October 19, 2017
While I was waiting to check out at the market, an older white woman in front of me turned to the black man behind me and said, “You look just like a young Gandhi. Has anyone told you that?” He said no. “Well, you do,” she said. “It’s wonderful!” When she resumed her place, he said, “That’s a new one.” He seemed dismayed. Clearly, this was not the first time a white person told him he looked like a famous person of color. I didn’t want to make his shopping any worse by confronting her, so I said nothing. Was I right?
So many layers here! I wouldn’t have said anything to the older woman, either. You were all strangers. And it’s a pretty big assumption that she had fallen into an ugly “you all look the same to me” racist stereotype. (Not that she hadn’t just because she was pleasant.) There’s also no telling how she may have reacted to a comment from you. When it comes to confrontations with strangers, I subscribe largely to the Dionne Warwick model: “Walk On By.”
But if the man was upset, you missed an opportunity. The older lady was in front, so presumably she left the store before you. After she exited, you might have said: “I’m sorry if she hurt your feelings with that Gandhi comment.” Then let the man respond, and take his lead. (Kindness to strangers is a clear exception to the Dionne Warwick rule.)
Yet even absent any racial overlay, it’s a bad idea to comment on strangers’ looks or tell them whom they resemble. There are a million ways to be nice to people without objectifying them. And they may not care for the likeness you see.
New Beau, New Bills
My husband and I are public interest lawyers. We own our home and paid for our daughter’s college education. We’re starting to have a decent nest egg for our retirement. Our daughter has begun a new relationship with a smart young man who could not afford to attend college. He recently had health problems, and now has medical bills he can’t pay. He and our daughter both earn $15 an hour, but he has no family to call on for help. Our daughter has asked us to pay off his bills. Should we?
My, what an entitled daughter you’ve raised! If she’s so worried about her new beau’s medical bills, perhaps she should work some extra shifts to help pay them off. Your charitable giving is your business, and not for me (or your daughter) to dictate. Still, I have tremendous sympathy for the young man. I believe it is wrong that America does not stand behind affordable education and the health needs of all its citizens. But picking up the medical tabs of your daughter’s various Romeos seems too scattershot a solution.
Can’t Get a Word In
Sadly, I no longer enjoy interactions with a close friend of many years. She always had a strong personality. But as we’ve aged, she is able to carry on one-sided conversations for 20 minutes (or more!) without even noticing that I haven’t said anything. She also interrupts me frequently. Unfortunately, she is very defensive, so I can’t say anything about her behavior. Is there anything else I can do?
You mean, like waving nautical flags or magic wands? Every worthwhile friendship I’ve ever had has required both of us to stick up for ourselves occasionally. That doesn’t make it easy. And defensive friends can make it even harder. But if you let her defensiveness trump an honest, human exchange, what’s the point of the relationship?
Don’t judge or label her. Just stick with the facts. The next time your pal interrupts you, say, “May I finish what I was saying?” And five straight minutes into her next talking jag, say: “Wow, you have a lot on your mind today! May I cut in?” I promise: You will both survive. And for fans of dramatic monologue, check out the series “Queers” on BBC America. The monologues are short, and a few of them are remarkable.
Is There Such a Thing as Too Many Figs?
A few years ago, my husband planted a fig tree and cared for it like a baby through the cold Philadelphia winters. Finally, there is bounty! Every day, he brings in ripe figs and places them on the windowsill. But the crop is much bigger than our needs. When the figs begin to rot and I ask him if he’s going to throw them away, he looks heartsick. May I throw them out and pretend we ate them?
Have they discovered sharing yet in Philadelphia? A gift of homegrown figs to friends and neighbors would go down very well in my neck of the woods. Generosity often does. Your husband’s handiwork will be admired, and you will be spared the need to lie. (For the more selfish among us, try The Times’s recipe for fig jam. It’s delicious. And then there’s composting.)