“Boys with tips” and “Girl with cake”

When Girl with Cake was a thing, I wrote that even well-intentioned charitable giving should not be considered immune to criticism, as even that sort of charity can perpetuate stereotypes about the recipient. Another way in which charity could be criticized is if it’s inefficient – if the same efforts would be better directed elsewhere, which is one point made by proponents of “effective altruism“.

Yet another way in which charity can go wrong is when it validates stereotypes about the providers of charity, and this is to my mind the problem with the recent campaign to crowdsource tips for an Obz Cafe waitress who experienced some brutish behavior at the hands of a dinner table populated by Rhodes Must Fall activists.

Ntokozo Qwabe (NQ), a graduate of Oxford University and the most prominent voice of the Rhodes Must Fall campaign in Oxford, relates what happened as follows:

They take a pen & slip in a note where the gratuity/tip amount is supposed to be entered. The note reads in bold: “WE WILL GIVE TIP WHEN YOU RETURN THE LAND”. The waitress comes to us with a card machine for the bill to be sorted out. She sees the note & starts shaking. She leaves us & bursts into typical white tears (like why are you crying when all we’ve done is make a kind request? lol!). Anyways, so this white woman goes to her colleagues who are furious. She exits to cry at the back & a white male colleague of hers reluctantly comes out to address us & to annoy us more with his own white tears telling us that he finds our act “racist”.

(You can read the rest at the Daily Vox.)

In reponse to this, Sihle Ngobese (SN) visited the restaurant, found the waitress – Ashleigh Shultz (AS) – and gave her the tip that the RMF table could (and should, unless they received terrible service) have given her, were it not for the fact that they objectified this woman as a placeholder for white oppression, despite knowing nothing about her, her politics, or her financial circumstances. (Something they of course should have been aware of is the likelihood that, as a waitress, she and some hypothetical intersectional movement might well find some common ground on the issue of class and privilege.)

Some say that this isn’t racist, because black people can’t be racist. I don’t agree with that, even though I understand the disctinction being made. This is because I don’t see the point of distinguishing between race-based bigotry expressed by people of a subjugated race and that expressed by a privileged race. ‘Racism’ seems a useful shorthand for both, albeit of necessity accompanied by the acknowledgement that the priviliged race is likely to not only be racist more often, but also to be oblivious to their racism more often.

Next, Roman Cabanac and Jonathan Witt (who host the Renegade Report podcast on CliffCentral) started a Twitter crowdfunding campaign that ended up generating R44 778 in donations for the waitress in question. (Another crowdfunding effort also sprung up, generating an additional R15 000+.) [EDIT: Twitter user @GarethKourie points out that this second campaign has reached $5000, so, more like R70 000, meaning that AS has now been tipped around R115 000.]

Later on, we find out that the waitress has a mother who has cancer. This information was however not available at the time the campaigns started, so should be irrelevant to any analysis of whether the campaigns were appropriate or not – they were not generated to raise money for cancer treatment, but to offset her experience of abuse by RMF, and to demonstrate a moral counterweight to the callousness of NQ and his dinner companions.

Both of those goals could, in my view, have been achieved without creating the impression of a couple of (literally) white knights charging in to protect one of their own against the (literally) dark forces of RMF. And, creating that impression simply lends credence to one of the legitimate concerns of the RMF movement, namely that white South Africans (and people, in general) are far too unaware and unconcerned about the fate of black people compared to the fate of other whites.

It’s of course true that it should, in theory, be possible to separate these issues from race, and to simply regard this as an act of generosity. But to think that people will (or even should) do so now in the political landscape that is South Africa is either naive or wilfull denialism. To refuse to countenance any criticism on this topic – as the Renegade Report hosts have done in their Twitter responses – is difficult to read as anything other than a commitment to making a point, rather than being humanitarians, even if the outcome of their commitment is a plus for humanitarianism, on balance.

The offset to her experience, and the restoration of her dignity, in a sense, was to my mind accomplished by the initial R50 donation and the outpouring of support on Twitter. The moral counterweight was provided by the same outpouring of support, as well as extensive and robust criticism of NQ, including from many black commentators who are usually sympathetic to RMF. Some of the criticism was, of course and unfortunately, racist and ad hominem abuse directed at NQ, which again simply serves to gift him the moral high ground he in no way deserves in this instance.

The job was done, in other words, meaning that if you wanted to crowdsource charitable donations, you should look further afield than this case. Anything beyond the extensive criticism and the symbolic tip – and especially something that ends up generating an amount of money that will outstrip what many black South Africans earn annually, is going to have a hard time appearing to be a humanistic gesture.

This waitress is relatively undeserving of this gift compared to so many other people. The gesture can’t help but appear to be motivated less by generosity than by a vindictive “sticking it to NQ”, showing how much of a better person “we” (the donors) are.

And, as I said on Twitter, you’ll find that (or at least I find, and I eat out too many times every week) black waitstaff are routinely treated rudely, and (I imagine) tipped less generously than white ones, assuming that the level of expressed respect correlates with the level of financial support offered as tip. My claim is not that “if you can’t help everybody, you should help nobody” or something of that sort. Of course we are forced to pick our causes.

My point is that helping this one is a strike against the “fascist” RMF (as they have been described by at least one of the Renegade Report hosts), masquerading as charity, and that the optics of this case are exceedingly poor, serving to reinforce negative racial stereotypes.

It doesn’t help the argument to assert that some of the donors are black, or that this sort of argument is of the “social justice warrior” variety. The latter is a vacuous slur that completely escapes the force of argument in the sense that even if it’s true (and it is) that some folk concerned with social justice are knee-jerk thoughtless reactionaries, not all of them are. Arguments need to be addressed on their merits, not with cliches. And even if some black people donated, they don’t provide political cover because they can also be prejudiced against RMF, or thoughtless regarding the impression this campaign creates.

Of course, these black donors are also not effective body shields against criticism when the campaign is spearheaded (after the first tip from SN) by white folk, where most donors are white folk, and where the “movement” enourages support from the likes of Milo Yiannopoulos. If he’s on your side, you really need to reconsider your strategy.

To summarise, I don’t think this is an example of effective altruism, and I also think it faily obvious that it feeds into confirming stereotypes about “whiteness”. Those who support the campaign might well not believe in the entire concept of “whiteness”, and I would agree with them that it’s an overplayed concept, often used as a thoughtless dismissal of opposing points of view.

But the fact that is sometimes (even often) abused doesn’t mean that it’s never true that we can perpetuate harmful stereotypes, and impede progess, regarding race relations in what we do and how we choose to do it – as is the case here.

17 Replies to ““Boys with tips” and “Girl with cake””

  1. Jeez. A scumbag in a restaurant treats a waitress badly and reduces her to tears. Some people choose to donate money to her to make up for the tip she never got. A rare act of kindness to a stranger, in a world full of thoughtless jerks and sociopaths. That’s it, end of story. No need to rationalise it, analyse it, blog about it. Honestly, no need at all.

    1. you took the words out of my mouth. I guess when, as the previous commenter said, it’s a slow day on the social injustice front, our intrepid SJWs have to create a situation they can feel superior about.

  2. I believe than Roman stated that they initially only expected a thousand rand, at most. I don’t think anyone imagined how it would snow ball..

    I donated. Why did I donate? Well, there are a number of reasons:
    1) I felt sorry for the girl and it felt like the right thing to do.
    2) I felt pissed off and irritated that as a white person I still have to hear how I “stole” land from idiots like NQ (Go and tell ABSA)
    3) I wanted to piss off NQ

    Would I have done the same if some arrogant white prick did the same to a black waitress and posted it all over FB? I would like to think, yes. Like SN, I would have wanted to show that not all white people are bad.

    I would like to think that 90% of the people who donated had good intentions and did not see it as some “white privilege” thing. It’s unfortunate that the SJWs had to turn it into something bad – must have been a slow day on the social injustice front…

  3. I really enjoy you weighing in on viewpoints. You’re one of the few individuals who seems to side ideologically with the left, but you have the ability to argue a point, rather than just called RR and their campaign racist/bigoted/whatever. Thank you for that.

    I disagree with your explanation above but I’m annoyed with myself that I can’t figure out what. I suspect its because I’ve seen Facebook rant after Twitter rant this weekend and its just been a mess.
    Mercifully, no one has, as far as I can see, said NQ actions were valid and just.
    However, by denying and condemning the tip campaign, you’re effectively siding with him, saying that mistreatment and bullying of servers, no matter the racial identity of anyone in the scenario, is acceptable.

    Rough thoughts of mine. I might be totally off the mark. its been a long weekend and I’ve been watching this mess unfold for most of it.

    1. No Matt, I’m not effectively siding with him. The idiocy you’re seeing on social media has corrupted you on this point, I’m afraid. Both NQ and RR are wrong, and NQ to a vastly greater extent.

  4. I dunno, Jacques. The RMF activists not only didn’t tip the poor woman, they also scrawled that bit sbout wanting the land back on the slip. Also, according to the Facebook post: “We start drawing him to the political nature of the act & why we couldn’t be bothered that they decided to catch feelings from the note.” In other words, she and her colleague had to endure an endless RMF diatribe in their place of work. This is certainly worth being compensated for…to the tune of many thousands.

  5. “This waitress is relatively undeserving of this gift compared to so many other people.”
    Just exactly how do you get to decide who is more deserving or less deserving of my donation? Don’t you think that is just a tad bloody arrogant? If you did not donate, you have NO say in who receives and who does not.
    You are way off the mark here – just read all the comments below!

  6. “A scumbag treats a waitress horribly and reduces her to tears.”

    Every time I’ve heard this statement in regards to the actions of the RMF activists it seems to come from a place of shock as if this isn’t the norm* for any waitress or any person working in customer services, for that matter. The people ignoring the problems with the fundraising campaign need to stop pretending we don’t live in a classist society in which people think it’s acceptable to treat those who provide them with a service (be it in the workplace/socially/domestically) with disrespect. That’s why I took issue with the campaign from the start – the focus on the waitress and activists’ racial difference while ignoring the sex and class difference moved the gesture away from a well-meaning one and more towards a political stick-it-to-that-black-guy campaign. Now really would’ve been a great time for social media folks to band together to highlight that even men who seek racial equality are guilty of perpetuating other forms of discrimination –which shouldn’t be tolerated either– but instead it became a pissing contest between black and white peeps which is a shame.

    Also, just from a feminist point of view, it’s more than a little annoying that so many people thought the woman needed such an extreme consolation for not getting a tip. I mean….sheesh.

    *Norm by no means implies acceptable

  7. Donations are almost never proportional to what they deserve. Even if you limit yourself to looking at donations for treating diseases, you’ll see that cancer gets a very disproportionate amount compared to other diseases (relative to severity and prevalence). Why? Because donating is emotionally driven and definitely subject to some sort of herd mentality. An emotive kick-start surely doesn’t hurt either. Point being, that once you start a donation campaign, you have little control over the scale of the success.

  8. Nontokoza acted like a prick, The waitress won the lottery because well people sided with her and the injustice of being attacked for having a white skin. A waitress in unlikely to own land so the SJW’s are being pricks. This is not about deserving or comparing her need to another’s. I raised some money a few years back to cover varsity fees. We are still grateful to those folks and could it be said we were not deserving of their largesse, some would say so because I don’t live in a shack without water. I for one am happy for the waitress and would have contributed as well if I could.

  9. “Anything beyond the extensive criticism and the symbolic tip – and
    especially something that ends up generating an amount of money that
    will outstrip what many black South Africans earn annually, is going to
    have a hard time appearing to be a humanistic gesture.”

    I see what you’re saying (and the whole article is interesting) but I do have an issue with this part of the argument. Maybe you are right about what is necessary to be a humanistic gesture but that is if you look at it from above. But there is no governing body of donations and people don’t get together to decide “this is how much this person deserves.” One person decided she deserved a R50 tip and so did others. She gets a large amount because each person acts independently and I don’t think there’s anything wrong with that. The conflict only occurs if you think humanistic gestures must be co-ordinated and not individual contributions.

  10. There is a difference (to me at least) between a patron being horrible to a waiter, and a patron being horrible to a waiter, then gloating about the moral high ground he has taken by doing so.

    That is a pretty unique occurrence, which is why I think this has strung a particular chord with people.

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