Dear Prudence

Intolerance 101

Prudie counsels a college freshman who got a crash course in racism from her new roommate.

Emily Yoffe, aka Dear Prudence, is on weekly to chat with readers about their romantic, family, financial, and workplace problems. An edited transcript of this week’s chat is below. (Read Prudie’s Slate columns here.)

Emily Yoffe Writes: Good afternoon, everyone. I hope the kids are having a great first day of school.

Q. I Think My Roommate Is Racist: I’m a new freshman in college. I’m multiracial, but a lot of people think I look Caucasian. I also have a “white” name, so most people don’t know that I’m actually not white. My roommate and I are Facebook friends, so she can see all my pictures, some of which include my family who clearly are not Caucasian. But I didn’t feel it was necessary to tell her my entire ethnic pedigree. (I mean, I feel like it shouldn’t really matter.) My roommate was talking to me last night about how she thinks all the minorities at our school (it’s a prestigious and well-known college in the Midwest) don’t deserve to be here. She’s been talking about how she knows so many white people who didn’t get in and should have and how she thinks our school has a minority quota. I don’t know what to do here—I’m worried that if she finds out that I’m not white like her, she’ll make my life miserable. But at the same time, I know I deserve to be at my school, and I feel like I shouldn’t have to hide my ethnicity. Should I say something to her? Or should I wait it out? Sincerely, Mixed-up Girl.

A: Your ethnic background is irrelevant to how you answer your roommate’s racism. She has made quite a first impression, one that will be hard to eradicate, and you have to make clear that you find her remarks offensive. I’m not saying that a discussion about the merits and deficiencies of affirmative action should be verboten. But such a discussion is not what your roommate is engaging in—and, anyway, that’s a conversation that should not follow, “”Hi, I’m Jenny, your roommate.” You need to address her remarks in a forceful but polite way. She sounds like a bigot, yes, but your response will be more powerful if you refrain from calling her that and instead deal with the substance of what she said.

You can say something like, “Jenny, I’ve been thinking about what you said last night about minorities on campus. I was so taken aback that I didn’t answer. But having thought about it, I need to tell you I couldn’t disagree with you more strongly. And your statement that all the minority students don’t belong here and have taken the place of more deserving white students is flat out wrong.” Then see what happens. College education doesn’t just take place in the classroom, and this girl may find herself rethinking the things she was taught at home. However, there’s no reason you should feel you have to hide out in your own dorm room. If you find you are rooming with an unreconstructed racist, have a talk with your resident adviser about getting a new roommate.

Dear Prudence: Turtle-Paced Love

Q. Mother Troubles: I am 39 weeks pregnant and have made it clear since before conceiving that I consider the birthing experience a bonding experience between my husband and me. My mother has tried repeatedly through guilt, name calling (telling me how difficult I am), and badgering to get me to change my mind. The final straw occurred yesterday when my husband answered the phone and she tried to convince him to call her behind my back when I am in labor. Prudie, I have decided and told her since the beginning that she is not capable of being notified in advance because she will show up at the hospital regardless of my feelings. I am really steamed about what she did and even more steamed because she swore my husband to secrecy that she even asked. I have told her numerous times that my husband should never be put in a position to choose between loyalty to me and loyalty to her, because I always win, and he feels bad. First off, do you think I am wrong about not wanting her there? My siblings all had her in the delivery room, so I blame them for this. Second, I am more annoyed that she asked my husband to keep secrets, but should I say something?

A: Don’t blame your siblings for your mother’s insistence that since she gave birth to all of you, that gives her dibs to a ringside seat when it’s your turn to reproduce. If your siblings didn’t want her there, someone needed to say, “Mom, we look forward to your being a grandmother, but not to your playing obstetrician. I’m sorry, the delivery room is going to be restricted to my husband.”

If you haven’t said it this explicitly, do so, and explain that’s the last time you’re going to say it. You can add that her trying to enlist your husband behind your back is a serious violation, and she needs to cut it out. It’s unfortunate, but your mother is giving you an early, valuable lesson in motherhood: standing up to a whiny, irrational, demanding person. You need to stake out some clear boundaries with her now, or else she will be trying to hijack your relationship with your child. Refuse to let her bully you, and if that means restricting your contact with her, that’s her choice.

Q.Fling With the Babysitter: I’ve been divorced for a few years now and I have custody of my three children, ages 5, 7, and 10. After the divorce, I tried a couple of different babysitters until I found the right one, a college student who lives nearby. Foolishly, “Emma” and I had a one-night stand one evening while the kids were asleep. It only happened the one time, and since then, we have managed to keep a strictly professional relationship. I’m now engaged to a wonderful woman and we’re getting married later this fall. She will be moving in with us soon. My “fling” with Emma happened long before I met her, so I never mentioned it. But now that she’s moving in, I’m wondering if I should tell her that I once slept with the nanny (who still watches the kids every day after school). I don’t want to find a new sitter—Emma is a great girl, and my kids really love her. But I feel like my fiancee might be uncomfortable with Emma being around the house so much, given our past. Am I obligated to mention this to my fiancee? And if she asks me to find a new babysitter, should I stand my ground?

A: Thanks, Dad, for the exculpatory detail that “the kids were asleep.” What you did really was foolish, and you compounded your foolishness by not apologizing to “Emma” and explaining that what you did was wrong and under the circumstances it’s better if you don’t continue to use her babysitting services. I generally feel that adults’ sexual past is their own business, except when it means having to reveal one’s STD status, or that it is information that seems like a lie by omission not to reveal. Since neither you nor Emma are going to say anything, probably the wisest thing is to say nothing. Yet, if I were the fiancee in this situation, I’d feel like kind of a dope if I ever found out and I realized my fiance wasn’t honest enough to tell me. So I’m leaning toward tell. But this has to be framed as a one-time event, a long time ago; the kids absolutely adore her; and you’re telling because you want to be completely open. In your favor is the fact that Emma is not a live-in nanny, but a local college student, so even if your fiancee is discomfited, surely Emma will be moving on in the near future.

Q. Re: Mixed-up Girl: Poor kid. I’m a professor back at my first day of classes, and I want to go hug this girl.

A: Professor, please, then this poor girl will be writing to me about inappropriate hugs from the faculty!

Q.Wedding Question: My daughter is engaged to be married next May to a wonderful young man. My wife and I will be paying for the reception, or about two-thirds of the total cost. His parents divorced about 15 years ago, and raw tensions still remain, especially on the part of his mother. His father is unable to contribute to the wedding, but his mother will contribute a four-figure sum to the rehearsal dinner, on the condition that none of her money goes to pay for the meal of anyone in her ex-husband’s family. My daughter and future son-in-law don’t know how to handle this situation. What’s your thinking on the matter?

A: This is easy. You just hire someone to monitor the members of the ex-husband’s family and have the enforcer say, “Aunt Sue, put the fork down, now! Uncle Carl, the artichoke dip is not for you!”

This is nuts. Mom has to be told that her contribution is greatly appreciated, but that there is no enforcement mechanism at a rehearsal dinner to keep certain family members from eating. If she won’t back down, then your daughter has to get creative about how to feed everyone on a reduced budget. That means dropping some budgeted items so that everyone can get a meal without Mom’s money.

Q. Re: “Poor kid”: Absolutely not “poor kid”! Very, very lucky kid. One of the joys of the college experience for me was meeting so many people who were not only different from me, but different from almost everyone else I had encountered during my upbringing. I’ve known I was gay since I was about 15, and, of course I ended up with a conservative, homophobic roommate my freshman year. I never told her, but she figured out on her own in February, and up to that point and past that point, we had a wonderful time getting to know each other and respecting each other for who we were. She was a delight to live with, though we were very, very different people and disagreed about many things. And while I didn’t conduct an exit interview, I think she left a little more enlightened and open-minded than when she moved in; I know I did.

A: Thank you for this enlightening letter. I agree that all over the country new roommates are getting invaluable lessons about the world beyond the one they grew up in.

Q. Male Sexual Harassment: I’m a single white male but with financial commitments to help some family members through their current hardships. I’m not obligated to them but want to help them. I am in management at a family-owned midsize company. (I am not part of the family that owns the company.) My boss’s wife (who is part of the family that owns the company, but her husband is not) came on hard to me directly at our annual company summer picnic. She is an officer of the company, and while I don’t report to her, she is higher up the food chain. I am totally at a loss, as I need this job, but I don’t need and definitely don’t want this kind of attention. There is a human resources department but, again, the main people there are connected to the family ownership and my boss’s wife. I don’t know where to begin with this—who should I talk to?

A: You don’t say whether this come-on happened only once over the deviled eggs at the picnic. Or whether since then she’s made it clear that she’s exercising her superior position to demand that you two explore a variety of positions. If it’s the former, just chalk it up to too much sangria, and since you didn’t respond, drop the incident down the memory hole. If, however, she keeps telling you how much better things were in the days of Mad Men, when everyone was having office affairs, you have to respond to her directly. You can say something like, “Barbara, I have a rule to never get romantically involved with people I work with. I’m sure you understand. Thanks.” Since it doesn’t sound as if you see her regularly at work, that might take care of it. But you may want to keep a time-stamped file on your home computer of everything that happened, in case you find management turning on you.

Q. Employer Reference Etiquette: I have a former employee who has used me, on multiple occasions, as a job reference. While he’s well-meaning and has a great work ethic, he lacks the basic skills necessary to work in our field. He also has serious issues with reading social cues, which hinders his performance in a job that requires a great deal of interpersonal interaction. Ordinarily, I would let him know that he shouldn’t be using me to vouch for him. But here’s the problem: His father is a well-established and influential member of our field, which is part of how he’s gotten as far as he has. We’re at about the same education and experience level, and my concern is that regardless of my references, he’ll eventually find himself in an influential position, at which point my failure to recommend him may come back to hurt me. On the other hand, though, I really can’t endorse his work; the most I feel comfortable saying is that he worked for me and tried hard. Should I let him know that I shouldn’t be his reference? Or should I simply sit quietly and be as tactful as possible when I receive these calls?

A: Since you’ve already let yourself be a reference, it would be awkward now to rescind this. It sounds as if this young man has some fine qualities and, sadly, many deficiencies. What you are saying to potential employers seems exactly right: He tries hard. That’s honest, and any employer should understand that’s a warning, not an endorsement. If you are still in touch with this young man, perhaps you would feel comfortable suggesting he take some classes that might help strengthen the skills you say he lacks.

Q. RE: Mother Troubles: Oh, Prudie! Where were you 11 years ago when all of this started with my own mother? LOL! My mother inserted herself in every part of my pregnancy, the birth, and then stayed to “help” for two weeks after I got home from the hospital. She then called on her way home to tell me how heartbroken she was to be leaving because she just knew I would not be able to take care of my daughter! I now have two daughters, 10 and 7, and she feels like it is her right to give her opinion and subsequent disapproval over every single thing I do. She comes to my house and throws screaming, stomping, temper tantrums in front of my daughters on their behalf when they don’t get everything they want. Of course, she does this when my husband is not home. My daughters are starting to look at her like she has three heads. Unfortunately, I’m still the doormat daughter that is afraid to speak up, because when I say anything, the dramatics only get bigger. Good luck to “Mother Troubles.” I hope she has the backbone that I wish I had and hope to grow one day.

A: Grow it now—it’s important for your daughters to see that you won’t let yourself be treated this way. Why are you allowing someone in your home who screams at you and throws tantrums? Next time visit time rolls around, tell your mother she can’t stay at your house because you are no longer going to be yelled at in your own home. If you want her to see your children, suggest a nearby hotel, have specific visiting hours, and if she gets out of control, say, “Mom, this is getting unpleasant, so it would be best if you went back to the hotel so we can all calm down.” Either she starts to behave better or she refuses to come. That sounds like a win-win.

Q. Parking Lot Etiquette: I live in an apartment that overlooks the building’s handicapped parking spots. I have noticed one young woman, who has a blue permit, using one of the three spots every day, as if it is her own. The problem is, when she gets out of her car, she has no visible handicap. I would also add that other residents have to pay for their own spot, and she drives a late model Audi, so I don’t think she’s too poor to pay herself. I suppose she may have some handicap that isn’t visible, but is that what the spaces near the door are really intended for? I notified the manager, who I don’t think is going to do anything, and will probably leave it at that. But am I crazy for letting this bother me? Signed, Auto Fixated.

A: There have been interesting studies that show society actually functions better when certain people are willing to take on the role of unofficial police. Shaming the able-bodied who take handicapped parking spaces is a favorite outlet for these enforcers. However, the danger for such people is that they end up being unpleasant busybodies or worse. I have heard from many seemingly able-bodied people who have mild MS, say, but are constantly getting reamed out by “do-gooders” when they take a handicapped parking space. The woman you’re seeing has a permit, and you don’t know what might actually be wrong with her. She doesn’t appear to be preventing anyone who needs the space from filling it. So get over your fixation and find something that really needs fixing.

Q. Office B.O.: I work in a fairly high-profile executive’s office along with four other colleagues. My boss routinely meets with V.P.s, ambassadors, and other high-level officials. One of my colleagues emits an odor from their body so foul that it permeates the entire office and creates in most people, at best, a stifled gag/nausea. This was brought to my colleague’s attention some years ago, I am told, which created a horrible reaction and led the person to take a week off out of anger/embarrassment. The problem persists. The only solution I have come up with is to ask a friend or colleague from another part of town to come by the office and make the comment innocently, e.g., “Wow, it stinks in here. You guys should take out the trash. … It seems to be coming from this general area.” Is that a viable solution? What can we do?

A: This person needs to be spoken to again, but in a compassionate, helpful way—and not embarrassed as in the scenario you’re contemplating. I’m wondering if this employee has trimethylaminuria, a genetic condition which makes people smell like rotten fish. It’s a terrible burden, and while there’s no cure, there are ways to control this illness. Have someone in authority look this up and then talk to the employee about whether he or she has had a complete medical workup to find the cause of the body odor. This must be done in a confident, professional, caring way.

Q. Teenage Sis: A few months ago, my grandfather died from about 40 years of smoking. It was devastating, and I never want to go through it again. A friend recently told me that he saw my 13-year-old sister smoking. I don’t know if it’s been for long, or if it was just a one-time thing, or if she’ll continue, but it has me really worried and I have no idea how to handle it. What do I do? Do I tell my mother? Try to talk to her with a mutual friend? Alone? Or just drop hints about how bad smoking is? Or leave it alone altogether? I’m really worrying over this, and what’s happening to my little sister, and would really, really appreciate your advice.

A: Your sister is the ideal tobacco company mark: Get ‘em young and you have ‘em for life. You must tell your sister that you heard she was smoking and you’re really worried about this; and she needs to get help so that she can stop before she becomes hooked. You also should enlist your parents. Often kids who take up smoking, especially at so young an age, are having other difficulties. I hope your parents can approach this gently because screaming at your sister will only make cigarettes more comforting.

Q. Mother Troubles: Grow that spine now, Mom. My sister and I watched our mother act the same way you are acting right now, and her reluctance to make waves with the family cost her our respect. Now that we’re adults, we’ve gained some perspective, but it was not the best way for our mother to set herself up for adolescence.

A: Excellent point. Not standing up to an abuser—even if it is your mother—only perpetuates the psychology that abusing and being abused is fine. Don’t let daughters absorb the lesson that it’s OK to treat people without courtesy and respect.

Q. Freshman Year: Freshman year of college is a great time to learn about boundaries, respect, tolerance, open-mindedness, one’s own core values, and when it’s time to bail. Maturation, baby. Freshmen should also know that there is support via resident advisers, counselors, deans, etc., for any issue. Misunderstandings and differences and negotiations occur throughout life. Learning how to handle them with integrity: priceless.

A: Beautifully said.

And as this chat demonstrates, not everyone learns this lesson! So here’s to the start of great adventures in academics and life. Thanks, everyone. Talk to you next week.

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