a way of trying to overcome the stereotype. But Coulter didn’t make up that tipping thing out of nowhere — among restaurant servers we have a reputation for tipping less. A Washington Post article about race and tipping said inside the food service industry, “Black customers are generally considered comparatively poor tippers.” They reported on a survey of 1,000 servers, which found 34% thought Black diners were “very bad” tippers and another 36% said Black patrons were “below average” tippers. In a Medium essay, a former server, who’s Black, talked about how prevalent that attitude is among servers.

The reputation is real, but where does it come from? A 2006 Los Angeles Times article about race and tipping was pegged to a study that found racial differences in tipping: “Black diners average 10.9% to 14.7% of the bill, and white diners average 16.6% to 19.4%.” One explanation was that Black diners receive lesser service from servers who expect them to tip less, and getting lesser service makes Black diners feel justified in not tipping 20%. I can understand that. Another explanation was many Black people don’t know you’re supposed to tip 20%.

I’ve discussed this issue on Twitter many times. Every two years or so, when I’m feeling a little bored, I go on the bird app and type something like “Every time you eat out you have to tip 20%. Period.” It always leads to a multiday argument where I see lots of sisters and brothers arguing no, you don’t have to tip 20%. Some think the acceptable range is 10-15% while 20% is for outstanding service. Some think tipping makes the meal too expensive. Lots of people think “tip” is an acronym for To Insure Proper Service. 1) No. That’s a backronym that was made up centuries after the word tip was in widespread use. 2) If that were real, the second word would not be insure. You’re not an insurance broker. It would be ensure because you’d be making sure, or ensuring, you got good service. Surely, there’s some overlap between ensure and insure but To *Insure* Proper Service makes no sense. And To Ensure Proper Service is TEPS which is nothing. Just please stop saying it and stop looking at the tip as ensuring anything. It’s not some power you hold over the server, removing a dollar each time they don’t do something right. The tip is not a grade you give the server as a reward for doing good or a penalty for mistakes. It’s part of the restaurant experience. Also, it’s essential for tipped workers to be able to survive. And Black servers are suffering more than other servers in this cycle — research shows “consumers of both races discriminated against Black service providers by tipping them less than white service providers.”

If you go out to eat and someone serves you and takes care of everything from cooking to plating to cleaning, then you owe them a 20% tip. Period. Yes, I know the practice of tipping has roots in slavery. I know that one of my intellectual heroes, Michelle Alexander, wrote that tipping should be abolished. I do not disagree with her. The restaurant system is unfairly putting labor costs on us, the patrons. We need to have a national conversation about that — the lives of many Black tipped workers rely on it. But right now we’re not having that conversation. Right now, we are about to get the bill for the meal we just ate. We’ve already accepted the restaurant industry’s deal — they do everything and we pay for everything including food and service. We cannot protest that system by eating out and then stiffing the server. 

If you have a problem during the meal, if everything’s not perfect, speak to the manager. That’s what they’re there for. Don’t take it out on the server at the end of the transaction. They’re supposed to get 20%, period. Decades ago, when I was just starting as a writer, I worked at a few different restaurants in various small roles. I was a busser, a food runner and a barback, all of which gave me a look at how hard servers and kitchens work to produce a great dining experience night after night. The hours that go into preparing for service before anyone walks in and the time it takes to close down the restaurant after the guests leave. I respect their craft. We should change the system of how restaurant workers are paid but until we do, if you go out you gotta pay. Look, if you like a certain restaurant and go there more than once, being a good tipper will get you more respect. You’ll notice the difference. And being a bad tipper will lead to a slightly different experience. I’m not saying that someone will spit in your food or something — that’s disgusting — but however gross and disrespectful that is, to a server, not tipping appropriately is just the same.


Touré is a host and Creative Director at theGrio. He is the host of the podcast “Toure Show” and the podcast docuseries “Who Was Prince?” He is also the author of seven books including the Prince biography Nothing Compares 2 U and the ebook The Ivy League Counterfeiter. Look out for his upcoming podcast Being Black In the 80s.

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