My husband and I live in a small town in the same rural area of northern New England where he grew up. I grew up in a suburban setting in southern New England, but I have lived here my entire adult life -- more than three decades now. (I'm 49, my husband is 60, and we've been married 18 years.) I always knew this was the only place on earth I wanted to live (I have very strong family/ancestral ties here), and I love everything about living here. I get along well with both "natives" and "transplants," and I am often mistaken for the former (which, I have to admit, pleases me, as I think it can sometimes be very hard to crack the inner circle in a small town when you're "from away").
Politically, I consider myself strongly liberal, particularly on social issues, and my husband, although he was raised in a more conservative family, is also quite liberal. He has a hard time with any sort of label and refuses to register for a particular political party, but years of self-evaluation and introspection -- he is a recovering alcoholic, sober for over 25 years now, and went through a good bit of therapy in the early years -- have made him very open-minded. So it's safe to say that our political views make us both liberal-Democrat types.
If there is anything at all that occasionally bothers me about living in our area, it is a tendency toward conservative politics and narrow-mindedness that I've observed among some of our neighbors. It saddens me to hear some parents' racial and ethnic prejudice and homophobia reflected in overheard conversations among our teenage son's peers at the local high school, but I'm very proud of our son's ability to think for himself, and I think we've done a good job of raising him to be kind, tolerant and open-minded. I've had no trouble finding like-minded friends and acquaintances myself, and I'm happy and comfortable with our life here.
My husband and I have a relatively new friend whom we both like a lot. We've known him fairly well for about a year now, and he and my husband have really enjoyed spending time together, watching and talking about sports, current events and their past lives. He's single, about five years older than my husband, and retired here about 10 years ago from Massachusetts. Coincidentally (neither of us knew it when we first met him), he is also a recovering alcoholic (with, I believe, about 20 years of sobriety). Needless to say, this revelation gave him and my husband even more in common, and their friendship has grown until my husband considers him among his closest friends.
Now the problem. My husband and I have both always recognized that this friend is more conservative than we are, but we've been able to discuss our differences over politics and social issues with humor, while "agreeing to disagree" -- until a few days ago, when we both became suddenly and uncomfortably aware that our friend is, to put it bluntly, a racist. The three of us were having a pleasant conversation about football, when he remarked that he couldn't stand it when a certain black sports commentator "slipped into jive talk whenever there's another black guy in the booth." Successive remarks led us to realize the extent of his prejudice, and finally led me to say, incredulously, "Please don't tell me you honestly believe that white people are smarter than black people?" I was hoping he was putting us on, and I felt like I had been kicked in the stomach when he said, "Yeah, I do." He went on to say, "Except for people like Colin Powell and Condoleezza Rice, but, as a rule, yeah."
My husband and I were both floored, and we continued the discussion in hopes of getting him to -- what? I don't know, retract his statement or change his mind, I suppose. He gave several examples to illustrate his position -- rough gangs of black kids he had gone to high school with, the behavior of some of the black men he had served with in the Navy, black men he had known who abandoned their pregnant girlfriends -- while we both tried to get him to see that culture, not genetics, was responsible for what he perceived as innate differences between the races. He ended up by assuring us that he always "treated them nicely" -- had some black friends in the service, tipped the black server at the doughnut shop, etc. -- unlike his father, who was, apparently, a raving racist who talked about "jigaboos and jungle bunnies" when he was growing up.
I'm sure it was obvious that my husband and I were upset by his remarks, and we made it clear that we disagreed with him vehemently. It felt very different from the half-humorous political differences we've expressed in the past, and at one point our friend said, "I hope this doesn't affect our friendship." We did change the subject before he left, but things were definitely awkward.
My question is: Where do we go from here? Do we continue the friendship as before, skirting the issue of racial prejudice? Do we tell him we're sorry, but we no longer feel comfortable being his friends? Do we say nothing, stop inviting him for coffee, and let the friendship lapse? I feel sad to think that my husband may lose a friend with whom he has found so much common ground, but how much of a difference in viewpoint can a friendship sustain? And how much of a stand do we need to take to be true to our own values?
It's a terrible feeling to be disappointed by someone you care about, and right now my husband and I feel sorely disappointed. We both like this guy a lot, but we both feel strongly that racism has no place in this world. While I know our friend's prejudice comes, in large part, from the family in which he was raised, I can't help thinking that if my husband has been able, as an adult, to learn to think for himself and become more open-minded, our friend could have done the same. But if he hasn't done so by this age, it seems unlikely that anything we say is going to have much of an effect on his views.
Cary, I'd love to hear what you, and other readers, think.
It is indeed a terrible feeling to be disappointed by someone you care about. People fail you, they do.
This friend of yours appears to have mistaken beliefs. It is difficult for those of us with all the correct beliefs to extend courtesy, love and understanding to those with mistaken beliefs. But it is an affliction of your time to believe your own beliefs -- to believe your own beliefs are the only ones that matter and are correct and represent the pinnacle of social progress. If you take an imaginative leap to the 12th century, or the 18th century, or the 1930s, you will notice how radically beliefs change. We who are now alive think we know what is right and correct, as did the Spanish in the Inquisition and the Protestants in the Reformation and the Maoists in the Cultural Revolution; it is the privilege of those on top to think they know what is right and correct. It is a nice privilege indeed. Doubting ourselves is hard.
Even if we are correct in believing that those of us with the correct beliefs represent the pinnacle of social progress, we must also recognize that, as in elementary school where some kids are slower than others to learn multiplication and geography, and some are slower to learn not to eat dirt and push each other down in the mud, some are slow to accept cultural progress and scientific knowledge.
You can call them names if you like. You can call them racists and bigots. You can exclude them from your company even though you really like them as people. You can argue with them like a Protestant arguing with a Catholic or a communist arguing with a capitalist or a criminal arguing with a law-and-order type. You can attempt to show that his life experience runs counter to what all science shows.
I just think the flaws in human nature go deeper than we know, and that while it is right and just to fight and struggle for social justice in law and institutions, we ought to honor at the same time even the reprobates and racists among us, even the assholes, the sexists and the religiously intolerant, the ones who say the bad words and express the bad opinions, who fail to grasp how shocking is their lack of enlightenment, who fail to grasp how uncomfortable it makes the rest of us to hear their unenlightened comments about skin color and nation of origin, the clumsy parallels they draw between income and genetics, between school performance and parenting styles, between neighborhood orderliness and native language, between color preference and speech style, between church affiliation and a great-great-grandmother's husband's cousins, between voting preference and educational advancement. We ought not let them rule our nation, of course. But we ought not exclude them from friendship.
I just think lots of us are pretty dumb, and we're not all that virtuous either, and big deal. I'm not so impressed with our own assumed air of virtue, we liberal coastal elites. I don't think we're all that morally superior to the racists and sexists we can so easily pick out of the crowd and condemn. I think in fact that our frequent presumption of moral superiority is a deep character flaw that blinds us both to the vast virtue around us and to our vast capacity for growth. And more than that: Our air of superiority bores me. It bores me how we talk. It bores me how seriously we take the liberal taboos, how easily we are stopped at the borders of good taste.
In fact, I am rather drawn to the bad man, the racist, the reprobate, the criminal, the idiot, the one who doesn't get how he is supposed to behave. He unwittingly shines a light on the dark side -- and even that is condescending, isn't it, to assume that the only virtue we can find in those of a lower caste is one they are not even aware that they are expressing?
I know the drill. I stand for social progress and equality. I'm a leftist intellectual ex-hippie who lives in San Francisco. But people have junk in their heads. We all have junk in our heads.
Most of us don't think all that clearly or all that deeply. How can we? We have jobs to do that tire us out and we work with people who have junk in their heads and we were raised by people who had junk in their heads. All our lives people tell us stupid things and put junk in our heads. They put junk in our heads and once it's there it's hard to get it out. Me, I get to sit here all day and try to figure out what is the junk and what is the good stuff, and even with all that time to sit here and try to sort it out I'm pretty hopeless. So what about a guy who works hard every day for 45 years with people putting junk in his head and telling him things that are groundless and wrong? How's he supposed to rearrange his head once he turns 65? How's he supposed to change his beliefs?
We should all do something about it, of course, all of us, of course we should, of course. Yes, we should. We should be kinder, smarter and more on time. The racists among us, the sexists, the unkind, the selfish, the mean, the crude, the hateful, the spiteful, the bitter, the unenlightened and the just plain average should all get to work right now to try to get better, to be more on time, kinder, less racist, more socially active, calmer and more meditative, and more careful in their choice of words; I myself should try harder to be concise and not to string people along with my own self-involved speculations. I myself should try to not think the uncharitable thoughts I think when I see certain drivers in certain cars making certain kinds of turns, when I speculate about their age and their beliefs, their gender and country of origin and how each correlates with their peculiar driving habits and who in their family might have taught them such peculiar methods; I myself ought to be more orderly in my work habits and I ought to do more service work in the community; I ought to pick a presidential candidate and work for his election, and volunteer at a food bank three times a week. I ought to cleanse my mind of all the dirty, oppressive, angry, unenlightened thoughts that crowd out my virtuous thoughts like crows crowding out the sparrows of springtime -- which will not be far off now, by the way, springtime that is, with its annual tease.
Can you love someone who is deeply flawed? Do you have the courage to do that? Can your love be tinged with disapproval and still be love? Can you heatedly dispute on matters of social beliefs and still remain friends? I hope so. I hope you can do that. I also hope you can find persuasive materials to show that the beliefs of your friend are groundless and pernicious, for that is today's correct belief, and it is the one true belief, and it is the belief that everyone should have.
Meanwhile, in my heart of hearts, I'd like it if even the best of us and the purest could get the hell over ourselves. There is much work to be done every single day. There are sick people to be cared for and children to be taught. I myself have got a book to sell, a column to write and a writing workshop to lead.
While I try to do my best, I'm going to have the worst thoughts you can imagine. I'm going to assume that you will too. We'll see each other on the street and we'll nod to each other, each of us having the worst thoughts you can imagine, each of us knowing it's just our condition.
So I say give your husband's friend a break. Racism is stupid, and worse than stupid it's pernicious and cruel and stupid. But he'll be dead in 30 years and social progress will continue none the worse for his presence on this earth. The groups that were on top will soon be on the bottom and it will serve everybody right.
"Since You Asked," on sale now at Cary Tennis Books: Buy now and get an autographed first edition!
What? You want more advice?