Thursday, August 1, 2013

Real Talk With Rachel: The Squirming Bystander

Dear Rachel,

When I’m back home in Louisiana, I frequently hang out with my friend and her aunt. They aren’t biologically related, but are functionally a part of the same nuclear family. After the death of my friend’s mother in high school, her "aunt" stepped in as the female figure. She’s been a huge support to my friend through many difficult times. I’ve appreciated getting to know her over the last ten years. In many ways, she’s been a mentor to me as well. She is a loyal, caring, and generally sweet person, but frequently says horribly offensive things that make me very uncomfortable. She’s also recently been diagnosed with terminal illness.

Last week, I went out to drinks with them both. My friend’s aunt got really drunk, in large part due to her distress over the illness. When we left the bar, she said some terribly racist things to some strangers, totally unprovoked. I was horrified, but I didn’t do anything. My friend was unphased. This may have been the worst time I’d witnessed this kind of behavior from her, but it certainly wasn’t the first, but I’ve also become more uncomfortable with it since leaving Louisiana.

It makes me really, really uncomfortable to witness this kind of behavior from someone I respect. I also don’t feel comfortable correcting someone who is twice my age and very sick. On the other hand, I’m not comfortable being silent. Should I stop associating myself with this person? Do I just let it slide?

To Respect a Racist?

Dear To Respect a Racist,

This woman sounds like a big part of your life, at least when you’re back in Louisiana. Is it really worth losing her friendship because you’re afraid of feeling uncomfortable when you speak your mind?

One of your concerns about this confrontation is the aunt’s age. You call her a mentor, or at least you felt that way in high school. Now, you’re older. You realize that this woman has some amazing qualities, but she is also a racist. This bothers you to the point that you’d consider cutting her out of your life entirely. She deserves to know that you’re freaked out by her behavior.

You’re not breaking some informal rule just because you haven’t said anything about this aunt’s racism in the past. There’s a famous quote from Nelson Mandela that, “There is nothing like returning to a place that remains unchanged to find the ways in which you yourself have altered.” Leaving home and moving to DC gave you a new perspective. Perhaps you notice it more when you go back to Louisiana.

But the concern over confronting someone older than you is only part of it. This terminal illness throws another wrinkle into your quandry. But a terminal illness, just like any other awful occurrence, cannot justify treating people like they are less than you. We’ve all got death sentences, but that’s no excuse for skirting around the truth.

This isn’t to say that you should confront the aunt when she’s lying on a deathbed. Context matters. If you find yourself in another social situation with the aunt and she makes a racist remark, that’s when you’ve got to speak up. Not only for yourself, but for the sake of the person on the receiving end of the aunt’s remark. They deserve to know that other people have their back. And for yourself, because when you are aware of things like racism, you have an obligation to work towards obliterating it in ways large and small.

I wonder if part of the reason you want to skip the whole confrontation” stage is because you doubt it will change anything. Does the racism you've seen in this aunt cancel out all of the good you know about her? Is it even worth that awkward moment of confrontation if she’s just an unsalvageable racist?

We all live with preconceived notions about each other. This is not an excuse for your aunt’s behavior. It’s just to say that you have the power to expand this woman’s sense of empathy. Who knows if it will stop the spew of offensive language from her mouth, or if she will just watch her tongue around you. In a way, it doesn’t even matter. It is enough that she knows you find this behavior unacceptable.

With family, we sometimes make exceptions for intolerance that we would never grant to friends. But we still need to engage with their bigotry in the hopes we can help it erode over time.

All my best,



Rachel Kurzius revels in giving advice, and has provided counsel both as a columnist and a friend. She lives in Washington DC, where she works as a news producer. Real Talk with Rachel is published on All Life is Local and the Cleveland Park Listserv,, on Wednesdays. Need advice? You can write to Rachel via or advice @

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