Help! My White Boyfriend Just Used the N-Word.

Advice on manners and morals.
Jan. 3 2013 6:15 AM

Say What?

My white boyfriend just called someone the N-word.

Emily Yoffe.
Emily Yoffe

Photograph by Teresa Castracane.

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Dear Prudence,
My boyfriend and I have been dating for six months but have known each other for more than two years. I am black and he is white. This has never been a problem and our parents, families, and friends are fully supportive of our relationship. Amazingly, we have had precious few arguments or problems. Until now. In a moment of extreme frustration, my boyfriend used the "N-word" in reference to one of my friends. We were alone so no one else heard the comment. I was stunned, shocked, and appalled. I immediately left the room because I was so disturbed. It is a word that neither I nor my family or friends use in any sort of context because I have been raised to view it as incredibly offensive. He came to me and apologized profusely and had tears in his eyes while doing so. I accepted his apology because it was completely out of character for him, but I am now questioning our relationship. What do you think?

—Unspeakable

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Dear Unspeakable,
I agree that what your boyfriend did is a gross violation. This word is so verboten that it's hard to imagine a decent person using it, particularly a white one, in the angry circumstances you describe. (Even if your boyfriend had been discussing the dialogue in Django Unchained, he should have stuck with saying "the N-word." Nor was this an instance of the insider banter that some black people use with each other—because for one thing he's white—and which you've pointed out is not acceptable among your friends and family.) Of course you were shaken and are questioning the relationship. However, you didn’t end it at that moment, which some people might have. It’s significant that you’ve known your boyfriend for two years, you’ve been happy together for six months, and you find this lapse to be totally out of character. He apologized and you accepted. But that quick dismissal wasn’t enough. You don’t want to be in a relationship in which your partner is on a kind of secret probation, so you need to reraise this with him. Tell him you were stunned by what he said and you two need to talk more thoroughly about his outburst. Then let him speak. He likely has no real explanation beyond the fact that people sometimes have lapses and do the inexplicable. But he has to be able to acknowledge the depth of his transgression and understand why it’s caused you to question your relationship. Judge the sincerity of what he has to say and tell him you need to think through how you feel. Then if you decide you do want to go on, it will be a test of how you feel if you can say, and mean, that you fully accept his apology. 

—Prudie

Dear Prudence: Doubling the Pleasure

Dear Prudie,
I had coffee with an old friend who had lost his previous job and was recently hired by a nonprofit that is supposed to help at-risk women. The organization receives a significant amount of government funds to conduct research on the statistics for sexually transmitted diseases including HIV—information that is to be used for disease tracking and prevention. However, he confessed to me that he suspects the family that runs this nonprofit has been embezzling funds for their own personal use. When it comes time to submit reports, they all contribute falsified surveys. I encouraged him to find another job, then report them, but I doubt he will because he desperately needs the job. I also personally have no proof of what is going on other than his confession. But I feel horrible knowing that this nonprofit is committing fraud with funds that could be used instead by people who actually do good work. What should I do?

—Unwilling Whistle-Blower

Dear Unwilling,
I agree this organization needs a whistle-blower, but before you do anything, tell your friend you think the person to report this flagrant fraud should be him. You can add that working for criminals means his job is insecure, and if the government eventually catches up to what’s going on, he does not want to find himself implicated. I spoke to Philip Gordon, a Massachusetts employment-law attorney, and he said your friend should have a consultation with a lawyer specializing in employment law because if he decides to reveal what he knows, he will want to do so in a way that protects him under whistle-blowing statutes. It’s even possible that under a type of lawsuit known as a qui tam action, your friend could get a payment from the government for bringing these violations to its attention. If your friend won’t act, tell him that you feel it’s your obligation to alert the authorities (without naming your friend) to what is going on. You can inform the appropriate division of your state’s attorney general’s office that this nonprofit is possibly defrauding the government—you can do so anonymously if you prefer. Or you yourself might want to check in with an attorney about how to move forward, because if the government wants to reward private citizens for acting as deputies, you might as well get in line for a check.

—Prudie

Dear Prudence,
My husband and I are currently arguing about our sleeping arrangements with the dog. My husband has had his dog for over 11 years. He is a sweet dog and I love him dearly. The dog has slept in the bedroom with us since we’ve been together, which was fine with me. The dog was recently diagnosed with cancer in his nose. It is fast growing and causes him to snort and wheeze all night. I have started sleeping in another room. This upsets my husband because he wants us to be together, but he refuses to sleep away from the dog. I need to sleep. Neither of us will budge. Am I being insensitive about the dog? Is it too much to want to sleep with my husband only if the dog doesn’t keep me up all night?

—Rover Roll Over

Dear Rover,
I can certainly see myself potentially facing this dilemma. Our Cavalier King Charles spaniel (yes, I know it’s a ridiculous name for a dog breed) not only sleeps on the bed, she’s in the bed, under the covers, keeping me and my husband one small dog’s length apart. We could be tougher and make her sleep on her own, but that would end up being a great way to listen to her having nightly nervous breakdowns. It’s sad that your beloved pooch is so sick, but it makes no sense for two humans to suffer through this each night just for the sake of both of you being sleep-deprived zombies together. First of all, your husband should check with the vet to see if there’s something that can make the dog more comfortable and his sleep quieter. If not, then since the dog’s relationship with your husband predates yours, I think that obligates him to play nursemaid, and it sounds as if he wants to. Tell your husband you admire his dedication to the dog and you miss them both each night, but you simply need to forgo your usual connubial bliss until your dog’s suffering comes to an end.

—Prudie

Dear Prudence,
Recently I received two separate announcements letting me know that I’m not invited to the wedding of a friend. Both of these came out of the blue; I had not precipitated them by asking if I was going to get an invitation. Apparently, it’s a trend for brides and grooms to tell people who didn’t make the cut that they aren’t going to witness the special day. (Google "How to tell someone you're not inviting them to your wedding.") I have no idea how to respond. It seems churlish to say that I’m relieved, but it’s also awkward to admit my feelings were hurt. Please help.

—A Perplexed Nonwedding Guest

Dear Perplexed,
I dearly hope that there is wide agreement that one thing brides and grooms can strike from their to-do list is the sending of “Don’t Save the Date” cards. I used your search terms and came upon this gem, in which it is suggested that the bride gets together with the uninvited specifically to break the unfortunate news. This blow is supposed to be softened by allowing the nearest but clearly not dearest to help the bride choose the dress, shoes, or cake. Oh, what joy to schlep around to help plan an event from which you’ve been excluded! It used to be understood, and I assume largely still is, that a lack of wedding invitation was conclusive evidence of not being invited. People old enough to receive a wedding invitation are supposed to be mature enough to understand that not everyone can be asked to such occasions and accept this with good grace. (I know from friends who’ve planned weddings, however, that this is not always the case.) Maybe the idea you’re supposed to let people know they’re not coming is a function of social media. Because if you don’t, and then post every detail of the big event on your newsfeed, you're going to create a whole class of friends who wait for each day’s mail with increasing bitterness. (Which might be a good reason for considering just how much nuptial news you need to post in the first place, rather than sending a mass "you're not coming" email.) Still, there may be a category of truly close friends who would normally expect an invitation but who should be told that because of severe constraints it won’t be forthcoming. Yet in cases such as yours when the noninvite is baffling, you can respond with silence or with a brief, gracious note wishing your friend all the best on the big day.

—Prudie

More Dear Prudence Columns

Sins of the Father: I think my dad has a secret love child. Should I confront him?” Posted Nov. 10, 2011.
 “The Monotony of Monogamy: I married my first sexual partner, and now I’m itching to cheat.” Posted Nov. 3, 2011.
 “Indecent Proposal: My colleagues are framing our boss for harassment. Should I expose their evil plot?” Posted Oct. 27, 2011.
Bye-Bye Baby: My sister is making a huge mistake by placing her child for adoption.” Posted Oct. 20, 2011.

More Dear Prudence Chat Transcripts

Morbid Memento?: Dear Prudence advises a woman whose fiance is too attached to his dead sister-in-law—during a live chat at Washingtonpost.com.” Posted Nov. 14, 2011.
 “Sniffing Out Trouble: Dear Prudence advises a woman who caught her fiance's dad in a sleazy act—in a live chat at Washingtonpost.com.” Posted Nov. 7, 2011.
 “Halloween Hangover: Dear Prudence advises a dad whose buddies hit the bottle too hard on the trick-or-treat trail—in a live chat at Washingtonpost.com.” Posted Oct. 31, 2011.
Sleeping With the Frenemy: Dear Prudence offers advice on confessing to an affair with a BFF's husband—during a live chat at Washingtonpost.com.” Posted Oct. 24, 2011.

Emily Yoffe is a regular Slate contributor. She writes the Dear Prudence column. 

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