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Sunday, June 11, 2006 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Jerry Large

Tipping as a race issue: Waiters and diners, mutually wary

Seattle Times staff columnist

A few years ago a student in a journalism class I was teaching wrote a column I still remember.

She was helping put herself through college by working as a waitress at a restaurant downtown and discovered a phenomenon that troubled her. The wait staff would sometimes grumble about Canadians. And if a party of black people came in, they would avoid waiting on that table.

It turned out "Canadians" was how the staff referred to black customers so as not to be overheard making what might be construed as racially biased comments. I do hope some poor Canadian didn't overhear.

The young writer, feeling bad for the customers and upset with her co-workers, would serve black customers herself, at first anyway.

Soon enough she began to share her co-workers' view.

Black customers didn't tip as well as other customers, and a few didn't tip at all. And worse, they could be demanding and touchy about any perceived slight.

She felt bad about her changing attitude, partly because it violated her sense of herself, and partly because not all customers fit the pattern. This situation is common, but almost always plays out without discussion across racial lines.

I'm very conscious of my behavior and tipping in restaurants. I want to leave a good impression, partly due to my assumption that servers might have some bias against me. When waiters are especially nice, I sometimes overdo. It's dumb all around.

I was reminded of the young server when I saw a report on race and tipping from the Center for Hospitality Research at Cornell University.

Waiters and black customers are both wary of each other, it said. Black people get poorer service, waiters get poor tips and the cycle keeps reinforcing itself.

It wasn't long ago that laws changed to allow black people into businesses that would not have permitted us before, and we weren't always welcomed warmly.

Many black folks weren't up to speed on the culture of restaurant dining as it is practiced in more affluent communities. Surveys find an attitude difference too, as black folks wonder why restaurants don't just pay their help a decent salary to begin with.

The report's author, Cornell professor Michael Lynn, wrote, "... Many restaurant servers dislike waiting on Black customers, deliver inferior service to Black guests on whom they must wait, and refuse to work in restaurants with a predominantly Black clientele."

There are differences between white tipping and that of Latinos and Asians as well, but the report said those differences aren't as great.

One waiter said, "... all the servers I work with hate having to wait on minorities, Black people, in particular, (and over half or our wait staff is Black!!!)."

There is less of a tipping gap as income and education go up, but it doesn't entirely disappear. Also it isn't just a black/white thing, in that the race of the server doesn't seem to affect tip size.

Studies have found servers leery of other groups as well, "foreigners, women, teenagers, the elderly and anyone bearing coupons."

The Cornell study mentioned other surveys that found white people were twice as likely to be familiar with the 15- to 20-percent rule. Sometimes black customers tip a flat amount that stays the same regardless of the bill size, so that it can be generous for a small bill, but not so good for a fancier spread.

Tipping shows up everywhere, not just in restaurants, and it can get terribly complicated. Whole books have been written on the topic, and many people feel some discomfort with it. A lot depends on whether the circumstances are familiar to you.

Black people tip some servers well — hotel maids and bartenders for example — sometimes giving them much more than white customers do.

People learn about tipping by growing up in a certain social strata, by being employed in jobs that include tips or from someone who has been in one of those jobs.

It's even more complicated. One survey found that customers tip white cab drivers more than black drivers. That includes black customers.

Etiquette guides say tipping is an option, but it really isn't. A lot of employers rely on tips to make up for small paychecks. It's part of the cost of the meal.

Lynn has suggested restaurants do some outreach to black churches for instance, or place informative placards in their businesses, and that they coach servers to give their best to all customers.

Like a lot of problems, this one lives on assumptions and silence. A little talk would be toxic to it.

Jerry Large: 206-464-3346 or jlarge@seattletimes.com.

Copyright © 2006 The Seattle Times Company

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