Dear Prudence

Help! Is There a Nice Way to Tell My Husband He’s Racist?

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

A man puffing out his chest and pointing to himself self-righteously.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photo by Khosrork/iStock/Getty Images Plus.

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

Danny M. Lavery: Hello, everyone! Some housekeeping: I changed my name! Same me, new initials. Let’s chat.

Q. An ugly view I didn’t see before: I’ve been married to my husband for 10 years. He’s a great husband and has always seemed like a compassionate and open-minded person. In the last year or two, however, I’ve been having to call him out on racist language and attitudes. At first it was in the car. He usually drives, and if someone cuts him off or does something he doesn’t like, his language is almost always racist—they’re a “f—ing N-word” or a “f—ing Asian.” Despite my calling him out on it every time, he has gradually gotten bolder about expressing racist attitudes that never surfaced early in our relationship. Today he proudly told how he had joked to a waitress during lunch with the guys, “When you said merry Christmas, you left out my buddy here. He celebrates Kwanzaa, har-de-har-har!” I was horrified that he had made a racist joke in public and told him so. He didn’t see it that way, and we had a terrible argument. I got pretty upset, and I called him a racist. I don’t want to mirror his name-calling, and that only escalated the argument. He insists he is “really not a racist,” but these incidents are giving me an ugly view of him I didn’t see before. I believe he is a good person and is capable of changing this behavior. Can you give me some guidance on language I can use to help him do some self-reflection?

A: I think what you’re really asking is “How can I tell my husband that he’s a racist in a way that’s nice enough, and gentle enough, and accommodating enough, that he’ll agree with me?” And I’m not sure I can do that. He’s spent the last two years ramping up his use of racial slurs and homophobic abuse while he’s driving, and he’s started escalating by telling racist jokes to waitstaff. I’m not sure why you think your husband is a good person who’s capable of changing this behavior (or, rather, I’m pretty sure I do know why, and it’s called “wishful thinking”)—he’s demonstrated clearly, consistently, and repeatedly that he thinks this behavior is perfectly acceptable and is willing to argue with you in defense of it. If he had demonstrated even the mildest interest in self-reflection, I might have some suggestions for you, but he hasn’t. He does not want to reflect. You have a racist husband who wants to say racist things, because saying racist things gives him pleasure. He loves and enjoys his own racism and finds your attempts to get him to reflect irritating and joyless. Do not bend over backward making excuses for him, unless you like the idea of leaving dinner parties early and trying to offer apologies on his behalf that “he really doesn’t feel that way about [X type of person]. He just likes to pretend he does, in public, for reasons I can’t think of at the moment.”

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Q. Talking about my vegetarian diet: I am 30 years old and have been an ethical vegetarian since I was 12. I’m also a big and tall man, and this does not seem to compute with what many people think vegetarians look like. I typically don’t bring up my diet unless I have to, like at a work-related lunch or Christmas party when someone asks why I am eating something different. This usually leads to a number of follow-up questions about the reasons behind my diet, how I get enough protein, or people pointing out all the vegetarian menu items as though I am illiterate. I find all of this annoying and often overly personal in the context of a work lunch. Sometimes it leads to people teasing me or being theatrically apologetic about eating meat next to me. More importantly, it puts me in a position where, if I answer honestly about why I am vegetarian, some people feel that their own habits are being attacked and they need to defend themselves as if I am proselytizing or trying to convert them. I honestly don’t care what other people eat and don’t want to rub into people’s faces that I am doing something they are not. But I do not know how to say “I do not eat meat because I think it is unethical to do so” without some people hearing an affront to their own behavior.

I’m looking for a script to turn to in order to cut off any further discussion about my vegetarianism after I say, “Yes, I am vegetarian.” I would think that by now most people have met a vegetarian before and the topic is not so interesting, but, despite no invitation from me, it seems to become a focal point for conversation that I am simply uninterested in. I find being forced to discuss it makes me anxious to eat in public with people who are not close friends or family.

A: As a blanket policy when talking with colleagues, I think something like “Oh, I don’t want to talk about my diet [or eating habits] at work—it’s so boring,” followed by a friendly change of subject, is probably best. If someone directly asks why you’re eating something, “Oh, I really like this dish” is a nice, clear way of staving off further questions. I suppose if you’re looking to soften your language in hopes that euphemism will stop people from projecting their own insecurities onto you, you might have better luck with “I’m a vegetarian for environmental and ethical reasons” rather than “I don’t eat meat because I think it’s unethical.” To be clear, I think it’s perfectly fine to say the latter, but I also think your goal of trying to minimize over-the-top responses is a pretty sensible one, especially when you’re just trying to get through another Roasted Vegetable Plate at a company dinner. I can’t promise you this will keep everyone off your back for good, but I think it should help to cut down on the unnecessary comments.

Q. I texted my ex-boyfriend mean things for hours: For almost two years I dated a funny, smart, sweet man who drove me completely crazy. We were never a great match even though we really enjoyed each other. I didn’t feel important or prioritized; he didn’t feel respected or appreciated. We broke up, tried again, and with every round I felt less secure and angrier. We have been “off” for a while now. There has been way too much contact, and usually I’m the one who starts. That said, we have not slept together in over six months (I know!), and we haven’t spoken in months. He texted me to wish me happy Thanksgiving, and after a holiday weekend’s worth of banter and flirtation, I asked him not to contact me again unless he thought something had really changed that might make it possible for us to be together. This Saturday night he started again. It ended badly.

After some back-and-forth, he attempted to extricate himself, said that while it was very appealing to fall into it with me, nothing has changed and he is happier and feels more like himself since we are not together. I texted that I didn’t think it was nice to start texting me when I had asked him not to. He didn’t respond. So I texted to tell him that I cared about him and he didn’t care about me. Nothing. I texted to tell him that he was a man-child, that his friends were man-children. I texted that his sister had been mean to me and that he had condoned it. I texted that he didn’t challenge himself to grow, that he had never really heard me or tried to fix our relationship. I texted and I texted and I texted.

I need to let go of wondering what is wrong with him and focus on what the hell is wrong with me. Why is it so hard for me to let go of this? And if I really do love him and want him back, why did I send increasingly provocative and unkind texts? Please tell me something other than take a deep breath and count to 10 before sending any more texts.

A: I’ll definitely tell you more than just take a deep breath! Set up an appointment with a therapist, block his number from your phone, and tell as many of your friends as you possibly can that you need help overcoming your desire to emotionally punish your ex-boyfriend. I can understand why you felt the urge to send him a barrage of texts; he’d previously contacted you whenever he felt like it under conditions that felt emotionally unbearable to you, and you wanted to get a little bit of your own back or, failing that, to at least get some sort of acknowledgment from him. All that’s pretty understandable. But what you decided to do when you didn’t get what you wanted right away—continue to hurl recriminations into an empty chat log—was not productive, healthy, or helpful, and it’s going to take a long time and a lot of thought to figure out why you’ve wasted so much of your time and energy on a relationship that’s clearly been over for years. Don’t count to 10 before sending him any more texts—make sure it’s impossible for you to send him texts, even if that means giving your phone to a friend before you go to bed at night.

Q. The kindest time for a breakup: I’ve been with my boyfriend for about 2½ years. He’s a great guy, and I love him very much, but we want different things out of life. I want to be married someday; he wants to live by himself for the rest of his life. I’ve been feeling more and more that we need to break up, but I just don’t feel like I can break up with him during the holiday season. I know there isn’t a kind way to break up with someone, but is there a kind time? Do I wait it out for the next month or so, or should I be honest with him now?

A: I’m answering this letter a few days before Christmas, so I’ll acknowledge it’s possible you’ve already bitten the bullet and broken up with him. If you think you can effectively fake your way through the next week or two, I suppose you can, but that only means that on Jan. 13 he’s going to look back and realize, “Oh, she was planning on doing this then, and what I thought was a happy Christmas was just her taking pity on me.” You still have a few days before a Christmas dumping (which I do think should be avoided whenever possible)—do it now so he can lick his wounds with his family and friends, eat a lot of comfort food, and avoid work. And have a happy new year out of a relationship that was no longer working for you!

Q. My toxic high school friend: I was best friends with a boy in high school, “Manny.” We met freshman year and became instantly attached and had the same tight-knit circle of friends. We were in each others’ lives constantly and even stayed the night at each other’s houses, platonically. We had a dramatic, roller coaster friendship—always fighting and making up, screaming and heart-to-hearts. Junior year of high school I went through a rough time and had some severe depression and self-harm issues. He was with me every step of the way in my recovery and is one of the main reasons I’m still alive today (for which I will always be thankful).

I had always had a thing for him, and after that, I was convinced we were meant to be together. But I knew he didn’t feel that way about me, so I was content to just stay friends. We decided to go to the same small state school for college and remained very close freshman year. At the end of that year (10 years ago), he effectively dumped me as a friend out of the blue, saying he was done with our friendship and didn’t want to see me again. I was shattered. That summer was hard for me, and I struggled when I went back for sophomore year, especially when all our friends took his “side” and basically pushed me out of our group. I eventually moved on, found new and better lifelong friends, met my future husband, graduated, and now have a wonderful life expecting my first child.

The more I’ve grown up, the more I realize that our friendship was a little toxic and that I was not in love with him. I thought I was, but now that I’m with my husband, I realize what real love and support looks like. That is not what Manny and I had. I hurt for a long time after we stopped being friends, and it took me years not to think of him and not feel angry or sad. I’m glad for the struggle I went through as it led me to the happy and emotionally healthy life I have today with someone wonderful. But there’s still a small part of me that wants to reconcile with him—maybe it’s the pregnancy hormones.

I have recently joined a community chorus, and Manny happens to be in it too. It’s a large enough chorus where we could easily ignore each other for the rest of time and have no interaction, but I want to reach out. Even if it’s just to say, “Hey, we were young and stupid, and I’m sorry for all the damage we did to each other.” I guess I’m assuming he felt anything when our friendship ended and he could easily say F you, but it doesn’t feel right not to at least try and mend this fence. Is it a bad idea to extend the olive branch? Should I just let bygones be bygones?

A: I don’t think you have any reason to believe Manny is interested in an olive branch. Since he’s the one who declared your friendship over, I think it would have to fall to him to signal whether anything has changed. Give him his space in the chorus, smile politely if the two of you happen to bump into each other, but don’t push for any other sort of conversation. The last time he saw you, he said he didn’t want to see you again. If he doesn’t communicate that he’s changed his mind, you can assume that’s still the way he feels. It’s a wonderful thing that you have such a good life now. I can totally understand why you want to be able to acknowledge and apologize for the past and try to mend old fences. Maybe someday Manny will say that he wants to do the same. But unless and until he does, the best way to say “I’m sorry for all the damage we did to each other” is to respect the limit he set 10 years ago. For what it’s worth, it doesn’t sound like he ended your friendship “out of the blue”—it sounds like it was a pretty long time coming. That doesn’t mean you can’t have meaningfully changed, or that you’re not a person who deserves love and respect, but it might mean this particular relationship isn’t one that can be revived.

Q. Newly rich friend has become negative: My friend and her partner came into many millions a few years ago. I’m happy for them and have never (and would never) ask for anything, but she has been very generous over the years. Here’s the thing: She’s extremely negative. When we connect in person, there is always something said about events from our shared past, specifically our past former employer (we haven’t worked there in a decade). Most recently, she speculated about one of our former colleagues and why he’s still at the company, even though he could’ve jumped ship and joined her company and been a millionaire today.

I know this probably sounds mild, but I’m tired of her negatively rehashing the past, and I really think she should move on. I don’t want to speculate on what’s going on with her, but I imagine she feels a measure of guilt (and possibly isolation) due to her new financial—and, by extension, social—status. She’s definitely referred to having “survivor‘s guilt.” Thankfully, we are both working with qualified therapists, and I imagine she discusses this with hers. Is there a way I can tell her she can feel free to share feelings that may come up around her newfound wealth? How can I respectfully and lovingly tell her her negative comments are turning me off?

A: I’m not sure that you do need to bring her status as a millionaire into this. Even if she weren’t one, it would still be exhausting to hear her complain about former co-workers she hasn’t seen since 2009 on a regular basis. A sense of “survivor’s guilt” might play into this, or it might not, but you can really leave the speculation about what’s underpinning this behavior to her (and her qualified therapist). All you have to do is bring the behavior to her attention: “I don’t know if you’ve noticed this, but every time we get together you bring up our old employer to complain about things that happened 10 years ago, and it’s getting pretty exhausting. I don’t want to talk about this with you anymore. I’d appreciate it if you could stop bringing it up so we could find other things to talk about.”

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