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Ask Damon: My husband’s favorite waitress is racially insensitive

(María Alconada Brooks/The Washington Post; iStock)
5 min

Dear Damon: A few years ago, the high school seniors in our small town organized a Black Lives Matter rally. My husband and I went. It was a moving, successful event. After, I walked into the local diner to get my husband some takeout lunch. I was behind a tall gentleman, a veteran, and he said to a waitress standing next to him, “I don’t get it, we used to have a guy in our platoon who called himself the n-word on the trigger. What are these people talking about?” To which the waitress replied, “Yeah, I don’t get it either.”

I was floored. I am an interracial woman, but I am as pale as can be … White folk often confuse me as White. But walking through the streets of New York City with my Black father and hearing that word leveled at both of us in an attempt to steal our humanity still stings to this day. Hearing that word makes me feel unsafe.

The problem is, this is my husband’s favorite waitress. Several months after telling him about this incident he started telling me a story with her as the charming star. My jaw dropped. I was hurt and disappointed he didn’t feel protective of me, but I said whatever you want to do is fine, just please don’t talk to me about this waitress in the future. He persisted. When I quietly reminded him of my request, he started yelling at me that I was crazy and trying to control him.

My husband is 70 and with every violence aimed at Black folk, especially police brutality, he sides without hesitation with the Black community. I don’t understand what is going on here. Any thought would be most healing.

— Anonymous

Anonymous: It’s interesting sometimes how a question like this can be something of a Trojan horse. Meaning that there’s the issue the person writes in about, which is causing them enough consternation to ask for a stranger’s advice, but there’s language in the question that reveals a bigger (and presumably hidden) issue.

The Trojan horse here is your husband’s lack of response to the racism exhibited by his favorite waitress. Unfortunately, I’m actually going to take his side here. Well, not his side as much as the waitress’s side. Yup. Hers.

I believe that White people should confront and challenge other White people when witnessing racism. Racists should, at the very least, be made to feel uncomfortable. But it’s helpful here to consider power, status and place. In a perfect world, where everyone is as brave and conscientious as we think we are, this waitress would’ve responded to the racist man with an immediate rebuke. She obviously didn’t. But it’s possible that her reply (“Yeah, I don’t get it either”) was less about her agreeing with him and more about her being confronted by this large man, while at work, and saying what she needed to say to get him out the door, continue with her day and keep her job.

Also, um, why didn’t you say anything? You were close enough to them to hear the conversation, it offended you, and they presumably assumed that you’re White. Why not call him out then and there? Maybe your reasons for not saying anything — maybe you didn’t want to make a scene, or were too shocked, or felt unsafe — were the same as hers.

There is something in your letter that stopped me in my tracks. You calmly expressed to your husband that hearing about this waitress made you uncomfortable, and his response was to yell at you and call you crazy. I am less concerned with his affinity for a woman who might be apathetic to racism and more concerned with the scale of his reaction to you. If this behavior is an anomaly in an otherwise safe and healthy partnership, fine. Well, not fine. Forgivable, though. But if this is how he tends to respond to you, correction is necessary, as it should be made clear that his behavior is unacceptable. Perhaps even some professional intervention is necessary if this is a marriage that needs to continue.

I’m also curious about the timeline. The rally and the incident with the waitress happened a few years ago, as did your request to not hear about her, and his subsequent outburst. Yet it’s still bothering you enough to write in about it. This leads me to suspect that maybe his reaction wasn’t that uncommon, and perhaps it’s a symptom of you just not feeling valued by him. If this is true, again, I think the waitress is a red herring. “Is this a relationship I feel safe and valued in?” is the question you need to ask yourself.

I don’t want to create an issue out of thin air. But you wrote what you wrote, and I read what I read, and I can’t ignore that.

This is Damon’s final column for The Washington Post. You can follow his work on Instagram.