Category Archives: Racism

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Our new friend is a racist — should we dump him?

My husband and he have so much in common — but his beliefs are pernicious and wrong!

Cary’s classic column from THURSDAY, JAN 3, 2008

Dear Cary,

My husband and I live in a small town in the same rural area of northern New England where he grew up. I grew up in a suburban setting in southern New England, but I have lived here my entire adult life — more than three decades now. (I’m 49, my husband is 60, and we’ve been married 18 years.) I always knew this was the only place on earth I wanted to live (I have very strong family/ancestral ties here), and I love everything about living here. I get along well with both “natives” and “transplants,” and I am often mistaken for the former (which, I have to admit, pleases me, as I think it can sometimes be very hard to crack the inner circle in a small town when you’re “from away”).

Politically, I consider myself strongly liberal, particularly on social issues, and my husband, although he was raised in a more conservative family, is also quite liberal. He has a hard time with any sort of label and refuses to register for a particular political party, but years of self-evaluation and introspection — he is a recovering alcoholic, sober for over 25 years now, and went through a good bit of therapy in the early years — have made him very open-minded. So it’s safe to say that our political views make us both liberal-Democrat types.

If there is anything at all that occasionally bothers me about living in our area, it is a tendency toward conservative politics and narrow-mindedness that I’ve observed among some of our neighbors. It saddens me to hear some parents’ racial and ethnic prejudice and homophobia reflected in overheard conversations among our teenage son’s peers at the local high school, but I’m very proud of our son’s ability to think for himself, and I think we’ve done a good job of raising him to be kind, tolerant and open-minded. I’ve had no trouble finding like-minded friends and acquaintances myself, and I’m happy and comfortable with our life here.

My husband and I have a relatively new friend whom we both like a lot. We’ve known him fairly well for about a year now, and he and my husband have really enjoyed spending time together, watching and talking about sports, current events and their past lives. He’s single, about five years older than my husband, and retired here about 10 years ago from Massachusetts. Coincidentally (neither of us knew it when we first met him), he is also a recovering alcoholic (with, I believe, about 20 years of sobriety). Needless to say, this revelation gave him and my husband even more in common, and their friendship has grown until my husband considers him among his closest friends.

Now the problem. My husband and I have both always recognized that this friend is more conservative than we are, but we’ve been able to discuss our differences over politics and social issues with humor, while “agreeing to disagree” — until a few days ago, when we both became suddenly and uncomfortably aware that our friend is, to put it bluntly, a racist. The three of us were having a pleasant conversation about football, when he remarked that he couldn’t stand it when a certain black sports commentator “slipped into jive talk whenever there’s another black guy in the booth.” Successive remarks led us to realize the extent of his prejudice, and finally led me to say, incredulously, “Please don’t tell me you honestly believe that white people are smarter than black people?” I was hoping he was putting us on, and I felt like I had been kicked in the stomach when he said, “Yeah, I do.” He went on to say, “Except for people like Colin Powell and Condoleezza Rice, but, as a rule, yeah.”

My husband and I were both floored, and we continued the discussion in hopes of getting him to — what? I don’t know, retract his statement or change his mind, I suppose. He gave several examples to illustrate his position — rough gangs of black kids he had gone to high school with, the behavior of some of the black men he had served with in the Navy, black men he had known who abandoned their pregnant girlfriends — while we both tried to get him to see that culture, not genetics, was responsible for what he perceived as innate differences between the races. He ended up by assuring us that he always “treated them nicely” — had some black friends in the service, tipped the black server at the doughnut shop, etc. — unlike his father, who was, apparently, a raving racist who talked about “jigaboos and jungle bunnies” when he was growing up.

I’m sure it was obvious that my husband and I were upset by his remarks, and we made it clear that we disagreed with him vehemently. It felt very different from the half-humorous political differences we’ve expressed in the past, and at one point our friend said, “I hope this doesn’t affect our friendship.” We did change the subject before he left, but things were definitely awkward.

My question is: Where do we go from here? Do we continue the friendship as before, skirting the issue of racial prejudice? Do we tell him we’re sorry, but we no longer feel comfortable being his friends? Do we say nothing, stop inviting him for coffee, and let the friendship lapse? I feel sad to think that my husband may lose a friend with whom he has found so much common ground, but how much of a difference in viewpoint can a friendship sustain? And how much of a stand do we need to take to be true to our own values?

It’s a terrible feeling to be disappointed by someone you care about, and right now my husband and I feel sorely disappointed. We both like this guy a lot, but we both feel strongly that racism has no place in this world. While I know our friend’s prejudice comes, in large part, from the family in which he was raised, I can’t help thinking that if my husband has been able, as an adult, to learn to think for himself and become more open-minded, our friend could have done the same. But if he hasn’t done so by this age, it seems unlikely that anything we say is going to have much of an effect on his views.

Cary, I’d love to hear what you, and other readers, think.

Disappointed

LastChanceTuscany

Dear Disappointed,

It is indeed a terrible feeling to be disappointed by someone you care about. People fail you, they do.

This friend of yours appears to have mistaken beliefs. It is difficult for those of us with all the correct beliefs to extend courtesy, love and understanding to those with mistaken beliefs. But it is an affliction of your time to believe your own beliefs — to believe your own beliefs are the only ones that matter and are correct and represent the pinnacle of social progress. If you take an imaginative leap to the 12th century, or the 18th century, or the 1930s, you will notice how radically beliefs change. We who are now alive think we know what is right and correct, as did the Spanish in the Inquisition and the Protestants in the Reformation and the Maoists in the Cultural Revolution; it is the privilege of those on top to think they know what is right and correct. It is a nice privilege indeed. Doubting ourselves is hard.

Even if we are correct in believing that those of us with the correct beliefs represent the pinnacle of social progress, we must also recognize that, as in elementary school where some kids are slower than others to learn multiplication and geography, and some are slower to learn not to eat dirt and push each other down in the mud, some are slow to accept cultural progress and scientific knowledge.

You can call them names if you like. You can call them racists and bigots. You can exclude them from your company even though you really like them as people. You can argue with them like a Protestant arguing with a Catholic or a communist arguing with a capitalist or a criminal arguing with a law-and-order type. You can attempt to show that his life experience runs counter to what all science shows.

I just think the flaws in human nature go deeper than we know, and that while it is right and just to fight and struggle for social justice in law and institutions, we ought to honor at the same time even the reprobates and racists among us, even the assholes, the sexists and the religiously intolerant, the ones who say the bad words and express the bad opinions, who fail to grasp how shocking is their lack of enlightenment, who fail to grasp how uncomfortable it makes the rest of us to hear their unenlightened comments about skin color and nation of origin, the clumsy parallels they draw between income and genetics, between school performance and parenting styles, between neighborhood orderliness and native language, between color preference and speech style, between church affiliation and a great-great-grandmother’s husband’s cousins, between voting preference and educational advancement. We ought not let them rule our nation, of course. But we ought not exclude them from friendship.

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I just think lots of us are pretty dumb, and we’re not all that virtuous either, and big deal. I’m not so impressed with our own assumed air of virtue, we liberal coastal elites. I don’t think we’re all that morally superior to the racists and sexists we can so easily pick out of the crowd and condemn. I think in fact that our frequent presumption of moral superiority is a deep character flaw that blinds us both to the vast virtue around us and to our vast capacity for growth. And more than that: Our air of superiority bores me. It bores me how we talk. It bores me how seriously we take the liberal taboos, how easily we are stopped at the borders of good taste.
In fact, I am rather drawn to the bad man, the racist, the reprobate, the criminal, the idiot, the one who doesn’t get how he is supposed to behave. He unwittingly shines a light on the dark side — and even that is condescending, isn’t it, to assume that the only virtue we can find in those of a lower caste is one they are not even aware that they are expressing?

I know the drill. I stand for social progress and equality. I’m a leftist intellectual ex-hippie who lives in San Francisco. But people have junk in their heads. We all have junk in our heads.

Most of us don’t think all that clearly or all that deeply. How can we? We have jobs to do that tire us out and we work with people who have junk in their heads and we were raised by people who had junk in their heads. All our lives people tell us stupid things and put junk in our heads. They put junk in our heads and once it’s there it’s hard to get it out. Me, I get to sit here all day and try to figure out what is the junk and what is the good stuff, and even with all that time to sit here and try to sort it out I’m pretty hopeless. So what about a guy who works hard every day for 45 years with people putting junk in his head and telling him things that are groundless and wrong? How’s he supposed to rearrange his head once he turns 65? How’s he supposed to change his beliefs?

We should all do something about it, of course, all of us, of course we should, of course. Yes, we should. We should be kinder, smarter and more on time. The racists among us, the sexists, the unkind, the selfish, the mean, the crude, the hateful, the spiteful, the bitter, the unenlightened and the just plain average should all get to work right now to try to get better, to be more on time, kinder, less racist, more socially active, calmer and more meditative, and more careful in their choice of words; I myself should try harder to be concise and not to string people along with my own self-involved speculations. I myself should try to not think the uncharitable thoughts I think when I see certain drivers in certain cars making certain kinds of turns, when I speculate about their age and their beliefs, their gender and country of origin and how each correlates with their peculiar driving habits and who in their family might have taught them such peculiar methods; I myself ought to be more orderly in my work habits and I ought to do more service work in the community; I ought to pick a presidential candidate and work for his election, and volunteer at a food bank three times a week. I ought to cleanse my mind of all the dirty, oppressive, angry, unenlightened thoughts that crowd out my virtuous thoughts like crows crowding out the sparrows of springtime — which will not be far off now, by the way, springtime that is, with its annual tease.

Can you love someone who is deeply flawed? Do you have the courage to do that? Can your love be tinged with disapproval and still be love? Can you heatedly dispute on matters of social beliefs and still remain friends? I hope so. I hope you can do that. I also hope you can find persuasive materials to show that the beliefs of your friend are groundless and pernicious, for that is today’s correct belief, and it is the one true belief, and it is the belief that everyone should have.

Meanwhile, in my heart of hearts, I’d like it if even the best of us and the purest could get the hell over ourselves. There is much work to be done every single day. There are sick people to be cared for and children to be taught. I myself have got a book to sell, a column to write and a writing workshop to lead.

While I try to do my best, I’m going to have the worst thoughts you can imagine. I’m going to assume that you will too. We’ll see each other on the street and we’ll nod to each other, each of us having the worst thoughts you can imagine, each of us knowing it’s just our condition.

So I say give your husband’s friend a break. Racism is stupid, and worse than stupid it’s pernicious and cruel and stupid. But he’ll be dead in 30 years and social progress will continue none the worse for his presence on this earth. The groups that were on top will soon be on the bottom and it will serve everybody right.

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Am I being used?

 

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Dear Cary:

Thank you for bringing humaneness to advice columns. I hope you’ll consider taking time to help me figure out a problem. I was raised in a tribal culture where women keep things to themselves in order to keep others from worrying. I have trouble speaking to friends back home to help me work this out, and I am in a very rural area with no therapists close by.

I do not have any friends where I am living.

In 2010 I started doing dissertation research in a small community far from my home. I met a man who was 62. I was 33. He seemed very young, was outdoorsy, and we spent a lot of time together on my project. He has been married and divorced four times. Only one of the marriages lasted a while, with “Sherry” (nineteen years). I have been married once (together for about twelve years, married for five)–the ex had an affair, and I will admit I have trust issues. My ex and I raised his son together, and I promised the son to love him like my own no matter what, and I do. Stepson still lives close to my “home”–far from the research community.

This older man and I started dating as a fling. We discussed that I was going to leave, write my dissertation, and seek an academic job. I’m of mixed heritage — American Indian, black, and white —  and I’m the first on my mom’s side of the family to have a doctorate, so this was a big deal, not just to me, but to my parents and Indian community. I actually did leave the research community and drove back home, to work and write my dissertation. However, a couple days after I left, a mutual friend called to say Manfriend had a heart attack and was in ICU. I immediately went back to take care of him and ended up moving in. His health generally declined from another condition, although he hides it well. He is now on disability, but it is not enough to support him at the level he likes.

Somehow helping him stretched out to three years. I love Manfriend — by which I think I mean I could not stand for him to be alone and killing himself trying to work, which is what he would do if it weren’t for my income.  I have supported him, cared for him, taken him to the hospital and to traditional healers, worried over him, taken care of all the work he can’t do around the house, advocated for him with doctors, etc. His kids rarely visit. He says he loves me, but he does not want to get married.  I did finish writing my dissertation, very slowly, while working two jobs to support both of us. There are no academic jobs here. I do other work in a high-stress but boring profession that does not pay well here.

Here are the hangups. He calls me “Sherry” sometimes. He speaks about Sherry to others and tells them how pretty she is, even shows off pictures of her and their daughter together and refers to her as “my old lady.”  Manfriend comments about how other men who are “shacked up” with women do so because they do not respect their girlfriends enough to marry them. About two years ago, Manfriend made comments about wanting oral sex from another woman in front of me and whispered to her something apparently salacious in front of me. He has not taken me out in about a year, so I no longer see him interact with other women, although he claims that the hitting on the other woman was only when we were “not as committed” (we had been living together and I was supporting him even then). He tells me that he thinks it is funny to tell people in town who ask about me and him (it’s a small town, and the age difference as well as my profession and race make us a curiosity for gossips) that he doesn’t even know me.

Manfriend is not as bad a boyfriend as it might sound. What I haven’t said is that he is also kind when he’s not being disrespectful. He cooks for me, listens to my frustrations with my job and my worries about Stepson and my elderly grandfather, and is very affectionate. When we are OK we laugh a lot together. We never go out together anymore. He does go out when I’m at work. By the time I get home and on the weekends, he says he is too tired or that I am too insecure and will get mad at him for looking at other women. But he doesn’t want me to go out by myself, so I have made no friends here other than “work friends,” not people I would share personal issues with.

I know I’m insecure and bringing my own old issues with trust into things. But I can’t get over the feeling that despite all this if Manfriend respected me or were committed to me much he would never have hit on other women (especially not in front of me), could manage not to call me Sherry during intimate moments, and could stop bragging about Sherry to other people. They’ve been divorced 15 years but apparently, according to her religious beliefs, she and he are still married since she does not believe in divorce. I also tend to think he would want to get married since, according to him, not getting married is a sign of disrespect. That we are racially different does not help. Sometimes I really think that if I were white he would not act like he was ashamed of living with me or try to shame me.

This is all very far from my family, and I’m now 36–getting old if I did want to settle down and have a child other than Stepson. I’m terrified that I’m losing precious time with my parents, elderly grandfather, and stepson and obviously weakening my relationships with all of them because we rarely see one another, and that I gave my beloved and also now elderly dogs back to Exhusband (Manfriend is violently allergic), all to be with a man who I sometimes suspect is using me. But, again, I hate the thought of leaving him alone, or of not having him in my life, and I think I find satisfaction in caring for someone.

How do I make a decision I can live with or let wanting a more stable relationship go? We are wearing each other out fighting. When we argue that pain and humiliation of him hitting on that other woman in front of me and telling people he lived by himself and didn’t know me just bubbles up as if they were new. I want to talk about it, and he doesn’t, which means I usually unload it all it once when I figure we’re already in for an argument–not good for either of us–and he responds with sarcasm and exaggeration, which tends to make it hard for me to keep “fighting fair.” The last fight ended with me vomiting up all these worries, crying, and telling him I was scared and him telling me I was making him sick with my “tantrum,” so I’m sleeping at my office for a while.

Any advice would be very appreciated.

Best,

Not Sure if I’m Being Used or Just Poisoning My Relationship With My Old Issues

Connecticut_PatCary1

Dear Longest Pseudonym Ever in the History of this Advice Column and that Means 12 Years,

Thank you for your letter. I don’t think it’s helpful to simply say you’re being used. It’s more complicated than that.

You are in an unusual relationship. You get a lot from this relationship. You also give a lot. You sacrifice. It is an unequal relationship. But you are not powerless in it. You have some power that you are not using. You have the power of refusal and of withholding. I don’t mean withholding sex. I mean withholding yourself, and the things you do for him.

Rather than be doctrinaire, strategically cut back. Stop doing certain things for him, while still maintaining the essential bond between you. The services you provide are not just practical. They are emotional. You supply him with approval and esteem; you allow him to believe that he is king. It’s OK for him to be king some of the time. But he is not all-powerful. He needs to know that his powers are limited.

I think you’re smart and compassionate and deserving of more than this man is giving you, but it is your responsibility to even things out with him. So pull back. Let him see that he can’t just get whatever he wants from you whenever he wants it. Retire into yourself a bit. Let him feel some tension. Let him wonder. Let him see that his lack of respect has consequences.

You say you are living in a small community far from home. You are isolated. You depend on this man more than you would if you had friends to confide in. So you need to make some friends. If that means breaking certain customs, by confiding things that in your tribe generally are not confided, and by on occasion denying him the pleasure of your company while you go and be among people in more equitable power relationships, so be it. In other words, branch out. Find some friends.

As to the essential question of whether to leave him in order to find a man to have a child with, that is a deep, challenging and far-reaching question I can’t presume to answer. But I do know that though you feel responsible for this man, you are not ultimately responsible for him. If you leave him, he will be OK. He will survive.

I sense that there is something deep between you and him. It is clouded and sullied by his crude lapses. That is a shame. I sense that he is not crude morally necessarily; he is a man of a certain time and he is used to getting away with certain things with women. But it is not too much to ask that he not call you Sherry, and not make crude comments to other women. It doesn’t matter whether you are there to hear it or not. You should insist that he not do this. It is disrespectful to women everywhere. It is wrong. He should be chastised when he does this.

We have a long way to go in this culture; our history of violence and subjection of peoples echoes in the present. To be a woman, an African-American and an Indian is to be thrice blessed and thrice cursed. Most blessings are also curses. This is nothing new.

So go inside yourself and be strong inside yourself. Do not give yourself away to him so freely. Let him see what he has to do. Let him see if he can make it up to you for his crude lapses, his arrogance, his pomposity. You obviously are drawn to a deeper side of him. He is not just an arrogant, pompous man. He is someone you love.

Just don’t be a sucker. Be strong. Make him work for it.

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