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I’m Through Being Silent About the Restaurant Industry’s Racism

As a Black server and diner, I’ve seen how racism in the restaurant industry plays out on both sides of the table

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An illustration showing a Black female restaurant server taking an order, surrounded by a sea of white people trying to get her attention.

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A few weeks ago, I watched my tattoo artist, Doreen Garner, post an Instagram video about the racism in her industry, and saw Brianna Noble get up on her horse and demand change in the equestrian world. They inspired me to go on Facebook to address the racism where I work: the restaurant industry.

As I wrote in my Facebook post, the restaurant industry is extremely racist: Its racism is inseparable from the history of dining out in this country. Restaurants here flourished after the Civil War, a period when Black people in the hospitality sector were still technically working for free due to the widespread adoption of tipping, which allowed employers to avoid paying their workers. Racism literally shaped the restaurant landscape, too: Here on Long Island, where I live, the racist practice of redlining prevented Black restaurateurs from obtaining business loans or leasing buildings in particular towns — and thus denied them the same opportunities as their white counterparts.

The effects of such discrimination have been everlasting — something that I have learned firsthand as both a Black server and diner. In the six years I worked in restaurants, I never saw BIPOC (Black, indigenous, and people of color) in management, or even a Black bartender; most people of color were forced to remain in the back of house, or as bussers and runners in the front of house. And as a diner, I’ve seen how the industry’s culture of discrimination plays out from the other side of the table, too.

I began working in restaurants in 2009, while attending grad school. The first place I served was a corporate Southern-themed steakhouse on Long Island; not long after I started there, a coworker was fired for using racial slurs about a Black family who was dining with us. The restaurant’s owner individually apologized to every Black employee, and the swiftness of his actions assured me that racism would not be tolerated. The following year, I began my career in fine dining at a popular seafood restaurant on Manhasset Bay. The staff was mostly BIPOC, and included several Black females. This restaurant had its issues, but during the two years I worked there, diversity was not one of them.

But when I returned to the industry in 2018, after a six-year hiatus, I discovered that my previous experiences were anomalies. One evening, while I was training as a server at a farm-to-table restaurant, I asked the trainer how she made recommendations. “Well, they’re Asian, so I recommended the octopus because Asians eat weird food,” she said of the table we’d just served. “Excuse me?” I replied sternly. She tried to backpedal, saying something about how “Italian guys” also loved octopus.

Months later, I caught one of the managers and two servers discussing the treatment of Black people as it relates to our work ethic: The manager implied that there were times we were treated better than we deserved because of our skin color. The two servers looked shocked, but neither corrected her. Being the only Black employee and server of color, I quit immediately. But that evening, the restaurant’s owner and I had an honest conversation. She advised me to not let ignorant people affect my wallet, and she had a point: I was broke and living in my mom’s guest room. So I stayed. But, in hindsight, I should’ve demanded that this manager be fired. Although she was eventually let go, it was for her inferior management skills, not her continued racist antics.

Although the guests at that restaurant usually treated me with respect, I was degraded on several occasions. One evening, while I was recommending wine to a table, one of the diners, a white man, winked at me and said, “the blacker the berry, the sweeter the juice. Am I right?” There was so much I wanted to say, especially to his wife, who just laughed nervously. Instead, I recommended the tempranillo and walked away. Who could I tell? If a manager wouldn’t be checked, how would a guest?

I stayed at the restaurant for a year and a half. Shortly before my departure, one of my customers, a senior citizen, grabbed me. “You know what they say about Black women?” he whispered in my ear. “You taste like chocolate.” He then attempted to kiss me. I pulled away, but I didn’t want to hurt him — I could already imagine the headline: “Black Server Abused Elderly White Man at Long Island Restaurant.” So again, I walked away. But this time, I cried in the hallway while my coworker consoled me. Others seemed to think I was overreacting, as if the customer had complimented me. I didn’t have the energy to point out that Black women are neither a fetish nor a fantasy, and that the sexual harassment we often experience is linked to the ways we’ve been hypersexualized throughout history.

Most recently, until the pandemic began, I was working as a server and marketing consultant at a new Long Island steakhouse. Three of my coworkers were equal-opportunity racists who made derogatory comments about everybody: from the Latinx staff members to a table of Black people, no one was off limits. Almost everyone who worked there was aware of it, but the attitude was one of “You know how this industry is.” One time, when I defended some guests whom one of these coworkers presumed were Jewish, he asked if I was a “Black Jew.” In response, I referenced “First they came...” and expressed that I stand up for everyone, and then politely told him to shut the hell up. He did, but continued to be openly racist towards me — the restaurant’s lone Black employee — and the Latinx bartender.

While the restaurant’s clientele was generally kind, there were still the middle-aged white men thinking they were Tupac, telling me I was the prettiest Black girl they’d ever seen. And the white women who felt the need to be “down” when I approached the table. “Hey girl!” one of them told me. “Your makeup is on fleek. We’re trying to get lit.” Know that I am laughing at you, I thought. You sound like Len from 30 Rock. You are 45 years old in a Talbot’s pant suit. Please stop.

When you’re the only Black employee at a business, you realize that you’re an exception to its discriminatory hiring practices. It is debilitating to constantly defend yourself while remaining professional, and exhausting to become a representative for the entire community. One elevated pitch in your tone may verify a stereotype. And so for your own self-preservation, you learn to ignore it and not react. No matter the profession, we’re conditioned to be silent.

But as a patron, I do not have the same restraint. I always inform the manager. When I do, I’m sometimes offered a discount or a free round of drinks. I appreciate that, but still wonder: Did they hear me or were they just trying to appease me?

Because ignorant servers have tells. The finger across the neck, signaling that you do not want me in your section. The “couldn’t care less” attitude when greeting my table after making me wait for 10 minutes. The interactions with me in comparison to the white people next to me. We all have bad days as servers. But I am one of you, and I know the difference between a bad day and bad behavior. And so I’d ask you to recognize that your low tip is not a derivative of a guest’s skin color, but often, the result of your behavior toward them because of their skin color.

And to my fellow Black female servers, especially those in fine dining, remember you are worthy and your integrity is priceless. I am broke and tired too, but change is no longer a request — it is an ultimatum. Many servers are currently in a position of power; as restaurants try to reopen, employers are struggling to staff up. So before you literally risk your life by returning to work, make sure your professional environment is safe from health risks and racism.

To non-Black restaurant owners, I’d ask you to be introspective. Acknowledge that you benefit from a problematic system, and that your restaurant isn’t immune to racism. And if you still haven’t developed and posted a Black Lives Matter action plan of solidarity, do so. I am empathetic to the fact that you recently took a hit from COVID-19, but racism is also a deadly virus. You cannot plead for pandemic support by posting “We’re all in this together,” but choose to remain silent now. Diversify your staff. Schedule a mandatory team meeting to discuss racism and how to personally combat it — and explicitly state that it is immediate grounds for dismissal. If you have BIPOC staff, reassure them that they are protected and supported; keep in mind that you are legally liable when employees, and guests, engage in discriminatory practices. And remember: The Black dollar is strong. It is imperative that we are appreciated and welcomed at every place of business.

I gave similar recommendations to my most recent employer. As his marketing consultant, I urged him to write a statement of solidarity; as one of his servers, I demanded that my racist coworkers be fired, and a meeting be held to discuss racism at the restaurant. Yet again, my concerns were dismissed and overlooked. But this time, I am through being silent.

Lauren Allen is an experienced marketing specialist in the live entertainment and food hospitality sectors.

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