In Dining While Black, Danielle Dirks and Stephen K. Rice expose a pattern of differential treatment towards black Americans in the restaurant industry. Throughout the article, tipping practices are presented as a tool whereby servers may rationalize their racist behavior by claiming that their unwillingness to serve black diners is due solely to the tipping habits of their customers; safely disregarding any accusations of racism. Briefly presenting statistical data as well as large-scale behavior in a discussion website, the authors make clear a pattern of structural discrimination that is substantiated by the widely-held beliefs of restaurant workers. They then largely focus on interviews held with restaurant workers. The results of these interviews serve as evidence for the existence of what Dirks and Rice call “backstage racism” within the restaurant industry. Further, given this active derogatory stereotyping of black diners, the authors advise that evidence of racial tipping to be viewed cautiously in this context.
Given the highly subtle and easily-rationalized nature of the racist behaviors discussed in the article, the authors’ decision to focus their research on the personal accounts given by restaurant workers was truly appropriate. Nevertheless, they also provide sufficient statistical evidence to demonstrate racial discrimination in the restaurant industry at its structural level. First discussing the well-known case of Haynes v. Shoney’s as well as charges levied against other large restaurant chains and later the disproportional number of black Americans employed as kitchen workers or cooks as opposed to servers and managers, they acknowledge the following: “the majority of everyday examples [discussed] in this article involve interpersonal interactions between servers and customers. But . . . when one speaks of differential access or opportunity based on biology, one cannot separate the interpersonal from the structural.” (Dirks & Rice, 31). This not only acknowledges the interaction between individual and systemic racism so that it may be considered through the rest of the article, but makes clear that the respondents’ accounts do not exist in a vacuum; addressing claims that events and behaviors described were isolated or decontextualized.
Given the fact that the time required to conduct personal interviews likely restricted the number of participants the authors could include, such claims must have been a distinct possibility. However, this was certainly the most suitable way to address the subject matter. Had the authors resorted to methodology of a larger scale such as a survey, the quality of the responses would doubtlessly have been diminished. For example, although respondents claimed to condemn the racist attitudes of their coworkers, as interviews delved more deeply, it was found as interviews progressed that many of them held those same beliefs.
This piece contextualized some of my knowledge regarding the subtleties of racism. Although the way in which individuals are quick to rationalize their racist views and actions through stereotypes is something of which I was aware, it certainly expanded my knowledge of this process, as I had never thought to consider the center of the stereotype as a “social artifact.” Furthermore, seeing this presented in the context of a seemingly innocent service industry demonstrated the ease with which derogatory stereotyping is kept from becoming public knowledge.
It is my view that the authors of this article employed all the right techniques to not only present, but contextualize their findings. Through a combination of both objective and subjective data, they succeeded in emphasizing the extent of the issue of racial discrimination in the restaurant industry while refusing to ignore the ways in which their findings could be rationalized. Their methodology was appropriate in the sense that one cannot understand racism without hearing the justifications its culprits might offer. As such, I can confidently say that the piece accomplished its goal.