Q. I have been dating my boyfriend for five years. He is white and I am from a mixed racial background. His mother makes racially tinged comments to me about color, food, language, and so on. I brush it off as ignorance and try to be polite when responding, but I’m tired of it now.
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I’m looking to become part of the family and one day have children with my boyfriend. I won’t subject my children to such comments. His mother has even made multiple comments about her not getting blond, blue-eyed grandchildren from me.
My boyfriend is a timid person and isn’t the kind to stand his ground, whereas it’s tough for me to continue being polite when I’m provoked. I’m trying for the sake of being on the good side of my future mother-in-law. It’s a touchy topic, especially because I don’t want to accuse her of being racist and then have her hating me. What should I do?
A. Your problem is twofold — the mother and the boyfriend. So let’s take them one at a time.
You need to be clear with the mother that you will not tolerate her racist remarks. There is no need for her to insult and offend you. The question, as you know, is how to do this without destroying the relationship.
You are best off saying something at the time the comment is actually made. Next time she makes such a comment, say something like “Comments about my race really hurt my feelings, and I would prefer you not say such things” or “It bothers me when you comment on my racial background, so I would like you to stop” or “Please don’t share your negative feelings about my racial background with me.”
It probably won’t be constructive to mention the many times she has made such comments before. That will just give her ways to be defensive and argue against you. It also probably won’t be constructive to accuse her of being a racist directly, though if this continues it would be reasonable to be more emphatic and say you would prefer she not make her racist comments in front of you.
So be prepared to say something the next time she makes an offensive comment. If you wait, you might wait until you explode, and then you will say something unplanned that you really regret. Also, the more she gets away with this, the clearer the message becomes she can get away with it.
Try not to get into a debate. For example, when she says she will not have blond, blue-eyed grandchildren from you, there is no reasonable way to reply. This is not a productive comment in any way. It doesn’t come from a position of thoughtfulness, so you should not expect a thoughtful discussion about it. What you can say is that this feels like another comment about race, a subject you prefer she stop commenting on.
The second problem is the boyfriend. It doesn’t bode well for the future that his mother blatantly insults you and he does nothing to stop it. Will you be happy with a timid and passive person who won’t set limits with his relatives, and who will buckle when a difficult subject arises?
Suppose his mother criticizes your weight, your hair, your clothing or your parenting style. Will he stand by and let this continue for years?
Ultimately, his passivity will put a crimp in the relationship. You already are annoyed, and rightfully so, that he is not standing up for you.
Is he afraid of all conflict or just of conflict with his mother and other relatives? You need to discuss with him why he feels it acceptable to let his mother say racist things to you, and why he has trouble objecting when she does so.
I assume he agrees with the seriousness of your relationship. It might be the case that you one day believe you will be having his babies, but he isn’t certain.
Still, babies or not, if he is mature enough to be having a serious relationship, he is mature enough to tell his mother that her insults toward you are unwarranted and unwelcome.
His mother may not even realize she is being racist. Often, when people harbor racist feelings, they are coming from a position of ignorance and fear, and they are not thinking much.
It is unlikely you will change her basic racist views, but it is possible you will be able to change how she acts toward you.
The mother may not like you setting limits. She is used to a son who will not stand up to her, and she might resent you for failing to kowtow to her, which is why you need to inform your boyfriend that he must take your side and stop being so passive. However, she may gain respect for you.
The mother might also have difficulty with the reality that her son has another woman who is important in his life, and so she makes critical comments about your race, just as she might make critical comments about your shoes. They belie a wish to get you out of the way, and remain the center of her son’s world. But those snide comments are still not OK. His mother is not the only one important in his life — you are important, too. There is room for you both.
Dr. Gail’s Bottom Line: You need to set limits with any important relationship when abusive criticism is occurring. Stand your ground respectfully but clearly.
Any ideas, suggestions in this column are not intended as a substitute for consulting your physician or mental health professional. All matters regarding emotional and mental health should be supervised by a personal professional. The author shall not be responsible or liable for any loss, injury or damage arising from any information or suggestion in this column.
Dr. Gail Saltz is a psychiatrist with New York Presbyterian Hospital and a regular contributor to TODAY. Her most recent book is “The Ripple Effect: How Better Sex Can Lead to a Better Life” (Rodale). For more information, please visit www.drgailsaltz.com.
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