Dear Prudence is online weekly to chat live with readers on Mondays at noon ET. Here’s an edited transcript of this week’s chat.
Jenée Desmond-Harris: Hi everyone! Hope you had a good weekend. What’s going wrong with you or other people??
Q. All Curled Up: I am a white woman with thick, curly hair. I learned long ago that products and techniques intended for Black hair often work great on mine. Recently, after some internet research, I went to a new salon. I knew going in that I was not this salon’s, shall we say, target market. I was the only white person there, stylists included, and the products were all from Black-owned and generally Black-marketed brands. Everyone was very kind, and I didn’t get any weird vibes, although it was fairly quiet there. But afterwards, a Black friend (kindly) told me that, while she understood my hair struggles, I was invading one of the few safe spaces for Black women in our very white suburb of a pretty white big city, and she would guess the salon’s employees and other customers were not thrilled with my presence and would prefer I not return.
My friend doesn’t go to this particular salon, but she is Black in our overwhelmingly white area, and dialed into that community and experience, and I trust her on this. I know and understand the value of safe spaces. But it was the best haircut of my life! And I don’t want to assume this salon doesn’t want my business—I’m a great customer, on time, friendly, and an excellent tipper. In addition, NOT supporting a local Black-owned business (the owner is a Black woman) seems like a perverse way to show support. Since I can’t exactly call them up and ask if they’d prefer I not come back because I’m a white lady, I am seeking a second opinion. Should I find a new salon?
A: I’m challenged by the story you’re telling here because of what I know about hair and hair salons, which is a lot: Without going into the weeds about the classifications of curl patterns, a white woman’s “thick, curly” hair and Black hair—the kind Black salons specialize in—are not one and the same. Unless you are getting braids, some other protective style, or a relaxer, I can’t imagine that this place would have anything to offer you that another salon wouldn’t. And if a simple cut—which is probably last on the list of things that would be done in a unique way at a place that caters to Black women—is what you’re there for, I would guess that the best fit for you would actually be a curly hair salon. That’s something very different, which exists in most cities now. Plus, a really good stylist of any race can do an excellent job on any hair texture. It’s part of their training and it’s really about technique more than identity. So I struggle with the idea that this salon is your only or best option.
I had to get that all out but I will accept the facts as you’ve presented them here—that you got an amazing haircut the likes of which you’ve never been able to get anywhere else (I understand how valuable that is!) and are having a moral dilemma about whether to go back.
I think you’re fine to return. But here’s the key: While you’re there, you need to just be a low-key white person.
What is a low-key white person? My husband and I came up with this term to describe the kind of white person we like to be friends with. Someone who obviously isn’t spewing racism, but beyond that, isn’t exhausting everyone around them trying to get attention for their non-racism. They have good politics and hate bigotry, which you know from their actions and things that come up naturally in conversation. But they’re not so insecure that they have to hit you over the head with it constantly. They’re not trying to be edgy or in on inside jokes. They’re confident enough that they’re not racist to just be normal and connect with people on topics other than race.
So, how do you behave like a low-key white person? You get your haircut, read your magazine, know that your intentions are pure, and don’t seek any validation from your stylist or fellow salon-goers. You chat about the weather and the parking situation. You refrain from making announcements about how coarse your curls are and how it traumatized you as a child so you can really understand what all the other women in the salon are going through, or how you would have voted for Obama a third time, or about how your parents are super racist and you just don’t know why but you blame Fox News because they’re really actually good people, or how much you love and appreciate Lizzo. (By the way, you can work on being low-key with respect to any marginalized identity. For example, I aspire to be a low-key straight person, by refraining from annoyingly trying to set every gay person I know up with every other gay person I know just because they’re gay. You can be a low-key able bodied person by not falling over yourself to use a condescending voice to offer help to anyone using a wheelchair, etc.).
The main thing that makes a place like this salon “one of a few safe spaces” for Black women is likely that it’s a place where they are not the recipients of microaggressions, or aren’t being used as sounding boards for self reflection on race or as dumping grounds for guilt about white privilege. They’re not forced to cater to anyone or explain anything. They’re spending time with people who see them for who they are and not “that Black lady.” If you successfully pull off low-key white person behavior, you won’t ruin any of that.
The concern that your friend (who knows you better than I do) expressed about how you might ruin the vibe of this place makes me slightly worried that you don’t have a history of being low-key. So does the small whiff of “I’m a hero for helping out this Black salon and being an amazing customer and tipping well” in your question. I don’t know, I don’t have enough to go on. But just reflect on whether you could mellow out and do more to conceal the fact that you’re preoccupied with the racial dynamics there. Finally, do a simple little investigation into whether you’re welcome by asking your stylist, “How often should I come back?” Anyone who remotely wants you to return will say: “We have to keep an eye on these ends. Let them know at the front that I’d like to see you every six weeks.”
Q. Frustrated Fiancé: I did something a bit dumb and I’m hoping you can salvage this. I wrote in asking a question about my fiancé. I didn’t put in my letter that he hadn’t gone to couples therapy. You gave some advice that was spot on and told us to go to couples therapy. I tried to use your advice to help, but he’s been pushing back against everything. I was finally fed up at night, got drunk, and showed him your response. He was outraged that I would broadcast our problems to an audience of strangers, even though I pointed out that there was no way we could be identified. He has said it was a breach of trust and he was never going to couples therapy now. He thinks it’s another way to trick him into doing what I want. I feel so bad, but I also felt like I had nowhere to turn. Was I wrong in this situation?
A: No! Don’t fall for it! He’s trying to make you the bad guy. I don’t know what you said in your original letter, but I can tell by this reaction from him that you’re not. Or, even if you were the bad guy, he is totally not willing to do the work to fix things. You were not wrong.
Q. Lonely and Loveless: I am in my early 20s and have never had anyone in my life be romantically interested in me, and it’s really starting to weigh on me. I am a lesbian that went through all of high school closeted, which I think has impacted things for me, but still. Not a single person has ever said they’ve had a crush on me, I’ve never kissed anyone, and no one has even told me there’s a rumor so-and-so has a hard crush on me. Even though I’m gay, sometimes I wish even a boy had explicitly paid attention to me at some point. It would at least prove on some level I’m capable of being seen that way. I’ve gotten some matches on dating apps but it just doesn’t feel real because they haven’t known me in person. I’m graduating college soon and it just really feels so lonely because I do want to have some sort of relationship, and I know I’m still young, but it just feels like it’ll never happen. I feel so isolated because there literally isn’t a single person I know that has had the same completely-devoid-of-romance experience. Where do I even start if everyone I know has at least kissed someone in high school? What normal person would even want to date someone without any kind of romantic experience?
A: I promise you can have a date and a kiss by this weekend if you’ll just follow through on the matches you’re getting on apps. That’s what everyone else is doing while you’re waiting for a meet-cute or something out of a romantic comedy. I also promise that being inexperienced at the end of college isn’t as weird as you think it is. Do you know any other lesbians who you could tap for matchmaking or even just going out and being your wing-woman? If you express vulnerability around this, I just know someone would love to support you in putting yourself out there—and someone else would love to date you.
Q. France and My Family: My wife is French. Her mother has a milestone birthday coming up in the fall. The entire family has been invited from every far flung corner to celebrate. My wife and I are paying for our three children and their spouses to attend. The problem is their children.
My son and daughter have both been married roughly seven years. Both of their spouses have children from previous partnerships. Our daughter-in-law has “Katie.” Katie is 24 and rarely interacts with our family. We have tried to include her—invitations to family events and gifts, but Katie showed no interest. Our daughter has been raising her stepson “Kevin” since he was two. His biological mother was erratic to say the least. In our hearts, Kevin has always been our grandson. It felt natural to include him on the trip. We didn’t think to invite Katie.
When Katie found out, she grew very upset and started a fight with her mother and our son. This was “proof” we never accepted her and she dumped a lot of emotional manipulation on her mother (Katie lost her father as a child and greatly resented when our son came into the picture during her last year of high school). Our daughter-in-law is greatly upset and wants us to apologize and include Katie on the trip. My wife is furious and firmly against this. She hasn’t seen her mother and many of her siblings in years. This trip means the world to her. She pointed out that Katie has never joined us for Christmas ever, but suddenly wants to be family and that a trip to France is on the table. I feel we need some outside perspective.
A: What bad thing would happen if you invited Katie on the trip? I guess the worst scenario is that you feel taken advantage of by a 24-year-old who’s been struggling with her blended family since high school, and she somehow gets over on you by securing a vacation without having put in the work to earn it. Honestly, who cares? You’re flying everyone and their brother to Europe, so you can clearly afford it.
The alternative is that you exclude her, which is your right, to make a point. Your relationship with your daughter-in-law will be fractured, the one you have that your son will be damaged too, and you’ll pretty much guarantee that you’ll never see Katie again. The choice seems clear to me.
Re: Q. All Curled Up: Thank you for the description of the low-key white person. I somehow know how to be that with my friends of color, but when I meet new people I want to be friends with, I definitely become more high-key. I have recognized (after, on reflection) that I was being ridiculous and not actually a good potential friend, and potentially causing some minor trauma trying to flag that I’m not one of those white people (and instead flagging that I’m one of those OTHER white people). But I haven’t really found a framework of how to be different. This really helps me, and I can apply it to some of the social situations I have recognized where I committed microaggressions in trying to show how I wasn’t going to commit microagressions. All of which is to say, I appreciate that advice for myself, and thank you.
A: Yes, the urge to be high-key can be so strong! It’s natural to want people to know that you’re a good person. What helps me when I’m hoping to be a low-key person of whatever non-marginalized identity is to to prioritize the other person in the exchange having a peaceful day, rather than focusing on being my own publicist.
Re: Q. Lonely and Loveless: I’m struck by the language of “no one has even told me there’s a rumor so-and-so has a hard crush on me.” That’s not something that happens in adult life (it would have been weird even in high school in my group). It seems as though the letter writer is attached to having a teenage dating experience, but it’s just too late for that. Mourn this alternate universe and then get back to thinking about the one you’re in. You’re getting matches on dating sites! That’s huge! Go out with people and decide how much or little to disclose once you meet someone.
A: Hmm, very good insight. Now that you mention it, adults really don’t go around whispering about who has a crush on who, do we? I agree that dating site matches mean this person is very close to the romantic experiences she wants.
Re: Q. France Feud: Katie is 24—she is an adult. She may be “struggling with her blended family” but she has been doing so her entire adult life. She hasn’t had any interest in them until an international trip comes up? C’mon Prudie, she shouldn’t get a pass for behaving badly when we never give other family members a pass when they feel entitled to others money.
A: I think there’s a big difference between Katie, who’s biggest crime is inconsistency (“rarely interacting,” for understandable reasons, and then wanting to be included in something cool) and a family member who is literally demanding money and being an asshole about it. The LW is free to not give Katie a pass and exclude her, of course. But I just really don’t think that will lead to a happier family or a better life for anyone.
Over the summer, my best friend of nine years and I shared a house in the town where we both grew up. During those few months, we started sleeping together, which was great. That also involved lots of clear communication about our expectations. We both agreed this wasn’t a long-term thing, just something fun to occupy us during the pandemic. When both of us moved back, I thought we had a clear understanding that we were going back to being just friends—but she is telling everyone that I’m her new girlfriend!