What Do I Do When My White Privilege Is Showing?

I have a fairly diverse friends group and it’s important to me that my son (who’s four) grow up accepting of all races and creeds. However, I’m having an issue with my neighbors that I’m afraid my son may interpret as racially motivated.

Two nights ago there was an issue with my neighbors down the street. The boyfriend was in the street yelling at his girlfriend, shoving her, cornering her against their car and getting in her face. I, stupidly, didn’t call the police but instead went outside and asked them to keep it down. I was trying to check on the girlfriend but they both turned on me and started yelling things like ‘cracker’ at me. (Needless to say, I’m white). The woman also made several derogatory comments about my son and how much noise he makes in the morning before school. My son wasn’t home at the time, thankfully, and I hightailed it back into the house. They drove away before I could call the cops.

This weekend my son and I were playing on the front lawn and they both came out of their house. After the incident in the street I don’t feel comfortable with them around my son, so I grabbed him and took him to the backyard. When he asked why I told him it was because the male was a ‘bad guy.’ But I’m really worried that my son may read into my neighbor being a bad guy because he’s black, not because he was treating his girlfriend poorly. And I also don’t know how much of a discussion I want to get into on domestic violence with a four year old. So, any advice on how to handle this in an age appropriate and hopefully non-racist manner?

Thanks,

trying-to-do-the-right-thing-but-yup-i’m-a-white-liberal

Dear Anxious White Lady:

Ohhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhh dear.

First, I’ll answer your question straightforwardly: nothing you did or said in front of your son had anything to do with race. I think I have an idea of why you were worried it might, which I’ll get into later, but you did not teach your son bigotry. If your son is meeting plenty of other black folks in his day-to-day dealings (and it sounds like he is), he will not think that your desire to avoid a neighbor has to do with race. If you take nothing else away from my letter, please take this: you had the word ‘cracker’ ringing in your mind the next time you saw your neighbors, but your son didn’t. You are fine on that score.

(I do encourage you to consider talking to your kid in an age-appropriate way about WHY someone is a ‘bad guy;’ saying: ‘he hit his girlfriend’ is something kids understand — they hit each other all the damn time and they know it’s wrong. The more specific you are with a child about why you are avoiding someone, the less likely they are to leap to conclusions, race-based or otherwise.)

Here’s why I think you are worried that you did something racist: because in the earlier confrontation you had, they brought up race, and you probably had no idea why they called you a ‘cracker,’ and you worried that maybe your unconscious bias was showing somehow.

It wasn’t.

But (and it pains me to tell someone so worried about being conscientious like you are) your white privilege was.

Please understand that I am saying this as a white person myself, who has had similar interactions: I felt like the other person brought up race out of the blue, and sometimes they did, but most of the time I had, in fact, unwittingly tripped a trigger.

I am guessing that you, like me, haven’t had to think much about the fact that there is a long history of white folks telling black people to pipe down in all kinds of ways. When a white person tells a black person to be quiet(er), we have have a loud chorus of invisible-to-us white racists standing behind us, adding: ‘you people’ are too loud. Uppity.

All of this is unrelated to you, of course, but they were in a horrible, stressful, upsetting moment in their lives, and they looked up, and there was some white lady telling them to ‘keep it down.’

I could be wrong, but I think that’s the reason they brought up your son’s morning noise: they hadn’t told the white boy to keep it down.

Because privilege has a way of slapping blinders on us, we find ourselves stumbling upon moments like this many times in our lives. We can either decide to learn from them and move on, or we can anxiously bash ourselves over it.

I think learning from these moments is better for ourselves and for fighting racism.

This letter originally appeared in bitterempire.com on September 24, 2015.

Am I Just An Irredeemable Spinster At Heart?

I am a 42 year old single woman. I have been struggling my whole adult life between solitude and the intimacy of a romantic relationship. I cherish closeness with people above all else, and derive much pleasure from my friendships and family. Sometimes I don’t feel human without the added intimacy that a sexual or romantic relationship brings to me as a person, and I know I have learned and grown in vitally important ways through my romantic affiliations.

However, even if I am with someone who I really like, and in what I feel is a good relationship, I slowly but surely become unhappy. And then sabotage the relationship to retrieve my independence.

At this point, shorter, “for fun” relationships aren’t interesting to me.  I am only interested in being alone, or being in a deep, meaningful, and longer-term relationship.

Am I just an irredeemable spinster at heart, and need to accept it, or are there ways I could strictly maintain my independence while still being dependent on another person?

Even though I am aware I need this independence, when I start dating someone I even mildly like, I tend to lose all reason and just kind of dive in and become very emotionally absorbed.

Help,

Sinning Spinster

Dear Sinning Spinster:

I so want to answer your questions.

And I will. I will try. I imagine that I’ll say something like: recognizing patterns you cannot seem to change even while watching yourself enact them seems like something that you should work on with a qualified therapist, and: don’t think of it as independence vs. dependence but instead interdependence.

But a few phrases you wrote keep leaping out at me that I need to address, first. And before I address them, I want to point out the state of the modern, American world as it is now — when you wrote these worrying phrases.

In our modern, American world those who dare to remain uncoupled in their middle age receive constant and intrusive queries as to the state of their dating life because people who have thoughtlessly coupled-up themselves literally have no idea what else to ask them.

In our modern, American world it is in insult to call someone a 40-year-old virgin, it is a shocking thing to go out to eat alone; it is unheard-of to go on vacation just because you wanna, all by yourself.

In our modern, American world everything is sold in pairs: a trip for two. Cell phone plans. Recipes. Tickets. You name it.

In our modern, American world inheritance, legal and financial choices, health care, credit, child custody, and even life-and-death decisions are hugely controlled by marriage.

The combination of stigma against single people and the assumption of coupledom, with the very real legal and financial ramifications of marriage, create a pressure to mate ‘for life’ so strong that it presses down on our eyeballs and warps our vision. It distorts our ability to see each other and our relationships for what they really are — or could be.

In this modern, American world, you wrote the following phrases:

“Sometimes I don’t feel human without the added intimacy of a romantic relationship,” and “I am only interested in being alone, or being in a deep, meaningful, and longer-term relationship.”

I realize this is just a letter and no one words things perfectly, but these phrases, together, point to a huge problem that your letter doesn’t even ask about: the fact that you, like pretty much every damn person in our culture, are completely unrealistic in your expectations for romance and in your ideas about what it means.

Now, popular opinion states that despite all of the pressures to couple I outline above and many, many more you should ALSO somehow be perfectly happy without a partner and nearly indifferent to whether or not you have one; you should be self-actualized, enormously delighted to stay at home polishing your elbows and reading above all else, and brimful of joy and self confidence — before you can even contemplate a romance. Romance should enhance your already perfect life! Columnists, women’s magazines, and self-help books crow. Take it or leave it! You should be JUST FINE without one!

I do not agree with this; it seems perfectly acceptable to crave companionship when you don’t have it. It seems perfectly fine to just be plain lonely and cranky if you have to stay home alone on a Saturday night (or if you force yourself to go out with friends when you’d rather be at home having sex with someone awesome).

But you said that you don’t feel human without this.

Think about what you are laying on this other person and on this relationship if you truly believe what you wrote: this person is responsible for making you feel like a human being.

That is a tall, tall order. And if you know you will not feel human if and when the relationship ends, of course you suddenly become incredibly emotionally absorbed. And of course you become anxious about it ending, and perhaps hasten its end with the anxiety. Your humanity is at stake!

There is no reason why you should not think your humanity is at stake; every single place you turn, someone is telling you that you really are only part of a person without your ‘better half.’

But I am asking you to resist this idea.

Another idea that I’d like you to resist: that you are only interested in “being in a deep, meaningful, and longer-term relationship.”

How is this to happen, if you are completely closed off from anything shorter or ‘for fun?’ What are deep, meaningful, and longer-term relationships if not ‘fun’ that just kept being fun, so you decided to keep the fun going? How are you to enjoy short-term, fun relationships (and some of them actually can be very meaningful) if you try to force them to be something they aren’t? All of this is an awful catch-22 for pretty much any relationship of any sort: long-term, short-term, fun, deep, shallow, quirky, surprising.

Do you have such strict prerequisites and expectations for platonic friendships? Or do you let your friendships slowly grow and blossom, fade and spring up again, become deeper through mutual admiration and time spent, or remain as warm acquaintanceships without going deeper? I’m going to guess, since you say you get enormous pleasure from your friendships, that you do allow platonic friendships a little more breathing room, a little less definition, a little more time and maybe a bit less attention.

You are not alone in your expectations, of course. Dating sites are full of people ONLY looking for committed relationships (or ONLY for sex; those are equally prescribed and probably equally doomed). So many people I know are so sure they know what the shape of their romantic relationships will be that they are unable to entertain the idea of any other shape they might come in.

If you feel inhuman as a single middle-aged woman, and you think that there is only one shape of relationship that will fit you, it’s because the entire damn world has told you that the only life worth living is that of a married person. Asking you to shrug off centuries of conditioning might be cruel of me.

But that’s what I’m asking you to do.

Well, maybe not shrug. Mightily fight and push and tear and yank at that horrible mantle of self-hating shit until you get it the fuck off of you. (Yes, probably with the help of a qualified therapist. Preferably one who is not hung up on finding The One.)

And then, after you’ve told those centuries of conditioning to go fuck themselves, you can take a look at whomever you’d like to get closer to as an already fully human person, who is curious about what it might be like to get to know this other already fully human other person, and maybe to have sex with them and see how great that could be, and if it’s fun, or also deep and meaningful, and if you want that person to stick around for a while.

And then maybe take it from there.

This letter originally appeared in bitterempire.com on September 10, 2015.

What Do I Owe A Former Friend?

I need advice on an awkward situation. I’m female, recovering alcoholic for 20+ years, married with two kids, grew up in a small, conservative middle America town, and currently live in a mid-sized liberal middle-America city.

A few years ago, in my hometown at a class reunion event, a friend and former drinking buddy from high school proclaimed loudly and drunkenly that he was divorced and moving to my state, and that he was very excited for us to be friends again. In the years since high school, we’d attended each others’ weddings and traded holiday and birth announcement cards, but had otherwise fallen out of touch. I told him to email me after he moved and we could have lunch.

At that lunch, two things became clear. He was not a well person, and we had little in common. I spend a lot of my time reading, writing, biking and cooking. He couldn’t remember the last book he’d read, didn’t own a bike, and was picking at the food on his plate as it was too exotic. He lived in a sterile suburb; I lived in the city. He told me his divorce had been difficult, his children lived far away and he rarely saw them, he didn’t enjoy his demanding job, he had PTSD, anxiety, and depression after being caught in an earthquake years ago and was on meds for these, and had met no one since moving to the state.

My immediate response was to empathize as well as I could—I’ve been through treatment, was seeing a therapist, and am on meds myself for anxiety and depression. I suggested he get a therapist and a bike, and invited him to join my book group. I told him about a friend who’d had good results with a newer treatment for PTSD and did he want me to look into it?

Over the years he lived here, he did none of these things. Every couple months, usually at the prompting of my guilty conscience about someone I knew who lived here but was lonely and alone, I’d arrange to meet for lunch or coffee, or invite him to dinner with my family. It was always perfectly nice, but rather awkward. We’d talk about our kids. Over time he seemed more upbeat, but usually commented that he had no life and no friends outside of work. He’d say it was great to see me and give me an enthusiastic hug, and I’d feel guilty and relieved when it was over.

He recently got laid off, and is moving in with his sister’s family till he gets a new job. I said that all sounded like a difficult transition, and how was he doing with anxiety, and had he seen a therapist. He said he was doing fine with it all. He claims there are no jobs in the city his kids live in.

I can’t get a handle on this guy. He seems to want help, but when I offer advice, he insists he’s fine or ignores it. What I’d like to do is tell him to get a spine, take a job near his kids, and quit moping around. But I feel like being that honest with a depressed person with PTSD might make the problem worse.

My question is: what responsibility did or do I have to this former friend, the one who seemed to want to hang out with me, but then when we did it was stilted and weird, at least for me? Is it no longer my business, and should I just be grateful he’s moving and this weird interlude is over? Should I have been more honest with him about how I don’t feel we have much in common for a friendship, or how he seems to be avoiding life in general? 

Family and friends have told me I’ve done more than most would with this guy.But I have lingering guilt over it, feeling like I could have done more, been a better friend to a guy who didn’t know anyone in this area. Is that my problem? Is there anything to say to this guy other than goodbye and good luck?

Guilty Over Former Friend

Dear Guilty:

Wave goodbye with a small sigh of relief. No, you can’t make things worse by being honest with someone with depression and PTSD, but why waste your breath? Screw him; he’s a shitty dad and a boring guy completely uninterested in any introspection and just wants to alternate being a workaholic with being a sponge or whatever.

The end. You’re welcome.

Now. Let’s talk about guilt.

You seem to have helped yourself to an extra-large slice from that pie. Or, more likely, someone piled it on your plate without asking you if you had room for dessert.

I don’t know if it’s religion, small-town loyalty, the grinding insistent conditioning women receive that we are supposed to Fix All The Peoples Especially the Helpless Menfolk, or what — but you have an overactive guilty bone.

Let me re-state what you’ve said here:

  1. You are a recovering alcoholic, and a former drinking buddy (who is still drinking) wants some of your time and energy. Despite the fact that most recovering alcoholics I know avoid former drinking buddies, you feel his desire to know you = your obligation to spend time with him.
  2. He indicated enthusiasm in being your friend again more than a year ago, which was somehow a summons for you to be the one to reach out consistently to invite him over for dinner and/or coffee. Sounds to me like you were the one to arrange this, every time.
  3. You have absolutely nothing in common with him. He is boring, negative, and self-pitying. But you feel that you owe him friendship.
  4. He is making bad choices and is pretending he wants to get help but clearly doesn’t, but you feel like you owe him honesty when he can’t even be honest with himself.

Do you see how ridiculous all of this is? This is ridiculous.

Guilt is usually a reaction to having done something wrong, or failing to do something right.

You went through the motions. Too many motions, if you ask me. He refused to take you up on a single thing except a few dinners. You did nothing wrong, nor did you fail to do something right.

So my question for you is: what am I missing? Did you kill his cat? Did you sleep with his girlfriend?

I am not from a small town and I’m not going to pretend that I can fully understand it, but it sounds like you have moved into an entirely different world from the one that shaped you, and that you are far, far happier for it.But you, like so many survivors before you, feel somehow unworthy, guilty, or bad for having achieved a happy life when others you knew weren’t so lucky. (Or hardworking, or smart, or bold, or whatever other attributes you have to have gotten to where you are.)

I think you said you have a working relationship with a therapist? I think you should talk with this person about survivor’s guilt: you’ve got it, and you’ve got a WHOLE HEAPING PILE OF IT, and I think determining where it comes from not only in relationship to him but also in relationship to yourself and the pattern of your life might make you feel a better understanding of what happened here, beyond this guy just low-level using you and emotionally draining you. I think there’s something there. Considering how you appear to have tackled other issues in your life, I have high hopes you’re going to figure it out, and feel less weird about this whole episode — and be less ripe for the next user who comes along.

This letter originally appeared in bitterempire.com on September 3, 2015.