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I live with 20 people, mostly white, who wanted to have a house discussion on racism. We planned general discussion questions (“How do you identify? What does equality mean to you? What do you think racism is?”). The group that came to discuss was nearly all white, with a notable exception: a visitor (who was a person of color) had seen a flier about the discussion, asked if she could come back to the house for the event, and was told she could. When the group was told about this invitation, they decided to send her away. The reason: “It was a discussion intended for the house only, and at least one member would feel less safe with a stranger present.” I just can’t understand this perspective. I know that allowing a person of color in wouldn’t be a panacea that would erase the fact that, as a white person, I’m always part of the group with the power to send people away, but I feel sick about this exclusion. Is it possible I’m overreacting? Can you think of something that makes it OK to be a group of white people talking about race and sending a person of color away in order to feel “safe”? A white visitor would also have been sent away, and I wouldn’t have been happy with that, but that doesn’t feel quite as gross.
Oh, boy, what a mess. I have so many questions: Why create a flier for a private, roommates-only meeting? Why did your roommates think having a nonwhite person in the room during this conversation about racism would make any of them “less safe,” simply because she did not live there on a permanent basis? Why was the “members-only” policy so inconsistently communicated that one roommate thought it would be appropriate to let a houseguest sit in on the conversation, while others were ready to employ a bouncer at the door? Which one of you picked the question “What do you think racism is?” and do you think he or she realized the irony when he or she asked a woman of color to leave a conversation about racism because she made the predominantly-white group feel “unsafe”? (I can’t get unstuck from the “safety” issue; I cannot fathom how letting someone who didn’t live with you participate in an introductory-level conversation on racism could possibly impact anyone’s safety.) While there’s nothing wrong with wanting to have a housemates-only conversation, turning her away (especially in the name of “safety”) was awfully rude and unnecessary. This was badly handled from start to finish. One of you ought to offer this woman an apology on behalf of the group, and you all need to decide a more consistent guest policy for future household chats.
* * *
Recently I unexpectedly inherited a rather large sum of money, and I want to pay some of it forward. I have a niece who is smart, hard-working, and driven—unlike her brothers. I would like to help her out with her tuition when she graduates high school. My problem is that if I offer directly I know it will cause a ruckus. My sister is a grasping, greedy woman—she has begged money from me for years to pay bills, only to turn around and spend it on herself. My nephews are either in jail or mooching off the rest of the family. I have tried to help them in the past. I got one nephew a job at the company I work for, but he never bothered to show up. I have bought groceries for them, only for my sister to return them for cash. If I tell my niece or anyone about the money, it will get back to my sister and she will manipulate my niece right out of her tuition. I don’t want to put my niece in that position. Should I lie and tell her it is a private scholarship or contact the university directly? I would like to help her the way my teacher helped me, but I have learned the hard way that if you mention money to my sister, she is immediately thinking of a way to scam it out of your hand. Please advise.
I commend you for both your generosity and your cunning. If you know the college your niece will be attending, you can contact the financial aid office directly; most schools allow you to donate anonymously to a specific student, and this may be the easiest way to circumvent your sister. If you’re not sure where she’s going, or if the school your niece is matriculating to doesn’t allow you to make a donation directly on her behalf, you might consult with an estate and trust-planning lawyer, who could help you set up a private scholarship fund that would benefit your niece while ensuring her mother couldn’t get her hands on any of the money (your name wouldn’t be on the checks, and you’d still get a tax write-off). I think you’re right to try to keep this information private; it would be asking too much to require your niece to keep a massive secret from her mother and her siblings, and the last thing you want is a family blowup over your secret generosity.
* * *
My relationship with my girlfriend is breaking down. We both acknowledge this and are starting to talk about living apart. The one thing we disagree on is the custody of our dog. For most of his life, I’ve been his main caretaker: food and vet bills, walks, daily care. I work from home, and I’m a homebody. My girlfriend works in an office, travels regularly for business, and is involved in a lot of social events. I think I should keep the dog with me when I move. I don’t object to her picking him up for weekends and days she can actually take care of him. She disagrees. Her suggestion is that I come over to her place to walk him during the day (it’s highly likely we’ll live in the same general area)—I think that’s preposterous. Or am I the one who’s preposterous?
I think you should keep the dog and that your ex-girlfriend’s suggestion that she get custody of the dog while you continue to do all the work for her is ridiculous. Commuting to an ex’s apartment on a daily basis is an absurd condition. Imagine how frustrated you’ll be a year from now having to coordinate dog custody. That said, you didn’t need me to tell you this. I think you were only seeking backup to help make your case and to figure out how far you should be willing to fight her on this. You have a reasonable argument to make: You have more time to devote to the dog’s care, work from home and can spend most of the day with him, have historically paid for his daily upkeep, and are open to reasonable visitation from her. Your ex has no reasonable counterargument; she merely wants to have him. Ask her to put aside her feelings for the moment and consider the dog’s best interests—if she were presented with two different candidates to give the dog to, without knowing either person, would she choose the frequent traveler who’s rarely at home, or the person better positioned to give your dog lots of attention and affection?
* * *
My boyfriend of four years and I are planning to move across the country later this year, he to start graduate school and I to start a new job. We’ve never lived together, and to save money we’ve been living with our respective families. We’ve been planning this move for a long time, we’re committed to each other, and frankly we’re just ready to live together. The problem is my very conservative parents, whom I love. They don’t approve of couples living together before they are married and have gone so far as to say that their children would never do such a thing. My boyfriend and I certainly plan on getting married eventually, but we’re going to live together first. What sort of explanation do I owe my parents here? I’ll be a financially independent adult, and I know I’m free to make my own decisions, but I don’t want to create unnecessary conflict with my family or burn any bridges. I tend to retreat from conflict entirely with my family because it’s always been easier, and part of me wishes I could just not tell them anything at all, but I know I can’t avoid this forever. How can I ease my family into this?
This information falls under the category of necessary conflict, I think, because the odds that you’ll be able to keep your new living arrangements a secret from your family indefinitely are pretty slim. If you have a history of keeping your real feelings from your family in order to avoid disagreement, this news might come as a big shock to them, so be prepared for the fallout from your initial conversation. You don’t have to treat this as a massive revelation, so just be upfront in the course of discussing your move, something like: “I’m really looking forward to getting settled into our new place with Jembert.” You might want to wait until you have all your stuff packed and ready to go in order to avoid an incredibly tense moving-out period. You even have my permission to wait until you’re on the road and talking over the phone, if you’re really worried about their reaction. But you do have to tell them; it’s time for you to be honest with your parents about the broad strokes of your new, financially independent adult life. As for “easing them into it”—you don’t have to justify the incredibly common practice of cohabitation just because your parents are old-fashioned, and you’re not responsible for convincing them that you’ve made the right decision. They know and presumably like your boyfriend, and the two of you are committed and happy together, so stick to the facts: You love him, you plan on building a life together, and you’re happy with your choice.
* * *
I recently moved into an apartment complex with thin walls. The one neighbor I share a wall with has been very respectful and quiet. The problem is actually me. I am prone to night terrors, and about every two or three months I wake up in the middle of the night, pacing, yelling, and crying. It’s hard to say exactly what causes them, but I try to eat healthy and maintain my stress levels, which seems to minimize the frequency of these episodes. However, I am in a doctoral program, which means I can’t always avoid stress, and I’m pretty sure my most recent episode, where I awoke loudly sobbing in my living room probably woke my neighbor also. Do I owe it to my neighbor, whom I’ve only said “hello” to by the mailboxes a few times, to provide an explanation of why I sometimes wake them up with what probably sounds like a murder scene? Or do I just go on with my life and wait for them to approach me if anything weirds them out? I feel like it’s just too odd a situation to expect them to ever ask me about it, which would just label me as the residential lunatic. What should I do about this?
—Night Terror-ble Neighbor
I think you can tell your neighbors: They’ll be grateful to know that everything’s (mostly) all right, that they don’t have to worry you’re being hurt, and that these nights will generally be few and far between. Better to warn them and have a potentially slightly awkward conversation now than find they’ve called your landlord (or worse, 911) in the middle of the night. The next time you meet at the mailbox, just say, “By the way, I have occasional night terrors, so if you ever hear me sounding upset late at night, please don’t worry; they don’t happen very often, and I’m doing my best to keep them under control, but since the walls are thin, I’d hate to think of your overhearing me and worrying if I’m all right.”
* * *
I live in a small apartment. Last week I went on vacation, and my mother kindly came by to water my plants. After my return she told me she was shocked to see my apartment, that I was a slob and wondered how could I live like that. She wondered what she did wrong with my upbringing and asked why I don’t do any chores. I don’t agree with her. The floor was clean, the kitchen was clean, and there weren’t any dirty dishes or dirty clothes lying around. I have some paper stacks on my desk and some bags of stuff I want to discard, and the house was a bit dusty, but does this make me a slob? Not one of my friends has ever said something to me, and when I visit other people, their apartments look either the same or worse. I think my mother is something of a cleaning maniac. It made me angry to hear her talk like that, and I told her that I hear her but it is my apartment and I have to live here. My question is: Do I need to be more ambitious toward chores, or is a little clutter acceptable? Is there some etiquette on cleaning I missed?
—Not a Slob
Get someone else to water your plants. Your house is fine, your mother doesn’t have to like it, you can tell her you appreciate your concern but that you’re happy with things the way they are, and find someone who can stop by your place once in a while when you’re out of town to water some ferns without having to question his or her entire life’s purpose.
More Dear Prudence Columns
“To B-Cup or Not to B-Cup: My college-bound daughter is ashamed of her small breasts. Should I offer to pay for a boob job?”
“A Rough Go: I can’t get over my wife’s sordid sexual past.”
“Next!: How does a newly divorced man play the field without being a cad?”
“Bloody Relations: My father was murdered when I was a child. Then I found out my uncle may have been the killer.”
More Dear Prudence Chat Transcripts
“Clean Break: Prudie advises a woman worried that her brother being the office janitor might hurt her career.”
“A Village of One: Prudie counsels a letter writer committed to raising a deceased friend’s kids despite the challenges.”
“He Said/She Said: Prudie advises a letter writer not sure how to converse with a male neighbor whenever he dresses as a woman.”
“Show and Tell: Prudie counsels a letter writer who “played doctor” as a kid, but whose fiancée thinks it was abuse.”