While taking care of some administrative details, I stumbled across a student’s senior research project from a couple of years ago that I thought was pretty fascinating. The student was an African-American female, who had brown eyes but often wore blue contact lenses. She worked as a waitress at a local restaurant, and decided to do a field experiment to test how people responded to her eye color(s). To avoid a wholly subjective evaluation she decided to focus on tip percentages, comparing nights she went natural vs. nights she wore her contacts. The results were intriguing–when displaying her natural brown eye color, her tip rate averaged less than 15%, while when she had blue eyes it averaged over 17%, and only night did it fall below 15%.
She also recorded comments that she received. Keep in mind her clientele was predominantly white, but it’s not as if black folks are at all unusual in our town (only about 4.5% of the population is black, but it’s a small town so it’s not like they’re cloistered far away from the eyes of us white folks). The two comments that caught me as just being crass, while attempting to be complimentary, were:
- “You are the prettiest black girl I have ever seen.”
- “You have pretty eyes girl, all the black guys must want you.”
And she noted,
When told that the blue eyes were contacts approximately one half of all guests seemed disappointed while the other half were careful to mention, “You’re still beautiful regardless”.
The student took this well, commenting that she understood they were trying to be complimentary, but noted that she felt, “an underlying sense of dissatisfaction, with hidden language suggesting that I did not quite measure up.” Of course that’s not very objective data about what the customers were thinking, but it’s pretty objective data about this particular African-American female’s subjective response.
Some racism is subtler than other racism, and some is wholly unintended and unconscious. Keep that in mind next time you tip your waitress.