I work for a small, family-owned company in the South. The owners are white and come from a generation that did not believe in equal rights for nonwhites. I am also white but grew up during the civil rights era. Also, being a Christian, I believe that all people are my brothers and sisters. The problem is that I cannot hold my tongue much longer when these people speak in such horribly bigoted terms about nonwhites in general and the new president in particular. After being without a job for 10 months, I finally got this job last year. It is a huge step down financially, and I am currently looking at starting a second, part-time job to help make ends meet. With the economy not expected to improve anytime soon, I do not feel free to simply walk away or endanger my job by speaking my mind. We work in very close proximity to one another, so there is no way to close a door or walk out of the room to remove myself. How do I handle this? Speak up and risk my job or keep my job at the expense of denying dignity to others?
—Stressed, Angry, and Conflicted
It’s amazing any work gets done in America considering the time spent in the office on celebrations, romances, and spouting off.You are in a tough situation because you need this job, and you have no way to screen yourself from this bile. Since you actually have duties to perform besides engaging in racist chit-chat, your first line of defense is to attend to your work and tune out the commentary. But getting along in an office requires engaging in some social banter, so you need a series of seemingly anodyne responses that actually carry a pointed message. Deliver them with a calm unflappability. (For instructions on how to carry this off, watch Barack Obama’s presidential debate performances.) For instance, “I can’t go along with that.” “That hasn’t been my experience with [blacks, Hispanics, Asians].” “I heard some commentators on Fox News say they were impressed with how intelligent and thoughtful President Obama is.” “This country has so many problems that it seems like even people who didn’t vote for him are hoping the president succeeds.” And if he does succeed, eventually the economy will emerge from the pits, you will find a better job, and you can say adios to this den of bigots.
This year, my dad didn’t get me anything for Christmas. Usually, in our family, my mom does the Christmas shopping, wrapping, decorations, and so on. My dad (who often works 60 or 70 hours a week) has always made a Christmas Eve run to buy everyone bubble bath and trinkets. This year, my dad took the time to get five or six nice presents for my mother. I sew, and I spent hours making him a new dressing gown, which he loves. But I’m devastated that he personally did not bother to get anything for me (I’m 27) or my brother, who is 22. He took my mom out shopping to buy things for all of us, so maybe he thought that counted as his trip. But my mother has a chronic illness, which was much worse this winter, so that seems more like him taking care of my mother than him getting me a Christmas present. My parents have always been clear that their relationship with each other is more important than their relationships with the children. Should I try to have a conversation with my father and tell him that I’m hurt by his lack of thoughtfulness? Or should I just accept that he’s being selfish, recognize that I can’t change him, and do what I can to get over it?
Here it is mid-January, here you are heading toward 30, and you’re telling me you’re not sure you can recover from the fact that Daddy dared get your ailing mother some lovely Christmas gifts and did not get you a bottle of cheap bubble bath (while he did pay for gifts given to you jointly by your parents)? Maybe instead of stewing over Christmas past, you should be focusing on your own New Year’s resolutions. Let’s enumerate some: Give up trying to displace your mother in your father’s affections; realize when Christmas rolls around that you’re no longer 8 years old; help your overworked father care for your ill mother. By your own account, your parents sound like loving, thoughtful, hardworking people; by your own account, you sound like an ungrateful wretch. You say your options are to confront your father or accept that he’s selfish and can’t be changed. I say you have a third choice: to see that you’re stuck acting out some strange childhood drama but that it’s way past time to pull down the curtain and get on with your own life. I’m going to guess you’re single, so it’s time you stopped focusing on your relationship with your father and started looking for a husband of your own. And if you’re lucky, you will find one as devoted to you as your father is to your mother.
I have recently become a recipient of commands from strangers to “smile!” The most recent occurrence was in my town’s only mall, when a man in a group I was passing actually stepped out of the group, stood in front of me, and all but shouted, “Smile!” My usual response is to look through the person as though they were not there at all and continue as I was, inwardly saying something inappropriate. I come from one of the largest cities in the United States, and I moved to this town for a job. I did occasionally get accosted this way in the city, but it happened only about once a year. Now I feel as though I’m getting similar reactions at least once a week. I don’t think anyone has a right to command me to emote. Is there a better way to react? I know better than to say aloud the things I think about the person, but I wonder if there is a way to convey how little I appreciate their words.
—Not on Candid Camera
Dear Not On,
I used to frequently get the same exhortation from male strangers. Let me assure you, even if you never change your default facial expression, this problem will eventually take care of itself because men say this only to unsmiling young women. Strangers don’t care enough to see happiness suffuse the face of a crabby-looking middle-aged woman. Of course you’re right, your facial expression is nobody’s business, and there is a large element of sexism in this—I promise you these men are not encouraging young, brooding males to lighten up. You are free to keep walking and ignore them. I, too, used to just deepen my scowl when I got similar advice. Then, in response to, “Hey, it can’t be that bad” from a stranger, I smiled, and he smiled back—and it was nice. I realized maybe these strangers had a point. So consider that your expression, while adaptively off-putting for the big city, may be unnecessarily severe for the smaller, friendlier town where you now live.
My husband was raised in a family of many children. All of the children are grown and either employed or married to spouses who provide financially for them. Since my in-laws chose to operate a meager, hopeless small business for a living and to have a very large family, they have never gotten ahead financially. Now, whenever they need something, a couple of siblings send all the rest of the siblings an e-mail saying: “Mom and Dad’s refrigerator [or hot water heater, etc.] broke. A new one costs $500. If you’d like to contribute $40 to it, please send the money.” The requests are always honest and legitimate. Am I wrong to feel irritated? On one hand, my in-laws raised generous, thoughtful children. On the other hand, my in-laws weren’t willing to use birth control or find better jobs, so now my hard-earned money has to help pay for their new furnace. Assuming we can afford it, should we just contribute?
If only your in-laws had stopped being fruitful and multiplying, maybe your husband would never have been born, and you wouldn’t now be stuck paying $40 for their hot water heater. It used to be that one of the reasons people had lots of children was that it provided them with insurance that they would be loved and cared for in their old age. You acknowledge that this is how it’s working out for these old folks, but, for some reason, this deeply offends you. Sure, it would be great if everyone had in-laws who had done something remunerative with their lives, but it’s too late for you to marry one of Warren Buffett’s children. You need to face that your in-laws are going to need more help from their kids as time goes on, and you should be grateful there are so many of them able and willing to share the load. But instead of doing it in such an ad hoc way, it sounds as if the members of your generation should get together and make a more systematic financial plan for your in-laws. Perhaps all of you can talk about contributing a certain amount per year (you can think of it as the entry fee for joining this admirable family), so your in-laws are better able to meet their financial needs now, and to create a cushion to draw from later.
Photograph of Prudie by Teresa Castracane.