Dear Prudence

Help! I Regret Letting a Nazi Threaten Someone on My Behalf.

I could have stood up for her.

Woman hiding her face behind a book.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photos by dikushin/iStock/Getty Images Plus and  Mathias Alvez/iStock/Getty Images Plus.

Dear Prudence is Slate’s advice column. Submit questions here. (It’s anonymous!)

Dear Prudence,

Tonight I was sitting on a bench waiting for public transport when an older Black woman (her race will be relevant later) walked up and asked “Is that yours?” I moved my things closer to me without looking up from what I was reading to make space for the woman to sit. The woman got upset and called me a bitch. Apparently, I had an attitude when I silently moved my things and continued reading.

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A few minutes later a real Nazi skinhead walked up and put his boot on the side of the bench by me to tie his shoe. I knew what he was immediately because even though he dressed grungy, he smelled well-showered. I kept my eyes glued to what I was reading, trying to stay stony-faced, my heart pounding. Apparently, the rude woman next to me didn’t realize he was a Nazi and started laughing. She seemed to think it was funny that a grungy/homeless man was tying his shoe two inches from me. Here is where I’m not proud of my actions (or lack thereof). The Nazi heard her laughing and knew she was laughing at me. He whispered “I got you” to me and then walked over and physically threatened the woman. I continued to stare stony-faced at my phone. After terrifying the woman, he walked away and the two of us sat silently until the train came.

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I keep telling myself that confronting the man would have escalated things to a dangerous level. But in the back of my mind, I think I could have stood up for her when he threatened her. I definitely don’t want Nazis “protecting my honor” when I was doing a fine job ignoring a rude person. I always thought I would stand up and fight in the face of racism, and somehow I let racism fight for me. I feel sick. What actions can I take to be better next time?

—Apparently Not a Nazi Puncher

Dear Not a Nazi Puncher,

What a chaotic and disturbing scene. Look, you were just trying to get on the bus and you did the best you could in the moment. If there is a part of you that is saying “I really want to be better about standing up against racism and about doing more to use the privilege that comes with being a white person in a racist society” absolutely listen to it. But to honor that instinct and feel better about the impact you’re having on the world, you’ll want to find ways to take action in meaningful ways in your everyday life—perhaps by getting involved in organizing, activism, or service activities. Plotting out how you’ll react in the next unhinged, public transportation battle won’t help anyone and isn’t a good use of your time.

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Dear Prudence,

My husband is the middle child of three. At my mother-in-law’s house, the three available rooms for guests were the children’s rooms growing up. The oldest, “Chad,” grew up in the biggest room, the size of the master bedroom, with a king bed. The other two children grew up in glorified closets, each with a twin bed. One of them now has a double. MIL is incredibly laissez-faire about all things to do with the house, hasn’t updated any of the rooms since her kids left for college, and when guests come they are left to “figure it out amongst themselves” where they are going to stay. Where this turns into a problem is when we all (theoretically) visit. I should add that we are all large people.

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“Chad” and his wife, who a few years ago cleaned out “Chad’s” childhood bedroom and put a queen bed in it, basically continue to treat that bedroom as though it is still Chad’s property. None of the other rooms are comfortable or have beds that accommodate more than one person comfortably or rooms that have enough space to accommodate more than one person. Chad and his wife are childless, with two dogs who come to visit with them. My husband and I have two children (a toddler and an infant who needs to sleep in the same room as us) as well as two dogs. The children always come with us obviously, and the dogs generally do.

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Because I am past the point of sleeping on an air mattress in the den, we have not all visited MIL at the same time for years. Because of the assumption and effect that “Chad” and his wife always get a reasonable guest room, my husband and I don’t want to deal with it. We all were supposed to go down for a holiday this past year. I was eight months pregnant at the time, and my husband preemptively talked to his brother to make sure that we could stay in the big room (the toddler needed to stay in our room as well as the baby because the other rooms were not able to be adequately made toddler-safe).

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The result of my husband mentioning that to his brother? They made another excuse, but they decided not to come at the last minute. In a recent conversation, BIL confirmed my hunch and told me that “we need to fix up the [closet] rooms so that you guys can have one and the kids can have one and we can all go there at the same time.” I made a noncommittal response but it makes me crazy that the assumption is that these two will eternally get that room! While our children are so little, they need to be in the same room as us when traveling. Frankly, we just will all never be there at the same time if the issue continues. We all, otherwise, get along.

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Who is right? What are the rules of etiquette regarding bedrooms and visiting guests once all children are in their mid-late thirties and there are grandchildren in the picture? Should this really be MIL’s responsibility to make sure rooms can accommodate the intended guests?

—Why Can’t MIL Just Update the Guest Room?

Dear Just Update the Guest Room,

You know, I think you can actually notes from your MIL and Chad. They are each giving you an example of what it looks like to have boundaries, which doesn’t always mean telling someone to stop doing something. It can mean saying, “Here’s what I have to offer, take it or leave it—I’m firm on what works for me but I’m not going to force or pressure anyone to do anything” or “Here’s what I need to be comfortable, and if it’s not available I’ll go ahead and pass—I’m firm on what works for me but I’m not going to force or pressure anyone to do anything.”

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Your MIL has the house she has, she’s not going to remodel it to accommodate anyone’s preferences, and she’s not getting involved in helping adults decide on the assignment of guest rooms, which I think is great. Chad has decided that if he can’t have the space he wants for his family, he’ll come another time. He’s not fighting for the big room but he’s also not going to stay in a closet. Whether that’s reasonable or not, he’s doing what works for him and he’s not getting mad at anyone about it. You can continue to do the same, you just need to work on the part about not getting wound up on hoping other people will behave differently. And that doesn’t necessarily mean all of you can never be in the same place again. After all, a free, spacious place to stay is a luxury! Plenty of people’s MILs live in one-bedroom apartments that can’t accommodate anyone. Is there any room in your budget for a couple of nights a year in a nearby hotel or home rental? If you really want to be there at the same time as Chad and his family (side note, apparently he doesn’t care so I’m not sure you should) give that some thought.

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Dear Prudence,

My dear friend, “X”, who has cancer, suddenly cut off all friends, acted depressed, hasn’t spoken to anyone for three weeks, and moved out of their apartment without saying where they’re going. I live out of state, but called a welfare check when they went missing after an event for over 24 hours. The police found them, but X won’t reach out. A few of X’s friends know X has cancer. It’s puzzling; X has had cancer with a bad prognosis for a couple of years, and they’ve never acted like this. Possibly something changed, but so quickly? X texted me goodbye, though we’ve only been friends for a few months, and didn’t say goodbye to anyone else, including X’s best friend (no conflict between them). I’m not sure that their disappearance is due to cancer or something else (they work in intelligence). Me and X’s friends are grieving badly. I have considered everything from hiring a private investigator to trying to accept that I will never see X again. How do I deal with the situation? I am desperate to make sure X is OK, and desperately hoping that the answer isn’t terminal cancer.

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—Just Want My Friend Safe

Dear Want My Friend Safe,

This is so upsetting! A private investigator would be going too far and would feel like an invasion of privacy. But keep reaching out. DM, text, email, whatever. The message should be consistent: “I’m thinking about you. I’m worried about you. We all care about you and want to make sure you’re OK. If you tell me to leave you alone I will, but until then I’m going to keep checking on you. Please get back to me.”

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Dear Prudence,

I am a Black man who is in his mid-20s. I have always been high achieving, especially in my career and education. In 2019, I finally graduated and began looking for career opportunities. Just as I graduated that winter my dad succumbed to leukemia. I was already in a lot of grief over that and then the pandemic hit and I felt as if my ambitions and life goals were really thrown into question.

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Both events were hard for me, and despite not getting much support from friends and family (loved ones kept their distance during my dad’s death and socially distanced during the pandemic), I felt bruised but OK. Then George Floyd was killed. This incident was a huge shock for me and it was this event that I felt as if something within me broke. I really began looking at my life and the amount of effort I could exert only to have the possibility of that being taken away due to the color of my skin. I began to question things more, and stop trying to be such an overachiever. I feel as if I had bought into the myth that I could somehow outrun racism by being an impeccable worker and achieving well scholastically. I’ve realized that this could not be further from the truth.

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I used to have an upbeat positive attitude, and while I still have this it has been tinted with a heavy dose of cynicism (but not bitterness). I question things more and have been more vocal, especially around politics. Outside of these changes I now really just feel like trying to enjoy life instead of proving my place in society by being the best at everything. I still work, and I am in a graduate program pursuing something I have always wanted to do, but was too scared of what others thought to actually do it. However, the previous zeal I felt has really sputtered out. I do well at my job, but feel as if I perform more at 80 percent than before I did 110 percent. I really enjoy my education, but where before I would get As in all my courses, I am more than content with a C grade. I used to be the life of the party and a social butterfly, but have become increasingly more content with a small circle of intimate friends who really know and accept me.

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Sadly, I’ve had to let go of some of my friends as a result. One friend pointed out my lackadaisical approach to life and said how much I had changed and that they missed the old me. Honestly, I miss the old me as well, but I am unsure how to tap into it. I really do feel as if I’ve lost that zest of life that I used to have and am going through the motions. Am I doing something wrong?

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—The Lost Cynic

Dear Lost Cynic,

It sounds like you may be living with depression, which is not separate from losing your dad and grappling with the reality of your place in a violent and racist society. These are really, really valid reasons to be depressed. It’s great that you’ve been able to hang on enough to get by at work and in school and have kept up with a few friends, but you deserve to feel much better. Go to your university’s counseling services, make an appointment, and tell them everything you’re feeling ASAP. I know even a couple of phone calls can feel exhausting and overwhelming when you’re not feeling like yourself, so ask at least one friend to hold you accountable and make sure you follow through with this.

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