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So, you said something racist. Or, someone told you that you said something racist.

Or, someone you really like & admire said or did something racist, or is getting told on for saying something racist.

And now you feel uncomfortable. You feel guilty, maybe, or ashamed. Whatever it is, it’s weird and you don’t like it.

What I need you to do when this happens is stop, drop, and be quiet for a minute. You are not Racism Columbo, your job is not to interrogate the situation for whether it is actually, “objectively” racist. Your job is not to find the motive, to drill down to whether it was intended to be racist. Your job is not to revert to High School Debate Club mode and split hairs looking for plausible deniability. Your job is not to defend your fave from the racist stuff they said!

Your first job is to shut the fuck up for a second. If you have to say something, say “I’m sorry.” Then stop talking. Definitely stop typing in that little social media window. Stop. Don’t. Make. It. Worse. Honestly, if most people just stopped there, the world would start becoming a marginally better place almost instantly.

Important: Engaging with white people about race is an incredibly high-stakes and potentially exhausting activity for a person of color to take on. (Women, think of the last time you tried to sincerely engage with a sexist dude who mansplained your world to you. Did you need a drink/seventeen naps afterward? Did you feel like you’d been trapped in a horrible alternate reality with no way out? Yeah.) So if someone is willing to actually talk with you about this, chances are it is an investment having a better relationship with you, not a drive-by insult-fest or attack designed to tear you down and make you feel terrible and hate yourself. They are talking to you about it because they want you to get it and to stop doing the hurtful thing so that they can keep working with/hanging out with you. The people who hate your guts or think you’re a lost cause will just avoid you. There are worse things you could do than just listen without interrupting. 

Step 2, after that initial encounter, instead of trying to justify or excavate why whatever it is isn’t racist or isn’t “really” racist or wasn’t meant to be racist or isn’t usually racist or is racist only on Tuesdays, think about why it is or could plausibly be racist. (Think about this quietly, inside your head.) Why might someone see it that way? What context or history are you missing? How might your action look to someone who doesn’t know about your pure heart and good intentions, somebody who experiences the same “mistakes” and “slip-ups” over and over again from white people? And what are the relative stakes & consequences here if you’re wrong? The saying about misogyny goes: “Men are afraid that women will laugh at them, women are afraid that men will kill them.” Welp, white people are worried about being unfairly called racist and feeling weird about it. People of color are worried about dying (in medical situations, at the hands of police, from environmental racism, etc. etc. etc.)

The history of racism is complex enough and insidious enough that chances are:

  1. Yep, race is a factor affecting that “fun” or “simple” thing you’re discussing. That one, too.
  2.  It’s just possible that we white folks have some rill big knowledge gaps about it.
  3. Automatically discounting someone’s lived experience or point of view just because we’re momentarily uncomfortable is a crappy thing to do and we should stop it.

There are steps after that. Reading. Listening. Self-reflection. Finding ways to do the work of dismantling racism. Here is one organization that is doing work. Here is another. This one, too. (Don’t take my word for it or get distracted by whether any of these are the Perfect One. Do research and find something that works for you.)

For today, here are your steps if you should make a mistake and say or do something racist:

  1. AT MINIMUM, DON’T MAKE IT WORSE. This almost certainly means saying “I’m sorry” followed by a period of listening and quiet reflection.
  2. During that quiet time, think about what it would mean to accept, at face value, someone else’s insight on what is or might be racist. What do you lose when you say to yourself hey, wait a second, I’m the one who screwed up, so maybe I’m not the expert here?

Baby steps, friends.

 

Dear Captain Awkward,

I’ve been reading your blog for awhile and just love it! Your answers and the community here are both awesome. So thanks. My question is really tough and I’m afraid your answer is going to be “there is no actual compromise possible here.” But I’m going to try.

My husband and I were both raised as extremely religious Catholics. When we were dating (courting??) we both agreed that we wanted to have lots of kids, like a dozen, and homeschool them all. Over eight years of marriage, we’ve both changed a lot. We’re both a lot more liberal and our kids are going to public school. After the third kid, we both agreed that we no longer wanted to have any more kids. But, being Catholic, there are only two allowed solutions: NFP (natural family planning, also known as Vatican Roulette), and total abstinence. We did that for a miserable year and a half and then, predictably, got pregnant with our fourth.

I cannot describe how horrible this has all been to me. Four kids is A LOT OF KIDS, especially given that the oldest is only seven. I loathe being pregnant with the fiery heat of a thousand suns. All of them have been high needs. I haven’t slept well since 2009. My husband is exhausted too; he cried like a baby when he found out we were having the fourth and I believe he is still depressed about it four months after she was born.

And I no longer see any point to this punishingly difficult lifestyle since I am no longer Catholic. Between kid 3 and kid 4, I did a lot of studying and am now entirely agnostic. My husband was really upset by my deconversion and mostly prefers not to talk about it at all. He’s become a lot more skeptical about his faith, but he does think it’s true and it worries him to think I might be going to hell. Meanwhile I now think that birth control is definitely the greatest thing since indoor plumbing.

Our birth control method now, given that NFP so obviously does not work, is abstinence. Every couple of weeks my husband can’t stand it anymore so we have non-PIV sex. Only there is zero communication about this. I think his perspective is that, if he’s got to “sin,” at least he’s not going to make it worse by premeditating it. The problem is that it’s obvious both of us want to take it further and I know from experience how hard it is to think clearly when you’re horny. I am terrified that sooner or later we’re going to get pregnant again. I cannot, CANNOT go through pregnancy again; I get the shakes just thinking about it. Meanwhile our sex life is completely screwed up from the NFP and then the whatever-this-is we’re doing now, so that neither of us is really enjoying it that much and we both kinda feel like roommates. It sucks and the thought of doing this till menopause is awful.

I want to go on birth control. He doesn’t even want to discuss it. He told me some time ago that if I did go on birth control, he’d continue to feel obligated to never have sex again because contracepted sex is a sin. I don’t want to do something unilaterally if it truly would upset him, but on the other hand I feel like his religion will make it impossible for him ever to agree to it, even if he WERE okay with it, because that would implicate him in the “sin.” So I can’t find out how he really feels about it. And then there’s the money issue … we don’t have insurance and all the really effective birth control methods are pretty expensive. With his cooperation we could easily save up the money for it in a couple of months, but since I’m a full-time carer for the kids, I don’t have much in the way of my own separate money. And it’s not like a couple thousand dollars are sitting around in the bank right now for me to just take and use … even if I would feel okay unilaterally spending that amount of money, given that normally all major purchases have to be okayed by both of us. And I have almost no one in my life who isn’t fanatically Catholic, certainly no one I could call on to drive me home from getting my tubes tied.

What, dear Captain, would you do? Can you help me come up with a script for “seriously, we need to actually TALK about what we’re doing and your Catholic guilt and denial are not helping”? I have been quietly waiting for the past two years or so for him to come around, but he hasn’t, and I feel our disastrous fourth pregnancy is my fault for agreeing to rely on the broken fire escape that is NFP instead of going behind his back and somehow getting an IUD. Yet I still hesitate to make such a big decision unilaterally; I’m equally scared to tell him (and face his hurt feelings) or not tell him (and have a big whopping secret looming over my head). And of course there are the practical issues.

Thanks for reading my lengthy novel,

Offred (Just Kidding) (Mostly)

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Ahoy Captain!

I am a lesbian in her mid-twenties who grew up in a very religious (and homophobic) environment. In my last year of college, I began dating one of my best friends who lived in another state, and slowly began to come out to my social circle, which at that time was largely composed of friends I met at my religious college. I’ve been extraordinarily lucky and nearly all of the people I’ve told have responded well, but I still have not been able to tell any of my biological family. Her parents are both supportive of us, and paid for us to elope and have a short honeymoon in New York back in December. (Elopement has been on the table for a long time, but we wanted to make it official after the election.) They are also temporarily offering her financial support while she looks for a job here (she moved to be with me and we got an apartment last month). As far as my parents know, the trip to New York was an early Christmas present from her parents that she invited me on because we’re really close, and we’re just roommates.

Neither of my parents have any idea about either my sexuality or my relationship – I lived at home the whole time I was dating my wife, and I was very careful. My mom is the kind of person who would ask me directly if she thought I was gay (she cornered me after marriage equality passed for an hour-long “chat” about it) and my dad and I have never discussed my romantic life even when I thought I was straight. I love my parents and I’m pretty close with them, but they’re both openly homophobic, so I honestly don’t know how they’ll react when they find out about me. Part of me hopes that maybe now that I don’t live with them, it will get easier and I can be more open about my relationship, but I also know they’ll probably be at least upset that I lied to them for years. Do you have any advice about how to broach this topic with them? I’m considering breaking the news that my wife and I are in a relationship to them via email soon, but I worry that somehow they’ll find out that we’re actually married and it will upset them even further. I want to be as kind and respectful to them as I can be, but I love my wife and I won’t apologize for that, or for making choices that make me happy. Thanks, Captain.

-Almost Out of the Closet

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Hey, Captain. I’ve got a bit of a social conundrum and would appreciate any tips/scripts to help me deal with people I don’t want to talk to at all.

Short back story: My husband is a youth minister at a church. We have been living in the church parsonage rent-free for the past 8 or 9 years in exchange for monitoring the property, and him not getting a pay check. Over Christmas, the church burned down. A week later, the pastor and a deacon came to us an explained (very poorly) that due to state building codes, the church cannot be rebuilt in the original location, and the only other property the church owns for building is where the parsonage sits. They told us they would like to start removing the parsonage by March; but please don’t tell anyone about this because they hadn’t decided how to tell the church body, or even when to tell them-they seemed to think that two months is sufficient time for a single income (me) household with two children and a person who is a wheelchair user (my husband) to find a new place to live (it isn’t, we’re still looking).

Current problem: While my day job sometimes schedules me for Sundays, there are still weekends I have off, and due to not being right next to the church, if my husband is to perform his duties, I have to take them to church. Our girls also like going to church. I do not. I am feeling a lot of anger and bitterness, as well as depression, because this couldn’t have come at a worse time. Now, when I am at church, I find myself needing to act like I enjoy being around various groups of people who are a) willing to give a family a bare two months to move, and b) are exhibiting more ideological differences with each passing day (I’m sure given the current political climate, most everyone can guess why) that I find more and more difficult to deal with. I have already left off social media outside my online bookstore owner persona, but I can’t leave my husband and kids to always go to church alone-then my husband has to deal with people commenting on my having to work (it’s so dreadful) or asking where I am and if I’m okay (I’m not, but they don’t want to hear that anyway).

Any ideas/scripts how I can politely tell them to leave me alone and give me space because we are not on the same page, when I’d really love to have an epic breakdown and tell them exactly where they can all go?

Thanks bunches

Too Stressed For This
(she is fine as pronoun)

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Dear Captain–

My husband was diagnosed with lung cancer last spring. At the time, it was considered not the worst possible type of cancer and he had a 70% chance of going into remission. He chose not to tell either of his parents (who have been divorced for 45 years) or anyone else on his side of the family.

Most of the reason he made this decision is because when my husband was a plump 15 year old who wanted to lose weight, his father told him that he’d lose weight if he started smoking. And even bought his son 2 cartons of cigarettes a week until he left home at 18. My husband tried many times to quit until he finally managed to quit for good in 2006 (thank you, Chantix). When he was diagnosed with congestive heart failure and that it was probably caused by his heavy smoking habit, his father had a dramatic “OMG, OMG what have I done, what have I done” fit and it took months (not joking) of reassurance and absolution from my husband to reassure him.

My husband just doesn’t want to go through that again. He doesn’t want to tell anyone in his family because if he told anyone, word would spread to his father fairly quickly (he has two brothers who still have relationships with both parents).

What makes it more awful is that my father-in-law was physically and verbally abusive to my husband when he was a child and has never said a word about it since. Apparently, it is supposed to be as if none of the beatings, verbal putdowns, etc, ever happened. My husband says he’s given up on getting any admission from his father about just how awful he was as a father to his three young sons. Same with his mother–she witnessed all the abuse but didn’t leave his father until my husband was nearly 18.

Earlier this month, we discovered that my husband didn’t make it into remission. He now has Stage IV cancer with a distant metastasis. The median time for survival is 12 months (half the people with his diagnosis die before 12 months, half die after 12 months). The worst case scenario is 6 months and the best case scenario is 18 months.

My husband has chosen to deal with this by doing all the medical stuff (chemotherapy, labs, follow up scans, etc) and deliberately not thinking about it otherwise. I’ve invited him to talk about it and made it clear that I am willing to respect and support whatever decisions he makes. I know this sounds like denial and heck, for all I know, it may be. All I really know is that it works for him. I am respecting his choice in the matter.

My concern is for my in-laws. We are not at all close (they live over 2200 miles aways) and we’ve seen them once since my husband moved away to live with me 22 years ago. My husband is adamant: no telling. His reasoning is that there is nothing they can do, so learning about it sooner will just add that many more months they will be in pain.

I have read far too many anecdotes from people that go roughly “my beloved person hid their diagnosis of cancer until just before their death/until death and not having a chance to say good bye has increased my pain.” My husband’s retort is that if he gets run over by a bus tomorrow, they wouldn’t have time to say good bye either.

I think that he doesn’t want to endure months of “OMG, what have I done” from his father and demands to be absolved.

Part of me is horrified at the pain my husband’s family will go through without warning, etc, when he dies. Especially since it does not appear that there will be any ‘sooner or later’ because it will be ‘soon or sooner’.

Right now, I’m respecting his boundaries around telling his family. I keep wavering, though, on whether I should continue to do so. My reasoning is that my first loyalty is to my husband rather than a group of people I’ve only met twice in 22 years but some part of me keeps saying that I am being complicit in potentially increasing their pain. I feel like I am playing the part of the torturer’s assistant.

Soon to be Widow

pronouns: she/her Read More

Hello, Cap and friends! I have a couple of questions about boundary-setting with people who don’t believe in boundaries.

The Awkward team’s advice and scripts on setting boundaries have been so wonderfully helpful in my life, but what (if anything) can you say to people who believe that setting boundaries in a family is controlling?

For an example, there are wonderful scripts you linked from the SPLC center, on how to set boundaries with family members being bigoted:

>”Your ‘jokes’ are putting unnecessary distance between us; I worry they’ll end up doing irreparable harm. I want to make sure those ‘jokes’ don’t damage our relationship.” “You know that respect and tolerance are important values in my life, and, while I understand that you have a right to say what you want, I’m asking you to show a little more respect for me by not telling these ‘jokes’ when I’m around.” “I don’t want this rift to get worse, and I want us to have a good relationship. What should we do?””

In my family (parents + siblings, I’m 30), the responses are simply, “There wouldn’t be a problem if you just laughed” and “You’re trying to control what I do by saying that. It’s manipulative to say that I’m disrespecting you if I keep saying [awful insults about minority groups, or about me personally].” I mean, in a way they are kind of right? I am literally attempting to control discourse to a degree, but somehow that feels like they are missing the forest for the trees in a way I can’t articulate. Especially since they get offended if you don’t laugh at their ‘jokes!’

Is there any way to rationally respond to people that think that attempting to set boundaries (or tears at being insulted) is “childish and manipulative”? They see that as a truly deeply harmful thing, and it would be really wonderful if it was possible to get them to understand the idea of **mutual** respect.

Thank you so very much for ANY ideas.

– A Weary Woman

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