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Tipping is Racist, Here’s Why

Field Research: Day 3

On my third day in America, I walk downstairs to get a haircut. The hair-dresser is a pleasant local woman in her early thirties. She is married but her husband does not want children. She tells me that she is trying to change his mind by utilizing neurolinguistic programming to drop hints. Whenever they see a baby on the street or on TV, she will comment on the baby by saying, “Doesn’t that look nice? Wouldn’t it be nice to have a baby?”

The idea is that eventually—from sheer exasperation—he will relent. I nod along and tell her, “Yes, that sounds like a great plan.”

After the haircut, I recall that I have to give her a tip. I count out the amount of the haircut into her hand, and then—in separate motions—I give her one more dollar, and then one more dollar, and then one more dollar. A three-dollar tip. I will later learn that this was a mistake. I have humiliated her. In America, you have to give the whole amount—including the tip—in one single motion. When I talk about the challenge of tipping, Americans always assume that I struggle with the amount. That’s never the problem. The amounts are intuitive. 15-20% at a full-service restaurant. A couple of dollars for a haircut or a delivery person. Optional for take-out food or a cup of coffee. The real challenge is in the timing. The knowing nod. The sideway glance at the end of a transaction. The amounts take a moment to learn, but the necessary sleight of hand takes a lifetime to master.[1] 

There are several complicating factors. For example, if you are white and speak with a generalized television accent, then it is rude to seem confused about tipping. You can never ask, “When do I tip you?” or “How do I tip you?” You have to just know. Also, in more upscale establishments, tipping is commonly turned into a convoluted ritual. I once found myself drinking in the bar of the recently renovated Athletics Association in downtown Chicago. This is a swanky hipster hangout with dark wood paneling and busy shuffleboard tables. I ordered a round of drinks. After dropping off our drinks, the waitress left a small bingo board with a hair clip. I walked over to the bar and left my tip on the counter. A dollar per drink. My friend began freaking out. He yelled, “You are supposed to clip your tip to the bingo board! Where is the bingo board?”

Later that night, I found three bingo boards in my pocket. The immigration officer at SeaTac said nothing about a bingo board.


Americans will never dismantle the institution of tipping, because they see it as the perfect manifestation of the American dream. He who tries extraordinarily hard, shall be rewarded extraordinarily. The Americans believe that tipping is a perfect opportunity to compensate anyone who is obviously knee-deep in life, liberty and some sort of questionable pursuit of happiness. In reality, that’s not how it works. Countless studies show a very weak correlation between quality of service and tip received. Instead, people tip what they always tip. Or they tip based on the weather. Or the quality of the food. Or, more nefariously, the race of the service staff.

Both black and white consumers tipped white restaurant servers more than black restaurant servers. This result does replicate an earlier finding by Ayres (2005) that both white and black taxicab passengers in New Haven, Connecticut tipped white cab drivers more than black cab drivers.

Unfortunately, this goes both ways.

The average tip from a black customer is about 13 percent of the bill. The average tip from a white customer is about 16.5 percent of the bill

It is easy to imagine how this is a circular dynamic. Waiters and waitresses consistently provide below-average service to minorities because they receive (or expect to receive) a below-average tip. Minority restaurant patrons consistently provide a below-average tip because they receive (or expect to receive) below-average service. In short, tipping is just another soundless and perfectly hand-crafted self-reinforcing flywheel in the Great American Machine of Racism. But, again, this institution will never go away, because people just don’t have time to worry about it. During a research interview with a black waitress, we once asked, “What are your thoughts on tipping? Do you think it reinforces racism?”

Before walking away to check on her tables, she gave us a blank stare and said, “I’ve never thought about it.”




[1] On the Internet, you can easily find hundreds of tipping guides to help you find the most appropriate amount in esoteric situations. These guides never deal with the blow-by-blow ritual of giving the tip, because it is seemingly unteachable.


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