Dear Prudence

Help! My Daughter-in-Law Makes Fun of My “White Woman Tears.” But She Doesn’t Know My History.

Something awful happened to me when I was young that makes her criticisms hard to take.

A women looks at an illustration of white tear drops.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photo by Halfpoint/iStock/Getty Images Plus. 

Dear Prudence is Slate’s advice column. Submit questions here.

Dear Prudence,

In my early 20s, I was raped. By a man who happened to be Black. I don’t think he did it because he was Black. He did it because he was “a somebody” where we were and I was a nobody, and I don’t honestly think he thought of it as rape. I was very drunk and he took advantage, as most of the men (mostly white) in the place in which I worked at that time would do. I went to work there in part out of my own socialization as a young woman, and I can’t say I wasn’t complicit in the culture that led to that specific moment. After it and some ensuing complications, I spiraled and lost a lot of a lot of years, but because I am white and privileged and because the job paid well, I was able to access therapy secretly and stabilize. I’m one of the lucky ones—most women who went through that sort of experience don’t get to use it to improve because no one helps them.

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No one in my family knows about this, and frankly, it’s none of their business. But my daughter-in-law, who is a young, politically active Black woman, has recently started trying to get me to “check” my privilege by using terms like “Karen” and “white woman tears.” It makes me really angry, disproportionately so, which actually seems to encourage her. I know I’m flawed, and I know the statistics she quotes at me are horrible for women of color, but I’m tired of being her easily accessible punching bag. It’s too triggering. I want to just move on. I am trying to remember that in the wider system, she’s so easily dismissed (young, Black, intelligent, from a financially deprived background) that she needs to know that she’s getting through to someone, and my reactions are at least reactions, not the indifference of so much of society. And, of course, if I am going to be an ally, I need to listen and acknowledge at the very least.

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But I’ve just started avoiding her, even if she seeks me out, trying to educate me. I tell myself that if I could take the time to investigate my rapist with compassion and look at the society surrounding us and stop throwing around terms like “white trash” (which I used for years in reference to myself), then she can learn to stop using stereotypical terms, too. But I think I just look like an asshole, and maybe I am an asshole. My son definitely thinks I’m being ridiculous and I need to suck it up and stop being so weak. Sometimes I think I should tell her about my youth, but then I just feel sick to my stomach. It’s not that I think I did anything wrong anymore, it’s just, once you share something like this, it’s like telling people you had an abortion or something. They tend to define you by that thing that happened to you, and I don’t want that.

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I realize that’s ironic, as she is regularly telling me that she is defined by the color of her skin, which isn’t fair and is, for her, unavoidable in our modern society. As an old woman, however, I want to exploit my privilege in this area and just not share this story. How do I frame my time with her so that I don’t make things worse? I want to support her in her work and in her life, just as I want to support my son, but I want to feel like I’m part of the solution, and I am finding that very difficult in our conversations.

—Maybe I Am White Trash

Dear Maybe,

I think the first thing to address is that something horrible happened to you, it was not your fault, and it’s totally understandable that being raped at least partially derailed your life.
Although you feel you were able to use the experience to improve yourself, it was still traumatizing. This should go without saying, but the fact that you’re white and your assailant was Black doesn’t mean it wasn’t bad or you don’t have a right to continue to be upset about it. There’s no statute of limitations when it comes to talking about what you survived to friends, family, and most importantly, a therapist. Please don’t let your concern that people will define you by this experience stop you from continuing to process it (maybe to a professional or other women survivors, if that makes you more comfortable).

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All that said, I had to read your question several times in an attempt to understand how and why you connected your assault to your current issues with your daughter-in-law. If I read between the lines, I think you may be saying, “My daughter-in-law would not be so mean to me about my white privilege if she knew that I was raped by someone from the same, nonwhite racial background as her.” Is that it? If it is, I really urge you to try to disentangle these issues, and come to terms with the fact that they have nothing to do with each other.

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Maybe this could begin by changing your definition of white privilege: It doesn’t mean that nothing bad has ever happened to you, or that a Black person has never hurt you. It simply means that throughout your life, many things were easier for you than they would have been if all the circumstances were the same and you weren’t white—and that the bad things that happened to you likely didn’t happen because of your race. Trying to get your head around this, along with the idea that a Black person did something terrible to you that has nothing to do with how you currently relate to Black people, is not going to be easy—and it’s not something I think you should subject your daughter-in-law to hearing you process. Joining a chapter of a group like SURJ, which is designed for white people who believe in racial justice is one idea. On the section of the website that covers the organization’s values, it says:

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Calling people in is how we want to be with one another as white people. That means: Recognizing we all mess up, and speaking from this shared experience. Being specific and direct. Talking to people in times and places that support conversation and learning.

It sounds like this community could be a place where you can receive some guidance from those who are ready to hear your unfiltered thoughts and eager to discuss them with you and gently help you reframe the way you think.

So let’s think about your relationship with your daughter-in-law apart from your rape. You are allowed to ask her not to call you names like “Karen” or minimize the distress you experience with terms like “white tears.” You can make this request not because a Black man raped you, but because you two are family, and family members sometimes have to provide guidance when it comes to how they want to be treated and spoken to. If you’re sincerely interested in feedback on your behavior from her as a Black person, but would appreciate it if it didn’t involve mocking or dismissive remarks, tell her! If you continue to get your feelings hurt and feel disrespected, you always have the ability to pull back and spend less time together. But I have a strong suspicion that if you’re able to do the mental and emotional work you need to in order to interact with her without being preoccupied with the fact that you were assaulted by someone of the same race,  you might display fewer of the behaviors that are inspiring her to criticize you.

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Dear Prudence,

I wasn’t sure where to go for advice on this, and I always appreciate the scripts you share in your responses. In my job, I often schedule meetings with people whom I haven’t met before, but obviously see their names when setting the meeting up. When they have a name I’m not sure how to pronounce, I always wonder what the proper protocol is? What is a polite way/time to ask for the correct pronunciation? I would hate to mispronounce someone’s name, but I also worry that I will offend them by asking. Secondarily, I worry about coming off as ignorant for not knowing. I’m based in the U.S. but there are obviously many names that are quite common in other countries that most people would automatically be familiar with. Do you know of any sites that might offer pronunciation search functions? Any guidance is appreciated!

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—Just Want to Get It Right

Dear Get It Right,

Since you haven’t met these people before, I’m guessing this is a remote work situation. This is a built-in excuse. Why don’t you say something like “Since we’re working virtually and I haven’t met most people in person, I always like to ask about name pronunciation or what people prefer to be called since it doesn’t always match what’s on email. I’m [full name] and I go by [nickname or shortened name if you have one], what about you?” And make sure you do this for Jeffreys who might go by Jeff and Kathleens who might go by Katie in addition to people whose names appear to have origins in cultures other than yours.

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How to Get Advice From Prudie

Submit your questions anonymously here. (Questions may be edited for publication.) Join the live chat every Monday at noon (and submit your comments) here.

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Dear Prudence,

​​I am a 57-year-old, white, old-school butch lesbian. My question is about how to respond to self-appointed bathroom police. I know I look like a total dad-dude-bro, especially when I travel (often cargo shorts, baggy T-shirt, baseball cap). But after almost 40 years as a masculine-looking woman, I am getting more aggressively challenged lately, maybe because the addition of a mask creates more confusion.

I used to be able to cheerfully respond to “This is the women’s room!” with an “Oh, good” or “It’s OK. I’m a lesbian” or “Who appointed you bathroom police?” But twice since I’ve been traveling for work in the past six months, I’ve been physically blocked from proceeding to a stall. The first time, when told, “This restroom is for women only,” I was so startled I said, “Fuck off, asshole” and went on my way. The second time, I said, “Get out of my way,” and they moved away (my voice clearly identifies me as a woman). I have a lot of privilege (white, older, wealthy lawyer), so I don’t worry about what might happen if security or police are called on me. Nonwhite/nonprivileged masculine women and feminine men would have to make a different calculation. I’ll try to keep with the nonconfrontational route, but I get cranky when I’m traveling. What do you think a good response is?

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—Butch Woman

Dear Butch Woman,

I don’t have a problem with profanity in response in these situations! But if you want to avoid a confrontation that could leave you feeling cranky, you could approach potentially hostile bathrooms announcing in a loud, cheerful voice like a gate attendant boarding a flight: “Attention bigots and busybodies: I know I’m butch but I am a woman, and I’m in the correct bathroom. Please mind your own business. Thank you in advance!” As a side note, it’s worth pointing out that situations like those you describe are precisely why laws encouraging bathroom gender policing are so pernicious—they invite offensive scrutiny toward all kinds of people, transgender or otherwise, who are just trying to pee.

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Dear Prudence,

​​An ex-boyfriend of mine is a key member of a friendship group that I am on the periphery of. It includes people I get along with very well, and would enjoy spending more time with at group events. But my ex-boyfriend’s wife refuses to accept that sometimes his path might cross with mine. If we attend the same event, she insists that they leave as soon as she realizes I am there. This is noticed by other people, and the upshot is that I am excluded from many gatherings, especially those to which he is seen as having the greater claim (e.g., the memorial dinner for his best friend, who was also a good friend of mine). This seems so unfair to me—particularly given that I’m the one behaving well here and her radar is not entirely off. My ex-boyfriend does still seem to have feelings for me, but I rebuff every overture (I am happily married myself). The usual pattern is that after a few months of very occasional cheerful texts about work and children he crosses a line and tells me how much he cares for me, I shut him down, and then he is silent until something external triggers contact. What can I do? I am tired of being seen as part of a social problem others have to tiptoe around, and of missing events I’d like to go to. I have a phone full of messages that would clearly demonstrate where the problem lies—but I’d blow his marriage apart if I used those.

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—I’m Being Punished Because He Behaves Badly

Dear Being Punished,

This is so unfair to you. He gets to text with you, shut down when he feels like it, and be the one to enjoy events while you’re excluded. And to be clear, it’s not just his wife’s fault that they’re leaving whenever they see you—he could easily let her take off in a huff, but he’s agreeing to this plan. The easiest thing you can do to make it so that he’s not getting every single thing he wants while being a jerk is to stop texting him. Completely. I’m sure you’re not getting anything out of it anyway. And he’s not behaving like a friend to you. So cut him off. As a bonus, when his wife no longer finds long conversation threads and proclamations of his feelings for you when she checks his phone (which is what is happening, I’m 90 percent sure), she might be less nervous about your paths crossing.

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As you wait for this to unfold, there’s no reason you can’t tell your good friends that being removed from guest lists hurts you. No need to provide transcripts of your communications with him.

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Dear Prudence Uncensored

“He is the worst kind of ex-boyfriend. He’s manipulative, creepy, and a cheater!”

Jenée Desmond-Harris and friends discuss a letter in this week’s Dear Prudence Uncensored—only for Slate Plus members.

Dear Prudence,

We have met our new neighbor, and he has SS and other worrying tattoos. I honestly don’t know how to handle this. Neo-Nazism and white supremacy are anathema, but in this small community we are interdependent. How do I interact with this hairy, scary man and the evil ideology I suspect he espouses? Do I try the Quaker approach and seek the God in him? Is this as big a deal as it seems to me? Help me, please?

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—Peace Lover

Dear Peace Lover,

He’s displaying these tattoos because he wants you to know where he stands. If he’d changed his mind, or if he wanted friendly, neighborly relationships with normal people, he would have covered them up. So steer clear. I’m not sure what you mean by “interdependent,” but if you do have to interact with him for some reason, stick to the task at hand and don’t feel obligated to express any warmth. Redirect your God-seeing Quaker energy to the sort of people who are harmed by the attitudes of men like this, and do something to help them.

Give Prudie a Hand in “We’re Prudence”

Sometimes even Prudence needs a little help. Every Thursday in this column, we’ll post a question that has her stumped. This week’s tricky situation is below. Join the conversation about it on Twitter with Jenée @jdesmondharris on Thursday, and then look back for the final answer here on Friday.

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Dear Prudence,

I am a woman in my mid-20s who, back in 2019, had a major falling out with a person I had called a best friend. It was a hard decision to cut her out of my life as we had gone to school together from preschool through high school, and I had shared a lot of vulnerable information with her regarding past mental health struggles and my sexuality. I won’t go into the details of why the friendship had to come to an end, but I will say that I was having nightmares for months because of how badly she treated me. She went on to harass me in the weeks following our friendship breakup, texting my mother(!) to try to arrange a time and location she could ambush me, leaving me 10 minute long voicemails sobbing (blocking a number doesn’t prevent them from being able to leave you voicemails, who knew), and more.

Prudie, she was an awful friend and a truly toxic person. At a therapist’s advice and for my own sanity, I blocked her on all social media platforms I had at the time. A year later or so, I was so much happier for having chosen to prioritize friends who respect me! Around then, I happened to create a TikTok account where I learned she had been frequently posting videos about me (which she continues to this day, a full two years later)! She never explicitly uses my name but reveals details that make it very obvious who I am, such as using a popular audio that includes my first name and in the comments remarking that it is ironic how that is my name, or writing my name in the video but blurring out 2 letters in the middle, etc. (For reference, I’d estimate she has posted one about once a month ever since fall of 2019.)

She claims to be a mental health advocacy account, and her followers comment about how brave she is for having dealt with an awful friend like me for so many years. I don’t know how on earth she spins this stuff to make her look like the good guy, but she manages to gain tons of sympathy from internet strangers. I don’t check her account often, but occasionally when I am feeling down about myself I look her up to see if she is still doing it, and she always is. I know I should just block her on TikTok too, but it’s easier said than done. I don’t think she’s aware I have seen her account, as I would never follow her and my profile does not include name or anything that would identify myself.

At this point, I feel the videos are getting more targeted, and though she is still not directly using my name, she is revealing very sensitive, specific details I shared with her many years ago. I fear she could still share yet more embarrassing information. Casual friends from high school have told me they know she is making these videos about me and that they’re sorry she’s being so crazy, so when she reveals information, these people I know in real life are learning things about me that I really wish they hadn’t. Should I contact her to tell her to knock it off? Send a fake cease-and-desist letter? Let it go and hope she doesn’t continue her trend of getting more specific or reveal my identity?

—Wish I Could Just Move On 

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Dear Prudence,

My husband has always had high-pressure, long hours, and steep salary types of jobs. Since before we were married three years ago, he has talked about shifting careers. He has even taken a couple sabbaticals to try and figure it out, but never came up with anything. So I was thrilled when six months ago, he left his corporate job to work in-house for a charity (which to be fair was still quite highly paid). I make a decent salary, but he has always been the higher earner. The new job quickly went tits up, frankly. It was totally different to what he expected, the hours were still really long, and he had the added pressure of leading a department, which was new. He started having serious anxiety and panic attacks, and has been on sick leave for the last couple months.

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Thankfully, he doesn’t seem to have a lasting issue and has recovered well. He’s due to return to work soon, but he doesn’t think he wants to go back. Now we’re back in the position where he’s constantly talking about ANOTHER career shift. He might go into restaurants, or teaching, or politics (?!) . I love my husband, and I want to support him, and I especially want him to protect his mental health, but I am exhausted from having this conversation over and over again. I just want to tell him to suck it up and get a job! He deserves this time off, but it can’t go on forever. What should I do?

— Work Weary Wife

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Dear Work Weary,

An ongoing conversation about a pretty big life decision—the kind most people would want to collaborate on with their spouse—doesn’t seem like a super high price to pay for a husband who has consistently brought in pretty good money, even after making a career shift that didn’t bring what he expected and battling mental health issues. I wonder: Is it talking about it that’s bothering you, or are there some other fears and worries behind your frustration? For example, are you afraid that he’s losing his drive and may not want to go back to work at all? Are you concerned about his anxiety and depression and wishing he would just sweep them under the rug and go back to normal? Do you feel there’s never enough focus on your career and passions? I think it would be better to try to dig down and identify what’s really getting under your skin and have a serious conversation with him about that, rather than shutting down during the job conversations or telling him you don’t want to talk about his career. I can see that driving the two of you apart, and you don’t want marriage issues on top of employment issues.

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Classic Prudie

This summer, I was lucky enough to see a famous musical. The show is not anywhere near my home, so a friend and I booked flights to the show. Fast-forward several months. We were thrilled to arrive at the play we had been vying to see for so long. As soon as the opening number began, however, she began singing along! Not full singing, but a loud enough whisper to draw the attention of nearly everyone seated around us. Upon intermission, I asked her if she noticed all the people seated in front of us turning around to stare at her and thereafter suggested that her whispering bothered them. She was shocked that this behavior would be considered rude and then stated that it was their problem. She proceeded with this through the end of the play. I’m shocked no other patrons confronted her. Based on this fact, I wonder if perhaps I am wrong and overly sensitive. Who is right?

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