Dear Prudence

Help! I Just Discovered an Extremely Racist Family Photo From My Childhood. I’m the Main Subject.

Dear Prudence answers more of your questions—only for Slate Plus members.

Hand holding a photograph.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photo by Getty Images Plus.

Every week, Dear Prudence answers additional questions from readers, just for Slate Plus members. R. Eric Thomas is filling in as Prudie for Jenée Desmond-Harris while she’s on parental leave. Submit questions here. (It’s anonymous!)

Q. This was the ’90s! My dad’s family is full of racist, homophobic, xenophobic, conservative bigots, all to varying degrees. I have always known this to be true. I have challenged the worst of their comments and walked away or refused to engage. I’ve rationalized it by saying they’re old, from another time, live in a very rural area, are poisoned by Fox News, etc., and since they live far away and we don’t see each other that often, I can compartmentalize.

My sister recently visited them and went through some family photos. She uncovered one of the most horrifyingly racist images I’ve ever, ever seen—and I am in it. I am actually the subject of the photo, which was taken at a family event when I was perhaps 4 years old. We were playing a “game” and the adults were wearing “costumes” as a “joke.”

She sent me a picture of this page in my grandma’s scrapbook (!!) and I had a breakdown. I started crying, I almost had a panic attack—the idea that the adults in my life set up this event, and allowed and encouraged me to participate in it, makes me sick to my stomach. I don’t know what to do. My sister feels like she can shrug it off as a “Yikes/whoopsie,” but there were handmade props that probably took days to build and design… this was very pretty meditated. My mom says she’s ashamed to have allowed me to join in the “game” and that she did object at the time, but was told to take a joke. My dad maintains it was a joke, albeit in poor taste. My grandparents apparently think it’s a precious keepsake memory worth preserving in a scrapbook.

I don’t want to talk to any of them, I am so upset. I think I’ll just shout and cry if I try to have a conversation about this. I can’t talk to anyone about it because I am so embarrassed and ashamed to have downplayed what is clearly violent hatred and bigotry for so long. I want to know whose idea it was, who is wearing the costumes, what degree of involvement my immediate family had, etc. But at the same time, does it even matter? They were obviously complicit in this horrible thing. Please help.

A: I think you nailed it with the question “does it even matter?” What new information are you going to be able to glean from further conversation? You’re already aware of your dad’s family’s character in some ways and, while this photo is a surprise, it doesn’t materially change who you’ve experienced them to be so far. The difference is that they’ve now involved you. Asking questions about the event may provide facts, but I don’t think it’s going to make you feel better about your own unwitting involvement. The horror you’re feeling makes it harder to compartmentalize the things that you were compartmentalizing before, so you’ll need to ask yourself what relationship you want to have with them going forward.

But the fact is, they’re not hiding who they are and what they think is appropriate. Having more conversation will probably not change that and it won’t make you feel better. The best thing for your own mental health might be to put some space between them and you. You don’t have to own your part in that photo and you can’t choose your family, but you also don’t have to continue to have the same relationship if it’s not healthy for you.

Classic Prudie

My boyfriend warned me ahead of time that his family was a handful, but nothing could of prepared me for Thanksgiving. N-words and gay slurs and an uncle who referred to Secretary Clinton by the worst word toward women imaginable. I am not trying to be a snob, but I can’t comprehend raising a child around these people. Although we are in med school a thousand miles away, we are thinking about settling down near his hometown. I talked to him about the outright bigotry his family embraces, and he is both embarrassed and also nonapologetic—I shouldn’t judge them for, amongst other things, referring to our president in a manner that you wouldn’t even publish. He’s a great, decent guy, but his family is not one I would want to be a part of, and I’m having a hard time reconciling the two.