In the third episode of Louis C.K.'s show Louie, he asks a waitress at a comedy club about her night. "I have two tables of black people," she tells him. "I'm working for free tonight." After asking her if she was seriously being that racist, she tells him she's been waiting tables for five years and has not once gotten a tip from a black person and that it's not racist—just a fact. Incredulous at how racist she is, he tells her black colleague what she said. "Are you nuts?" the black waitress responds. "Niggas don't tip. Everyone knows that." And while I don't believe everyone knows that as a universal truth, plenty of people certainly believe it to be true.
In 2015, the Washington Post examined tipping culture in the US restaurant industry. Looking at a survey of 1,000 servers, 34 percent responded that they believed black diners to be "very bad" tippers, in comparison to white diners who 98 percent believed to be "average" or "above average" tippers. And while the article notes that some research shows black people in the US tip slightly less than white people, it's not that simple. In the first study where white servers believed black diners were "very bad" tippers, over half of those who responded said they "don't always give their best effort when waiting on black customers." Meaning, black diners could be getting inferior service simply because of racist servers.
When I first started dining at places that weren't fast-food restaurants without my parents, I had just turned 15 and had my first ever job. I'm not sure exactly when I learned about the stereotype that people of color don't tip, but it was something I was certainly aware of subconsciously. Googling what was expected of a tip in Canada, it seemed like 15 percent was the standard at the time, with exceptional service getting up to 20 percent. Because I didn't want to seem like another cheap person of color (reminder: I was 15 and cared a lot about how I was perceived) I would always try to tip as well as possible—even if the service was bad.
I'm a decade older now, and while my feelings about tipping are complicated (I personally agree with my colleague over at VICE Money who argues that tipping culture is oppressive), I try my best to tip based on cultural norms of where I am, as well as what people deserve. Of course, as most people in North America know, tipping on its own is a fraught subject—especially for those who've been exploited by the service industry and empathize with underpaid waitstaff. But also because of stereotypes, North American tipping culture has another layer of complications.
Tatyana Zhané told me that as a black server in Houston, Texas, and also a black patron of restaurants, she's seen how it is on both sides: "I wait tables in a predominantly white area. I've probably waited a handful of 'black' tables." She's noticed the same anxiety of trying to be a good patron when she serves people of color. "They always make sure to be as easy as possible because they're not 'known' to be." This means ordering drinks and appetizers as well as over-tipping and writing kind notes. Before working at her current restaurant, Zhané also mentioned that if servers got three black tables in a row, it was called a "blackout" and servers would receive food vouchers on top of their compensation. "It was the managers saying, 'I'm sorry you had to deal with black people today.'"
Because of her experience as a server, she knows when she's out with her family, servers wish they hadn't picked up their table. "I've seen the eye rolls or the, 'Ugh, fuck!' when my family and I go out to eat." Like the black families she's served, she also feels the need to overcompensate because of stereotypes.
Zhané isn't the only person of color and server I spoke with who's felt the need to tip more out of guilt. Melissa Hung, a journalist who worked as a server for about two years, explained she always tips well. "Unless it's atrocious service, I feel such a sense of guilt, which might have to do with working in the service industry as well as a racial thing."
As a server, because of the burden of representation people of color bear, she didn't want negative stereotypes to be true. Working at a family restaurant chain in California, she didn't find any truth in the stereotypes: "I don't recall feeling like there was an emerging pattern for me in my experience."
After putting out a call for people of color to share their feelings toward tipping, nearly everyone I spoke to for this article messaged me saying almost the same thing: They have over-tipped or feel hyper-aware of tipping stereotypes when they dine out. "I feel it mandatory to tip so as not to be looked down on or create a negative stereotype of South Asians in North America," Jahanan, a 25-year-old from Toronto, told me.
On a personal level, I've been hyper-aware of how my identity mixes into how I might act in any situation that lends itself to stereotypes—from trying not to talk too loudly in public (because black people are "loud") to making sure I don't smell like food anytime I leave the house. It's exhausting to have to police myself in order to seem palatable to white people and be seen as worthy of being treated well. For me, I don't think it matters anymore. If the aforementioned survey is any indication, white servers will likely still profile me and discriminate (intentionally or not) regardless of what I tip. As one person I spoke with mentioned, the "burden of representation" is heavy, and it sucks—but I'm not going to let it get in the way of my enjoyment of a delicious bowl of pasta.
Follow Sarah Hagi on Twitter.