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Dining while Black: Preventing Tableside Racism in Boulder County

Dining while Black: Preventing Tableside Racism in Boulder County


With summer just around the corner, management and staff in Boulder County and North Metro service industries have an opportunity to help put an end to tableside racism, a form of racial discrimination that is prevalent nationwide.

Imagine arriving with several esteemed colleagues at an upscale restaurant for a dinner reservation made weeks in advance only to wait for more than an hour before being seated, despite following up repeatedly with the host. Unfortunately, this scenario is far from rare for people of color in northern Colorado. In fact, it is based on a personal experience shared with me by a highly respected Boulder professional–who didn’t feel comfortable going on record, even without naming the restaurant.

While issues related to hiring and retaining diverse staff are well known, management and servers in tipping industries also need to be aware of another challenge to equality: anti-Black stereotypes about tipping. Discriminating against customers based on racial stereotypes is a clear violation of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 as well as the legal codes of many states and municipalities. As a former server who witnessed much bias, I can tell you that there has long been a need to train front-of-house staff on this topic. I never saw managers or owners take steps to prevent bias, but they should have.  

Tableside racism is everywhere

Black customers too often receive subpar service as a result of anti-Black biases.

The main problem is a pernicious stereotype of Black patrons as not just lower tippers but “exceptionally poor” tippers, as well as difficult customers in general. These stereotypes are rooted in the same false claims that were made to justify enslavement and Jim Crow segregation. 

Taken together, these facts suggest that, ultimately, the problem lies with the prevalence of biased service.

For twenty years, sociologists studying hospitality and management have worked to better understand tableside racism, surveying thousands of servers nationwide. Recent studies have furthered the conversation, concentrating not just on the frequency of the problem but on how and why it occurs, and also how costly it is to servers and business owners. 

Researchers have also offered suggestions for addressing this widespread problem, such as requiring all staff to complete Harvard’s online Implicit Association (Bias) Test, supporting employees who express disapproval for biased behavior, and hiring expert diversity trainers for group workshops.

Anyone in America is likely to witness instances of everyday racism many times. In fact, it is so common that many Black consumers “define their marketplace experiences by the presence or absence of discriminatory treatment.” Today, racism is often more covert than in previous eras, so this discrimination may take subtle or indirect forms such as nonverbal signals of unfriendliness or, as my interviewee experienced, extended waiting periods before being seated. Racism may also lie camouflaged beneath layers of rationalization, such as so-called colorblindness, a supposedly post-racial attitude that overlooks the continuing reality of racial inequality.

According to the US Census Bureau, my home county of Boulder is 90 percent white. Many establishments here may be challenged to overcome what researchers have called a “culture of white servers,” referring to workplaces where people of color are rare in front-of-house roles. In part, this is due to the lack of awareness that comes with racial privilege. As demonstrated repeatedly in Gallup polls, the majority of white people in the US believe that Black Americans are treated equitably, while only a small fraction of Black people feel the same way. The documentary “This is [Not] Who We Are” highlights just how different the lived experiences can be between Black and white people in Boulder.

Quantifying tableside racism

One conclusion commonly drawn from the body of research on tableside racism is simply that there needs to be more research. This is partly because social values related to race are always changing and also because clearer conclusions could be reached with more data. However, many insights have been firmly established so far.

Here’s the breakdown:

The research also shows that there is in fact a small average difference in tipping levels between white and Black people — less than 5%. However, this difference is tiny in comparison to the ubiquity and harmfulness of tableside discrimination, which the data indicates is itself a cause of those lower tips.

What’s more, the most recent research shows that tipping differences, on the rare occasions when they do occur, tend to be greatly exaggerated by the server. Evidently, servers often grossly underestimate tips expected from Black patrons as opposed to an identical table of white customers. Although the vast majority of customers tip appropriately, regardless of race, the stereotype lives on.

In the words of Zach Brewster, associate professor at Wayne State University and a leader in researching tableside racism, it is not uncommon for “servers and managers to feel economically justified in providing inferior service to customers of color” and, on this basis, to deny that their attitude is racist.

The vicious cycle

Black consumers are often acutely aware of the racial implications of substandard service, ranging from the trauma of personal experiences with discrimination to the collective historical importance of the “sit-down” movement during the Civil Rights Era. Unless servers know better and actively prevent prejudicial treatment, stereotyped expectations of tipping are unlikely to disappear.

The Vicious Cycle:

  1. Servers predict a below-average tip.
  2. Servers provide diminished service.
  3. Servers earn well-deserved below-average tips.
  4. The stereotype is confirmed in the mind of the server.
  5. The consumer’s hurtful experiences of discrimination are reinforced as well.

Front-line staff and their employers have everything to gain from unpacking the cycle of this self-fulfilling prophecy. By looking at it from a variety of angles, management and workers in tipping industries can understand the many points where it’s possible to intervene.

Working to unpack bias

The results rippling out from tableside racism can include complaints, poor customer satisfaction surveys, and negative reviews of the restaurant online or by word of mouth, resulting overall in a failure to build repeat clientele. In some cases, discriminatory treatment such as unfairly extensive wait times has resulted in expensive litigation. And finally, observing discriminatory treatment of customers is known to contribute to employee turnover, a major problem for businesses in tipping industries, and it has also provided a basis for complaints of hostile workplace environments.

Still, as Brewster points out, there is reason for optimism: “while tableside racism is an undeniable problem for consumers of color, particularly Black Americans, and the financial health of restaurant establishments, there are reasons to be hopeful. Most servers do not stereotype nor discriminate against Black restaurant patrons.” Thanks to the efforts of organizations like the Boulder County chapter of NAACP, which recently held an event on hospitality and racism for local entrepreneurs, and Colorado Companies Uniting Against Fascism, diversity programs in restaurants and other hospitality establishments are becoming more common. 

While there are many steps that individuals can take to resist their own biases in thought and action, the best results come from working together in groups. Through organizing diversity education and leading by example, supervisors and managers have a lot of power to influence whether bias can flourish in their workplaces.

Together, everyone can help protect each consumer’s constitutional right to an experience free of insult and characterized by fairness and dignity. When it really comes down to it, it’s not just the right thing to do — it’s good for business.


Carolyn Elerding
Carolyn Elerding (she/they), PhD, is a writer, editor, activist, and former professor based in Boulder. Elerding’s writing on cultural and social issues like diversity, equality, and the climate can also be found in such venues as Ms. magazine and The Real News network. Find them online at @celerding @celerding@toot.io https://carolynelerding.com/

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