Danny M. Lavery is online weekly to chat live with readers. This week’s live chat had technical difficulties, but Lavery still answered questions that were sent in. Here’s an edited transcript.
Q. Aunt wants to “get over” racial slurs: My aunt (father’s sister) and I have had a fairly acrimonious relationship since I was in my teens, mostly because of her dislike of my mother. Fast forward to Christmas of this year, when I texted my aunt and her husband to thank them for some cookies they sent me. We started talking again, exchanging memes and discussing our shared love of photography, in what I had hoped was a fresh start. Talk turned to politics eventually, because we both believed our politics aligned somewhat—me more as a leftist, and her a liberal.
However, when I mentioned that I was happy to see white people experience consequences when they used slurs such as the N-word, she said it was a “choice” to be offended by slurs like that, and how people needed to get over it. She even spelled it out. I was totally bewildered. We are both white women. I told her it was inappropriate and racist for her to write or say that word. She continued to use it, saying she should be able to because it was “just a word.” I went on to provide her with multiple sources about why it was offensive and racist. She then said how I was “looking for reasons to have contempt for her” and how she and “the family” have never understood why I’ve always hated her. This went on and on until I eventually stopped responding. However, she’s texted me every day this past week, trying to talk again like nothing’s happened. So how do I address the obvious racism with someone who thinks she’s “the most accepting and multicultural person in our family” for one, and secondly, always makes herself out to be the victim when I disagree with her on anything?
A: The line about “You’ve been looking for reasons to have contempt for me” puts me slightly in mind with the “Vanishing cousin” letter, where the letter writer seems to think Amy whimsically decided to end all contact with her family of origin merely because they reacted badly to a single haircut once. As in your case, what seems to be the likelier explanation is that the person being singled out for making waves by objecting to homophobia or racism is repeatedly dismissed, such that further conversation becomes impossible, at which point the singled-out person is scapegoated as being difficult, recalcitrant, obstinate, and unreasonable—it’s “just a word,” or it’s “just a haircut.” You know already, I think, that you were right to object to your aunt’s repeated use of the N-word; it’s straightforwardly racist and straightforwardly wrong, and all the attempted sleight of hand in the world on her part doesn’t change that reality.
If you say “It’s racist to use the N-word, and you need to stop,” and her response is, “Actually, I’m the most ‘multicultural’ person in this family,” she has not meaningfully responded to you. Continue to acknowledge reality, and continue to refuse her dodge. “I’m not going to talk about TV or cute memes while you continually assert your ‘right’ to use racial slurs. It’s not a right, but a choice—you want to use racial slurs, and you want me to agree that it’s a good idea. I don’t agree, and won’t pretend to agree in order to keep the peace with you.” She may very well keep trying to make herself out to be the victim here; I don’t have many illusions that you’re going to change her mind overnight. But you can, and should, hold fast to what’s right and what’s important, and you have a pretty air-tight defense: “She wouldn’t stop using the N-word. I think that’s wrong.” Everything else is just noise.
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Q. Explaining loss of parents to your children: I am a young adult professional with young children. I have lost both of my parents. My kids are toddlers who only knew their grandfather for a short time. I am terrible at talking to them about my parents because I become emotional and because I am not prepared for the bigger questions about life and death. I’m hoping this gets better with time, but until then, do you have any tips?
A: I’m more than happy to hear responses from any parents who’ve had to navigate similar conversations (or avoid similar conversations) with their own young children, so please do write in if you have direct experience you’re prepared to share. While I understand the importance of providing your kids with a general sense of stability and not wanting to work through your unedited, possibly messy responses to grief in front of toddlers, I don’t think you have to entirely avoid discussing emotional subjects with them, either. It’s OK for your kids to see you cry once in a while—you can reassure them that it’s OK to cry because you miss someone, and that you don’t have to hide or manage your sadness in front of people you love. That doesn’t mean you have to bring up the subject very often right now. If you don’t feel prepared to have many conversations about your own parents, doing so occasionally or rarely is fine, too.
Q. Not a public pool: I gave my neighbors a key to my house in case of emergencies. I have a pool with a gate and a keypad. For a few weeks, I have come home to things like the TV remote or the pool chairs moved around, and items like half a case of beer missing. I put up internal and external security cameras and caught my neighbors’ teenagers and their friends entering from a side door and having a pool party where they drank beer and made out. I was angry beyond belief—if something happened to these kids, not only would I be legally liable, but potentially criminally. I contacted a locksmith and had every lock changed and even upgraded some. I contacted my neighbor via text and told her exactly what her kids had done. I asked her to pay for the security cameras and the locksmith. I sent her the video. I thought my neighbor, as a rational woman, would be reasonable. I was wrong. Her kids told her they only did it once and they were “sorry.” She told me that should be sufficient for me, and that she wasn’t going to pay. I told her she was lucky I was willing to be nice because what her kids did was trespass, theft, and burglary—I could easily go to the cops. She said I don’t get to threaten her or her children. I identified the other teenagers from the neighborhood and went to their parents. They were outraged and grateful to me for not pressing charges. They agreed to split the costs and also punished their kids.
Now my neighbor and her children are persona non grata; no one wants her kids around and she has been removed from several neighborhood committees. My neighbor blames me and makes passive aggressive posts on social media. This is annoying. Looking back, I don’t know what else I could have done.
A: One possible thing you could have done differently is not give a key to your neighbor in the first place! It’s not clear how well you knew her beforehand, nor what kind of emergencies you anticipated taking place while she was home and you weren’t and that could be solved by having her unlock your front door, but I don’t think there was an imminent, urgent need for you to have given her a copy. It’s possible, of course, that her teenage kids would still have thrown a pool party at your place even without a key—I have a dim memory of my own teenage years and feel fairly confident that a single gate would not deter a group of teens determined to party—but it might have saved you the trouble of setting up an elaborate home surveillance system. Your neighbor apologized for her kids’ behavior, which strikes me as a fairly rational response; the fact that she didn’t also pay for your new network of cameras strikes me as rational too. If her kids had broken something, they should have paid for it, but simply because you could have been liable had something more serious happened, it does not necessarily follow that she owes you money for your cameras. You had a right to be angry, but you could have made other choices in light of that anger that prioritized deescalation and simpler solutions over complex ones.
You also had other options when you first realized something was amiss. If you give someone else a key to your house and immediately notice that things are going missing and they’re not actually saving it for emergencies, one reasonable response is to ask for your key back! You might still have changed the locks out of an abundance of caution, but you had sufficient reason to call things off then—no one forced you to set up an expensive sting operation. You’re not going to get her to pay for your cameras, so I think you should let that one go. You can’t force your neighbor to like you again, and you can’t demand she post nice things about you on social media. If you want to unfollow her so you don’t have to see her complaints about you, you certainly should. Beyond that, I think you’ll simply have to endure a slightly more annoying state of affairs from now on.
Q. How much do I have to rewrite my past? I had a close friend who was also my on-and-off partner for over a decade. We lived with each other for a while, mostly at the beginning of our relationship. Much later on, they came out as nonbinary and changed their name. They also have since moved across the country, and we are no longer in contact for unrelated reasons.
At the time we dated, we had nicknames and traditions in the relationship that were based on traditional gender roles. During a recent discussion among friends, I brought up this partner as an example of my experiences cohabiting with men. A mutual friend was shocked and admonished me that my partner is NOT a man. I also got admonished about keeping mementos with our gendered nicknames that were hand-crafted by my partner. While I absolutely respect that they are not a man, do I really need to get rid of mementos that are happy little reminders to me? My experience during that time was of living with a man, and it feels so weird to have to erase all those things that happened and meant a lot to us. My former partner never brought up that I should destroy those things or never bring them up again, and now I don’t have a way to ask them. What would you say?
A: It’s always a little complicated to figure out how much weight to give a third person’s opinion of a relationship, and even more so when that relationship is now over. I don’t think you have any obligation to get rid of your treasured mementos, and your mutual friend’s belief that the politest thing to do when someone transitions or changes their name is to throw away any letters/gifts/photos is hardly universal. There is no single etiquette on the subject.
As for the question of how you describe your relationship with your ex, rather than assigning you a universal set of rules, I’d encourage you to keep an open mind. You can’t call your ex and ask them for their thoughts on the subject, of course, but if they ever discussed their own relationship to gender or reevaluated their sense of their own pre-coming-out life before you two lost touch, you might try to incorporate what you do know of their perspective into your own. You don’t have to persuade your mutual friend to share your view of that relationship, and I don’t think you should try to, either. Don’t get caught up in arguing whether someone really “was” their assigned sex before coming out or transitioning, especially when that person isn’t present to discuss their experience. Your friend’s request that you get rid of your mementos of that relationship was not a reasonable one; their objection to your characterization of that relationship is slightly more open-ended, and I think you can thoughtfully incorporate their reaction into future conversations without either dismissing them or beating yourself up.
Q. Spoiled stepdaughter: I have two girls. My husband has a daughter and a son. It has been a challenge having a blended family, but our main family law is: the same rules for everyone under our roof.
The girls all wanted expensive new phones for their birthdays. Back in September, my husband and I made an agreement that if the girls kept up their grades and did extra chores or earned half the money another way, we would get the phones for them. My girls kept up their grades, did more chores, and ran errands for neighbors for extra cash. Their stepsister did not. Even with private tutoring, she is looking at summer school. She also took my car without permission and sideswiped a neighbor’s car. We paid out of pocket but punished my stepdaughter by making her pay us back from her part-time job.
My younger daughter had her birthday and got her phone. I also ordered one for my other daughter when her birthday comes next month. My stepdaughter threw a huge hissy fit because the “baby” got the phone she wanted. It was a full-on tantrum. She accused us of “favoring” my girls over her. She is still petulant, despite her father and I talking to her separately. I told her if she acted right, she might have earned the phone as a Christmas gift, but whining isn’t helping her case.
My stepdaughter threatened to move in with her mother. My husband is worried she will move out—he wants to just give in and get her the phone. I told him we have to hold the line or my stepdaughter will get worse. We are at stalemate here. My stepdaughter keeps complaining and threatening to leave. My husband wavers and I am impatient. We tried virtual therapy but my stepdaughter wouldn’t come out of her room. I am out of options here.
A: I’d start by getting a virtual therapy appointment for you and your husband, even if you can’t get your stepdaughter to join you; it may help you two figure out a way to stay on the same page and make sure you don’t undercut each other’s positions with the kids. While I do think you should continue to advocate for holding steady and encourage your husband to do the same, since it’s his daughter, you should also look for ways to offer him support and give him space to air out his fears about her threats to move out.
I’m of two minds about the phone itself. On the one hand, I think if your husband gives her the phone now, there’s good reason to believe she’ll continue to use similar tactics in the future, so whatever peace you’re able to purchase will be contingent and short-term only. (This is a little besides the point, but I don’t think you two “punished” your stepdaughter by making her pay for the damage she did to the car. That’s just making good! A punishment would be taking the use of the car away from her entirely, or grounding her.)
On the other hand, I also don’t think a new phone is going to be the single make-or-break issue that determines the course of her future or her relationship with the rest of the family, so if after continued discussion and therapy your husband decides to relent, I think you should back him up and let this go. I don’t mean just go along to get along right away, of course, and I hope he can stop wavering if you two review your reasons for holding this limit in therapy. But if that’s the worst-case scenario you’re looking at, I think it’s an acceptable loss and one you can reasonably expect to move on from.
Maybe your husband can talk to his daughter privately, some time when she’s in a reasonably good mood and he’s feeling less waver-y than usual, and ask her honestly about whether she’s felt excluded or mistreated in comparison with her stepsiblings. He doesn’t have to agree with her perspective, but it’s worth seeking out, I think, and listening with a patient and open mind. Maybe she’ll feel less beleaguered and prone to tantrums if he gives her the opportunity to talk about what else is bothering her. Or maybe she’ll just keep acting like an angry teenager! You sound like you’re both trying as hard as you can to balance fairness with kindness. I wish that always worked, but sometimes angry teenagers don’t want fairness or kindness—they just want to be pissed off and take the car. Good luck trying to navigate this rocky phase!
Q. My brother thinks everyone hates him: My brother seems to automatically assume people hate him. This happens even with the same people in the same context: I’m not allowed to discuss certain school teachers who supported and inspired me, because he claims those same teachers bullied him relentlessly the following year. Now, he regularly asks me for advice about co-workers who despise him and actively try to make him miserable. Because his work requires confidentiality, he seldom shares specific stories of hostile actions or comments, just that he had interactions that made him feel belittled or attacked. If people are truly waging a campaign against him, I would advise him to report their behavior to a manager or try to get a different, more supportive job. But he recently changed jobs, and there were almost as many terrible co-workers at his new job as his old one. I hesitate to recommend extreme options if his co-workers are just sincere actors being viewed unfavorably through the lens of his negativity. Since I can’t observe the dynamic for myself, how can I advise my brother here? Is there some middle ground between “supportively” feeding his negativity, and insisting on my own “Zen” viewpoint in absence of the facts?
A: I do want to leave real room for the possibility that you and your brother did not have the same experience just because you had the same teachers. It’s very possible for a teacher to praise and support one student while ignoring or mistreating another. Whether your brother may sometimes have a part in his present situation with his co-workers, when he was a high school student he had a right to care and consideration from his adult teachers, so the two don’t necessarily translate 1:1. I’d encourage you to let go of any assumptions you may have made about his high school experience, and focus on work. This might include telling your brother, “Because you can’t share many details with me due to confidentiality, I can’t strongly recommend one particular course of action over another,” and limiting how much time you spend discussing work with him.
But I also think you can raise the possibility of reevaluating his approach without necessarily saying, “Hey brother, I think the problem is probably just you, because you seem paranoid and difficult” (which would be unnecessarily harsh and combative). “Ordinarily I’d encourage you to report this to HR or a manager, but I remember you said that this happened just as often at your last job. This seems unusual to me. Do you have a sense of whether there’s something particularly hostile/combative about this industry as a whole? Do you think it’s been a run of bad luck?” Depending on his answer, you might get a clearer sense of how you’d like to advise him—but again, since you don’t work with him and you’re not familiar with his field, it’s also really fine to acknowledge you’re not an expert and you won’t be able to perfectly solve this problem for him. Encourage him to seek out additional forms of support, to try to protect himself while also looking for ways to deescalate conflict whenever possible, and make sure you two also spend time talking about something besides work once in a while.
Q. I mean, she’s 45! I’m a 65-year-old retired female professor living in a Midwestern city. About 25 years ago, Jane took a class from me when she was a university student here. We lost touch over the years, but Jane reached out to me five years ago when, after a breakup with her then-girlfriend, she decided to take a job in the city where I live and move here for a fresh start. In the years since, we’ve become close friends and in the pandemic as two single people, we have become even closer. I’ve started to notice a new electricity in our contact with each other—I think she feels it too—and I’m torn about what to do.
I’ve dated other women her age (I’m a triathlete, so in many ways I seem younger) but I have never, ever crossed the line with a student or a former student. In her case, though, I wonder if the taboo still holds? She was my student more than 20 years ago (and there was no impropriety whatsoever between us then), there is no disproportionate power dynamic in our current relationship, and she works in a field different from mine, so she won’t ever need a professional reference from me. I recognize just how critical it is that professors and students don’t date one another. But does that taboo hold, even all these years later when we are two middle-aged people? I think we could be on the verge of something beautiful and the way she looks at me sometimes, I think it’s mutual. But does the way we first met make it impossible to try for more?
A: You sound like an extremely conscientious person, and I don’t think it’s at all impossible to ask out your friend. It’s been more than two decades since you taught Jane and you’ve been friends on a totally equitable basis for five years now. As you yourself point out, you’re no longer a professor, and even if you hadn’t already retired, she works in an unrelated field where you have no influence. You stopped having a “professor and student” relationship with Jane decades ago, and should feel total peace of mind in asking her out (or just the regular amount of nerves that come from asking out a friend).
Q. Pandemic puppy: My next-door neighbors are one of the many families who got a pandemic puppy last spring. Our yards are separated by a low fence, so I can always see the dog in their backyard. The parents both work from home, and they interacted with the dog when she was a puppy, but I’ve noticed a pattern of steadily increasing neglect. They leave the dog outside in all weather (rain, wind, and snow now that it’s winter) and often all night, from what I can tell. The dog is a medium-sized, very social breed, with tons of energy. They clearly do not want the dog in the house and don’t interact with her outdoors or walk her (that I have ever seen—they do go on family walks without the dog, however).
I’m a huge animal lover, and it devastates me to see how sad the dog is (she comes to the fence desperate for attention whenever I’m outside). I have two friendly dogs and would be happy to test out either letting the dog come over to play with them in my yard or walking her, if possible (though I don’t know if she’s even leash-trained). Is there a way to float this to the neighbors, whom I don’t have much of an existing relationship with, without seeming judgmental? I’m also a little concerned about potentially overcommitting to free dog care in case that they jump on it (I’m only remote temporarily during the pandemic). I’d like to do whatever small things I can to try to help this poor dog have a better life.
A: This is really thoughtful and conscientious of you! It makes sense to worry about overcommitting yourself because your schedule won’t always be so flexible, but I think you should worry about that bridge when you come to it, and make your offer now anyway. It can be tricky to offer to help someone, especially a neighbor, when you also believe they’re doing something wrong (and leaving a dog outside overnight and exposed to the snow is certainly wrong). But as long as you frame your offer cheerfully and as a gift, there’s a good chance they’ll prove receptive. Hopefully they’ll accept your offer to occasionally play with her and help her get used to the presence of other dogs; if they’re receptive and friendly, you might also recommend the services of a trainer who can help her get used to a leash, and encourage them to let her inside the house. Once you’ve established a slightly closer relationship, you’ll have a better chance of persuading them to let her inside, or at the very least build her a doghouse. If they’re defensive or hostile, and you continue to see her left outside in the cold, you might need to alert animal services. But offer to help first, and only decide to escalate after you’ve tried that route.
Danny M. Lavery: Thanks for joining me today, everyone! See you here next week.
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From Care and Feeding
I am currently six months pregnant with my husband’s and my first child. A close friend of ours got engaged a few months ago and has asked my husband to be a groomsman. The bachelor party will be in Mexico for five days and will cost roughly $1,500—and it will be happening when our newborn will be only 3 months old.
He’s a people-pleaser, and friends are super important to him. This is all making me feel like our baby and I are less important to him. So now, whether he goes or not, I already feel hurt because he wants to. Is it bad for me to tell him he can’t go? Is it bad if he pushes back and goes anyway?
Now available in your podcast player: the audiobook edition of Danny M. Lavery’s latest book, Something That May Shock and Discredit You. Get it from Slate.