Monday, April 6, 2009

blame others for "making them racist"

I often like PostSecret*, but some of the secrets posted there seem better left unsaid.

What's the secret in this recently accepted submission? Is this actually a secret, or just somebody's racist rant?

(click for larger image)

White people sometimes defend their use of the word "ghetto" by claiming that it's become such a common term that it's not really about black people anymore. Surely the words in this image expose the truth behind that claim--it's clear that the "ghetto people" here are not white people.

Whoever submitted this image to PostSecret is very likely white, and even more likely, not black. What this person is basically saying is, "I'm not a racist, but . . ." And those are words that always seem to be followed by a racist claim or observation.

The particular kind of "I'm not a racist but" claim here is the claim that the speaker doesn't want to be a racist, "but those people just make me one, you know?"

As in, "I'm not a racist, but you know, working around those people all day, it's hard not to be."

Or, "You can say all you want about how those people get a raw deal, but I've gone to school with a lot of them. I know what they're like."

With the above PostSecret submission, the conversational version of its "secret" might be, "I'm not a racist, but dude, waiting on black people just makes you racist, you know? Those ghetto people never leave a tip. They suck!"

As I've written before, this common attitude among restaurant workers toward black diners is a gross oversimplification. Not only that, this attitude can also result in a self-fulfilling prophecy on the part of servers who harbor it.

Some studies show that black people do often tip less, but that this difference occurs because many blacks customarily eat in restaurants that don't call for tipping. Other studies say it occurs because a negative dynamic is at work: white servers expect bad tips from black customers, and thus tend to pay them less attention than they do non-black customers. In return for such treatment, black customers respond with appropriately low tips, thereby confirming white conceptions of them.

What the maker of this PostSecret image exemplifies is a common white tendency, that of blaming our racism on other people. We inevitably carry stereotypes around with us, and then when something happens that confirms a stereotype, we blame those involved in the incident for making us racist, because they've supposedly confirmed the stereotype.

"If the shoe fits," we often mutter in such cases, while looking off to the side. Nevermind, we seem to think, the many more people of whatever race we're condemning who've countered the stereotype for us.

I'm reminded of a similar case--how little attention was paid during the presidential campaign by the white-framed corporate media, and by white people in general, to John McCain's usage of the g-word. Since he actually had bad experiences at the hands of Vietnamese people, the thinking seemed to go, that excused his casual use of a racist slur. Sure it was a racist gaffe, but he really was treated badly, you know? He was tortured by them.

Imagine if, on the other hand, Barack Obama had been caught on tape complaining about "honkies" or "crackers." Or instead, recall the desperate search by many opposed to Obama for the "Whitey" tape, which supposedly showed Michelle Obama angrily denouncing white people (and which, of course, never surfaced).

Even the possibility that not Barack Obama, but instead his wife, had uttered an anti-white slur got far more attention than the actual use by Obama's opponent of a far worse racial slur. Why the disparity?

I think it's partly because, as the PostSecret item above demonstrates, white people are quick to overlook racism when the perpetrator claims to have some actual negative experience with the non-white people in question. When we think we can blame our racism on the actions of other people, that's supposed to make that kind of racism okay.

*If you're not familiar with PostSecret, Wikipedia offers a good, quick description: "PostSecret is an ongoing community mail art project, created by Frank Warren, in which people mail their secrets anonymously on one side of a homemade postcard. Select secrets are then posted on the PostSecret website, or used for PostSecret's books or museum exhibits."


  1. I'm glad you posted this - I read PostSecret regularly and this postcard was burning me up this morning for its author's hatefulness and blatant bigotry, and for hir ridiculous excuse for such.

  2. "I'm not a racist, but dude, waiting on black people just makes you racist, you know? Those ghetto people never leave a tip. They suck!"

    or maybe, they're not American? whenever I go to the US, I always get sooo confused about tips... so I usually just eat McDonalds because then I know how much I'm supposed to be paying because I usually never have any spare money honestly embarrassingly - well, sort of... I don't get that tax gets added at the end of the transaction rather than being included in the whole price to begin with... mine is just an outsider's view...

  3. Macon, I agree with the study you noted in your post, saying that these situations can sometimes be self-fulfilling prophecies.

    I eat out in sit down, white- tablecloth restaurants often and have done so for years. Started dining at fancy places when I was 16, after saving money over several months to do it. I was almost humiliated on that "big girl" outing, along with a friend who joined me, when the white female server asked, with all snark, if we could afford the meal.

    We certainly had more than enough for what we were ordering. Mind you, given that this was the Midwest, how many teenagers in the early '90s actually dressed up to go out, to go somewhere where dematisse spoons were commonplace?

    We left that trick a penny each for her unsolicited comments, and for the bad service we got all around. If I had to do it all over again, I would have done the same, and told her manager about it.

    Frankly, I'm tired of hearing the conjecture about how black folks don't tip. I live in Washington D.C., a place populated with moneyed black folks, and they tip well and tip often. However, there's what I call "baseline" service, and from my experience, we usually get about a step below that unless we make noise about it, or maybe have sufficient hand bling to indicate we're not going to stiff the restaurant for the check.

    Basically, you don't have to be my best friend, know my child's name, or talk with me through the meal, but be present and mindful. Believe me, WE notice how the water and the food gets to Table A before ours, even though we got there an hour earlier. We don't like the default of being placed by the bathroom or the kitchen, hidden out of sight of white patrons. We don't like being dismissed when we happen to mispronounce the name of something on the menu (like many U.S. citizens do when they encounter a different name for a dish). We don't like being ignored for long periods without any explanation, even when it's busy.

    I know how most kitchens work, and sometimes stuff happens. I don't blame servers when my food is crappy, and will tip them anyway, but I really don't appreciate attitude when I ask for assitance with the situation. The reality is, I usually tip 18-20 percent or more.

    Some things have improved, but depending on where you go and what part of the country you're in, these experiences are common. Part of the problem is the almost universal expectation among U.S. servers that a tip is required. Please. It is not. Owners need to train their people that good service yields good results. Either that, or they should work a baseline gratuity into their subtotal, telling customers from the outset that it's part of the cost of eating there.

    I had a family friend, an ex-server for the Red Lobster chain, who said his co-workers had names for the black women who ate there: "Queetas," as in Shaquita, LaQuita, etc. This code language was used by the host to assign these patrons tables, often in the back, usually to him.

    He doesn't work there anymore.

  4. I saw this too and just FYI, Post Secret has a message board where this is being hotly discussed.

    I had a friend who worked as a server at the Cheesecake Factory. They used to call black people "Canadians" in code. It's really disgusting. Now I'm worried every time I go out to eat what the server is thinking of me b/c I'm black.

    While I DO NOT understand going to a restaurant and not budgeting enough for tip (unless you're from a foreign country where they don't tip or something), I don't find the acceptable solution for your anger is to become racist in your thoughts. B/c believe you me, those thoughts will come out in your behavior whether you realize it or not.

    I also wonder why this doesn't lead servers to try and lobby for some actual changes within the system instead of blaming patrons who share a phenotype that they have no control over. I wonder why it doesn't make more servers into activists, sociologists, etc.

    I guess it's b/c being racist or having more racist thoughts instead of something analytical is just so much easier.

    I think this secret, and others like it, was posted as to not keep feelings about race a secret. So that there is discussion on the boards. These PS forum is (in general) more kind than most, but just as naive.

  5. I read studies similar to the ones cited in a high school psych class. I worked in retail at the time, and sent waaaay too much time obsessing over whether or not I was being adequately nice to my black customers, worried that if I was in any way off that it would be interpreted as racism rather then fatigue, not wanting to converse because the line is long, end of the shift-itchiness to go home, no sleep, etc.

  6. Anon...

    Was there a reason why you were so self-conscious?

    In effect, what you're saying is you felt your Black customers were incapable of distinguishing between racism and fatigue, end-of-shift-itis, etc.

    Also, all kinds of customer's complain about the service or lack of service they received. So, I guess you also spent wayyyyyy too much time obsessing over whether or not you were being adequately nice to all your customers especially when you were fatigued, ready to go home (end-of-shift-itis), etc.

  7. This is so backward to me. As a white person, I've never heard of "ghetto" people failing to tip. I usually hear about affluent-looking white people who at least appear to be more than able to tip and just don't.

  8. I think I may be a day late, but I'm gonna say this to anon anyway.

    That fact that you're not credible is clear: you posted anonymously.

    But to any other random white person who feels the anon does - you don't have to "tip toe" around black customers. Just treat us with the dignity and respect you treat everybody else. Now, if you're in the habit of not treating black people with dignity and respect, or live in a world where that's not a concern, then maybe you should tip toe.

  9. nquest - I thought I'd find you here. What's up with that Siss lady on racism review? She doesn't really seem to want to do anything productive about racism; just complain that we keep noticing it.

  10. no1kstate,

    Are you telling me that you've never known a black person to not tip a white waiter/bartender/etc. on the principle that that "white" person actually owes them or that tipping is a "white" thing? For real...?

  11. >worried that if I was in any way off that it would be interpreted as racism rather then fatigue

    I admit that I find it odd when whites are so afraid of being considered a racist. You are probably not afraid of being considered an asshole for example by a white customer who interpretes your perhaps unfriendly behavior as you being an ass rather then fatigue. Why is being considered a racist so hurtful?

  12. Oh my Lord!

    First, "thordaddy," I don't know how you read that into my statement. I stand by what I said. Just treat black people with respect. How hard is that if you're not racist?

    And, I won't dignify the rest of your nonsense except that to say it's nonsense.

  13. no1kstate,

    I didn't read anything into your statement. I asked a simple question and you refused to answer because the answer is obvious to anyone that's been in the industry long enough.

    Once again, we see the inability to account for ALL of reality and the intent and motivation behind the actions of the general black populace when it comes to tipping.

  14. To answer your question, td, I have never, ever heard of any of what you're talking about. Now, I've known black people to give crappy tips for crappy service. But tipping being a "white" thing? Not tipping because white people owe us? I think that's as realistic as the Michelle Obama "whitey" tape.

  15. Hey Macon,

    I believe that I was a victim of prejudice when my friends and I were at an Applebee's years ago.

    Our waiter wasn't very attentive to our table, but when the "White" table arrived after us, he was very attentive to them. He was yukking it up and everything.

    My friend asked for her food to be wrapped when were finished eating. Before that, she made a separate order for her BF who wasn't present. When the waiter came back with the wrapped food, he didn't know where to put it since he didn't have the sense to clear our table of dirty dishes, so he placed it on the floor and walked away.

    I wanted to speak to the manager but my friend shrugged it off. When we got our bill we paid the EXACT amount.

    Back in college, I'd worked as a waitress with a banquet hall. Because of that expereience, I always leave 20%.

  16. Posted by Thordaddy:

    "no1kstate, Are you telling me that you've never known a black person to not tip a white waiter/bartender/etc. on the principle that that "white" person actually owes them or that tipping is a "white" thing? For real...?"

    I ask you this: How could you ever tell that was the reason a black person did not tip a white waiter? Do you read minds or is it an assumption? If it is an assumption, you suck at assuming. If you read minds, I am going to get the hell away from you!

  17. I am white and I am a server. I have been a server for far too long. I treat every table equally. I am indifferent to creed, color, stature, and income. I know how an undeserving bad tip is agitating, I know because I make a measly $4 an hour. Yet I firmly believe bad service deserves a bad tip. However, it is hard not to notice a consist 10% [and lower] tip from black tables. But, this is a generalization, and not every table holds up this generalization. I have also had some of my best tips from black patrons. It is not because I am white, as I work with a handful of black servers and they express the same complaints. It is a cultural difference. A difference that might fade as our world moves into a global economy, and as cultures assimilate. To sit back and pretend there is not a trend is ignorant. So fight stereotypes, by not giving into them, maybe EVERYONE should work in the service industry at least once in their life and we would all be better tippers.

  18. really?...have you even looked up the word ghetto?
    I'll go ahead and admit that I didn't waste my time reading this entire blog...but do you even know the original definition of the word? It's got absolutely nothing to do with race. Sarah Jessica Parker was from "the ghetto".

    Some people, period, are just stupid. White, black, yellow, brown, red...stupidity is color blind, why can't we be?

  19. @Etty mologist. You can't just look at the original dictionary definition of a word and ignore the obvious historical and current social connotations. That's just willful ignorance of what's really being said here.

  20. I'm not 100% sure what to comment on with regards to the "secret" posted. Why was it considered a secret? I agree with the above posts that it's commonly accepted that PoC tend to tip less. I don't care to speculate on the why of it. Given the waiting staff doesn't make minimum wage and probably have families to support can result in a little frustration with bad tippers. That should never excuse racism and regardless of modern or historical meaning ghetto would still hold racist tones.

    I, like one of the above posters, have worked as a waiter and still help out at one restaurant if they are short handed as a favor. Even if I get bad service as a result of having worked in the industry I give at least 10%. That first 10% I don't consider optional and if I can't afford it I don't eat there. My usually tip is more like 20%, but I don't think it's necessary unless you have just exceptional service.

    I will correct one poster in saying that tipping is required in several restaurants I've been in and is occasionally already factored into your bill and is also clearly stated on their menus.


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