Dear Prudence

Help! My Friend Acts Like He’s Playing Devil’s Advocate—but Maybe He’s Just Racist?

Read what Prudie had to say in Part 2 of this week’s live chat.

A woman reacting skeptically after a friend sent a racist article.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photo by Thinkstock.

Mallory Ortberg is online weekly to chat live with readers. Here’s an edited transcript of this week’s chat. 

Q. Racist article or racist person?: There is a New York Times article arguing that black males born into the upper middle class do not stay in the upper middle class into adulthood as often as their white male counterparts. I am a politically conscious black woman, and one of my (nonblack) friends sent me the article, asking me my opinion of it. The friend said that he can see the conservative side against the article. When I asked him to clarify what conservative arguments he was referring to, he sent me an article arguing two things. One: There is a lack of research conducted without the underlying premise that racism is the cause of America’s ills. Two: Some races, specifically sub-Saharan Africans, have lower IQs on average than other races.

I was very upset! My friend said that he doesn’t agree with everything in the racist article, just that he’s heard these arguments made. I think that he should not have sent it to me and that in sending it he is saying that there is some logic to those two points. Am I in the wrong for being upset? Is it ever OK to share articles with inherently racist ideas to make a point?

A: I’m not sure why your friend would want to send you an article full of racist ideas simply because he had “heard these arguments made” before. That strikes me as disingenuous; most people do not send their friends articles asserting things they don’t personally find compelling but have overheard others discussing. He clearly does have at least some interest in advancing some form of these ideas, but once you expressed your feelings, he hid behind, “Oh, I don’t feel this way, I just think it’s an interesting thought experiment/wanted to play devil’s advocate.” (It’s interesting, too, how your friend appears to believe that “doing well on an IQ test” and “one’s innate intellectual capacity” are one and the same when they demonstrably aren’t.)

It’s not wrong to feel upset about this. I’m not even sure what your friend’s point is supposed to be—he said he could “see the conservative side” of the original article (which did not appear to espouse a conservative side, as far as you were able to determine), then sent you another article while also claiming not to believe the arguments therein. What was his goal in sending this to you? What does he believe? Why does he feel like it’s important to communicate those beliefs by proxy, and why did he think it was important to communicate them to you specifically? You don’t have to ask him these questions if you don’t want to go another round with him, of course, but he’s attempting to disavow what appear to me to be fairly obvious motivations, and I don’t think those attempts at disavowal are at all credible.

Q. Moving: I own my own home, a five-bedroom with a finished basement, but I have had roommates for the last decade because I would honestly become a hermit otherwise. My sister has confided in me she will be divorcing her husband soon, as he has gambled and spent most of the family assets. She is going to have to sell her house. I told her not to worry, she and her girls could move in with me. The school district is great here, and my sister will be able to look for a new job.

My problem is I will need to have at least two of my friends vacate their rooms so that my sister can move in. My sister had me promise not to reveal her situation to anyone, in case her husband catches wind. How do I ask my friends to leave, and which friends do I choose? Several of them work in the nonprofit sector and have no cars, so they depend on the buses that run near my house. Another has an abusive family and can only work part time because of health issues. They all have month-to-month contracts since I had a bad experience years ago, so I am safe legally. I just don’t know what to do personally. Can you help me?

A: You can tell two of your roommates that you’re not renewing their rental agreements “soon”—it would be best to give them as much advance notice as possible, and you don’t have to reveal that your sister is leaving her husband in order to do so. You can maintain her privacy while also communicating the relevant information. I don’t know which of your friends you should ask to move out, although it sounds like your first priority is making sure you’re not putting anyone in an unnecessarily precarious situation. Whichever two you choose, make sure you give them as much of a head start as you possibly can.

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Q. Emotional blackmail: My husband and I are friends with a couple who recently divorced—I’ll call them “Sue” and “Bob.” We met Sue and Bob more than 10 years ago, and they became part of our family. Our kids and grandkids are also friends. We’ve shared holidays, birthdays, and vacations together. More recently, they’ve been dealing with some health issues (breast and prostate cancer, respectively), and we tried to be as supportive as possible.

Last year, Bob dropped the bombshell that he was bi and that he and Sue were divorcing. Sue admitted that she had known that Bob was bi before they were married, and she had accepted his sexuality as long as he was faithful. After his cancer diagnosis, Bob decided to fully explore his sexuality, hence the divorce after over 20 years of marriage.

Now, Bob is getting remarried to a woman. Sue is livid. She gave us and two other couples in our circle of friends an ultimatum: If we go to Bob’s wedding, she will terminate her friendships with us. My husband and I told Sue that her request was unreasonable, and that we would not turn our backs on either of them. Sue said our friendship was over. She will not speak to us unless we refuse to attend Bob’s wedding.

I don’t know how to proceed. Sue’s cancer is back, and I’m torn. I want to support her, but I’m not going to be coerced into hurting Bob by boycotting his wedding. Suggestions?

A: I think you’ve already made your decision! You told Sue your plan, and she decided to follow through, at least for now, on her unreasonable ultimatum. You can tell her that you love her, that you’re here for her if she needs anything, and that you’re not in any way choosing Bob over her. If she can accept that—either now or in a little while when things don’t feel so fresh—then you might be able to re-establish a different kind of friendship.

Q. Confused by college, men, and my bisexuality: I’m a senior in high school, and I’ve been dating a fellow senior (a guy) for just over a year. I’m a bisexual woman, and as the end of my high school career approaches, I’ve started to feel trapped. I find myself thinking about my interest in women and my gender presentation and emotionally detaching from my boyfriend. We’ve had a lot of small conflicts, which are exacerbated by my knowledge that many of his shortcomings, however minor, are common among straight men: difficulty being emotionally vulnerable and affectionate, difficulty with verbal emotional support.

I can’t tell whether my emotional detachment is a coping mechanism that’s related to my desire to explore my sexuality, or the fact that we’ll soon be going to two different colleges, or if it’s simply that our relationship has run its course. Should I just wait it out and try to communicate even more? Should I break up with him (a month before prom!)?

A: Those are pretty good reasons to break up with someone: You feel emotionally detached from him, you’re going to different colleges, you’d like to explore your interest in women, and you have a sense that your relationship has already run its course. I’m not sure that any of those things are likely to change even with an uptick in communication. You can, of course, put this decision off until after prom if you think the two of you would have a good time together—or you can end things now and start dating other women (no time like the present!).

Q. Re: Moving: Why not tell all of your housemates that you’ll be requiring two rooms back and won’t be renewing two leases, and then ask if anyone wants to volunteer? Some of them may have alternative arrangements in mind already or be uninterested in re-signing—why kick people out before you ask? If everyone wants to stay, then you can make random selections.

A: I hadn’t thought of that! That’s a good idea, and gives everyone the opportunity to make alternate arrangements or figure out what works best for themselves.

Q. Money: My grades were pretty average in high school, and despite every adult telling me I needed to go to a university, all my older friends told me not to. They said they had to get loans to graduate and still only found jobs in low-paying positions. I ended up following their advice: I am graduating from community college in May as a dental hygienist. I already have a job lined up, and I have about $10,000 left over from the college fund my grandparents left me.

My younger sister decided to go to art school and has already used up the $20,000 our grandparents loaned her. She had to repeat a semester due to failing grades but has since turned things around academically. My parents paid for her last semester but can’t offer her any more money. My family has been asking me to give my sister the money I have left over. They say my grandparents intended for the money to be used for our educations. I was planning on using it as an emergency fund, because my car is old and I may want to buy a house in the future. I resent the fact that my sister thinks she “deserves” my money when she already spent hers, but I feel I can’t say no. Can you help me?

A: I can help this much: You absolutely can say no here. Your parents may disagree with you, and your sister may be angry with you, but you can say no regardless. Unless the money was left to you in such a way that you’re legally required to spend it on a college education (unlikely), it’s your money to do with as you like. It may feel difficult or even impossible not to give in with the rest of your family putting pressure on you, but you’re allowed to make decisions that seem reasonable and important to you, even if others in your life don’t see things the same way.

Q. Is it tacky?: I have two sets of twins. One set is graduating grade school this year, and one is graduating high school. We have a large family, so we have rented a hall for a grad party. Food is being catered, and the facility has a bar. We have decided to pay for soda and beer only; anything else would be a cash bar. My questions are: Is this tacky, and do I tell people ahead of time? If I do tell people ahead of time, how do I word it? If we were having a party at our house, we would only be having soda and beer anyway, so isn’t this the same thing?

A: I do not believe it is tacky to provide free beer and soda at a high school graduation party. (If that’s your idea of tacky, then your idea of generosity must be pretty impressive.) You also don’t have to tell anyone ahead of time. If you’d like, of course, you can mention “We’ll have soda and beer available, plus there’s a cash bar if anyone wants cocktails,” and leave it at that.

Q. Is this honesty bad form?: I am single, in my early 40s. I have had a friendship with a small group of younger former colleagues for the past few years. We used to hang out in a group, but because of new babies and other life factors, the people available to get together are now just me and one other person. We’ve been going out just the two of us, and it’s really great. We click, it’s easy to laugh, and we’ve gotten to know each other well. But he has a serious girlfriend, and the crush I am developing is becoming a little painful.

I have decided to stop seeing him one on one, even though I will really miss it. My question is: Do I tell him why? Or even hint at it? Or is that just a backdoor come-on? I am generally a very direct person, so I am having a hard time thinking of how to communicate my needs.

A: Don’t tell him. (Or hint at it.) There’s nothing he can do with this information, and it would only make him uncomfortable. You can still be friendly and spend time together in group settings—there’s no need to freeze him out—but I think your decision is a sound one and will make you much happier in the long run.

Q. Re: Is it tacky?: Honestly, I would find it a little tacky and awkward to feel the need to hit the hard liquor at a graduation party for kids of grade- and high-school age, regardless of whether or not it’s provided free. Beer is somewhat skirting the line, but I think hard liquor belongs solely in the realm of adult gatherings. And I say this as someone who’s been to the odd kid’s birthday party or two where adults have been hitting the bottle (it made me more than a little uncomfortable). So I wouldn’t be too worried about offending anyone who sees a kid’s grade-school graduation party and automatically thinks “open bar.”

A: If it helps, letter writer, absolutely no one has written in to say anything even remotely like, “A high school graduation without a full and open bar? Reprehensible!” I think you’re very much in the mainstream here.

Mallory Ortberg: Thanks, everyone! See you all next week.

Read what Prudie had to say in Part 1 of this week’s live chat.

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