You walk up to the bar with cash in hand, ready to enjoy yourself after a long week at work. It’s a busy Friday night so you’re prepared to wait a moment or two for someone to take your order. Five minutes pass. Then those five minutes turn into ten, and before long, it’s been fifteen minutes and the bartenders have yet to acknowledge you. Oddly, you notice how the white folks who’ve walked up since you’ve been there have either been served more promptly or have at least been greeted with a smile and an “I’ll be right with you.” Considering it’s in your nature to give people the benefit of the doubt, you write off your perceptions and decide to wait it out just little bit longer. After all, you’ve been wanting to check this place out for a while now.
You begin to zone out on the artwork on the walls but you’re finally brought back to reality by someone abruptly asking what you’d like to drink. You order your usual, and find that it is a few dollars more expensive than the going rate, but whatever—at least now you can make your way from the bar back to your friends and proceed with your night.
Now many of you will be quick to disregard the scenario above as something that happens to people of all demographics, or tell me that I ought to have more empathy for busy bartenders. And that might hold water if I hadn’t already spent several years working in the service industry, witnessing how poorly customers of color are regarded in comparison to their white counterparts. And while I am aware that people of many genders and ethnicities experience discrimination from the industry, I want to specifically share my observations of how black women are treated.
I got my first job as a hostess at a Korean restaurant when I was 17-years-old. And since then, I’ve had jobs at several restaurants over the span of five years. Across the board, I’ve witnessed the same overt lack of enthusiasm to serve black people; and black women—whether alone or in groups—who are unaccompanied by men, especially seem to hold low rank. I say this because at least with black man-woman couples, there is an expectation amongst servers and bartenders that the man may spend a lot of money for the sake of impressing the woman.
These negative attitudes toward serving black women are not so shocking for those already conscious of the damaging stereotypes that exist about us. These occurrences in bars and restaurants are merely an extension of those biases. Before we even have a chance to prove ourselves good or bad customers, we are screened as being “bad tippers”, “obnoxious”, “demanding”, or whichever other quality would make for an unbecoming patron. I’ve witnessed and experienced this racism both as a customer and as a restaurant employee. What’s even more troubling, though, is that self-identified progressives, i.e. white liberals living in urban (gentrified) communities are some of the worst perpetrators of this discrimination. The level of cognitive dissonance that allows people who would die of shame if ever accused of being racist to actually be blatantly racist in their practices is remarkable.
Often, the servers to whom I had assigned tables of black women would gripe to me before and after serving them. Once the table left, they’d come up to the host stand and complain to me about the underwhelming tip that was left for them by said table; as if to say, “see, you know these people suck.” And not that I was a poor tipper prior being a hostess and eventually a server, but I became hyperaware of how stereotypes may make a person less thrilled to wait on me. Likewise, I often found myself over-tipping servers and bartenders, no matter how unenthused they acted about having me as a customer.
At first, I rationalized my overcompensation as me just having extreme empathy for workers who may be having a bad day. But I now recognize my behavior was more so a subconscious attempt to relieve my own cultural shame about belonging to a group that is loathed by the bar and restaurant business. That said, I must admit that my inside understanding of the industry, competence in traversing white spaces, and perceivably “respectable” presentation of black womanhood have helped me navigate bars and restaurants with relatively more success than other black women who aren’t perceived in the same manner.
So many black women spend everyday of their lives trying to “earn” respect by disproving negative stereotypes and exceeding the low expectations society has in place for us. But it’s time for industry workers to hold themselves accountable and start unpacking their harmful racial biases. Perhaps you didn’t receive a satisfactory tip because you were so busy anticipating a lousy tip that you didn’t realize how negligent and tactless you were in your approach toward a customer. Maybe if you treated them with same courtesy that you show white patrons, you’d see a better outcome. Self-fulfilling prophecies are a curious phenomenon, aren’t they?