The Ethicist: How Can I Make My Partner’s Parents More Woke?

July 22, 2018 by Joshua
in Ethicist

My series answering the New York Times’ Ethicist column with an active, leadership approach instead of an analytical, philosophical perspective continues with “How Can I Make My Partner’s Parents More Woke?”.

My partner’s parents recently visited us in the relatively diverse area of the Northeast where I was raised and work. I am a first-generation Filipino-American. My partner’s parents grew up in the white suburbia of the Midwest. During their visit, they casually dropped some microaggressions. His mother said that she “could tell Filipinos apart” from other Asians (though she can’t tell Chinese, Japanese and Koreans apart). I told her that not even I could tell them apart given the diverse phenotypes in the region. His father later confused my sister with another Filipina, and then explained that if you put all of us in a room my sister looked most related to her. I spent time unpacking these and many similar statements (which were offensive not just to me but also to other minority populations) with my partner, who was very understanding and embarrassed. He explained to his mother why such remarks from the dominant culture come off as offensive. She was defensive at first, asserting she is “not a racist,” but eventually understood.

I feel it’s important to continue this conversation to help them identify microaggressions. Should he talk to them? To what extent should I be involved and responsible? Name Withheld

My response: “What should I do?” … Asking what you should do makes sense for children asking their parents. For an adult, it looks like asking someone else to take responsibility, which I call juvenile. Asking for options or views you might have missed makes sense, but you didn’t ask that.

You’re asking how to lead people, meaning you want to improve your leadership. If you’ll allow me a quick analogy, if you want to learn to create art, taking academic classes in art appreciation may help you appreciate art others made but not to create it. You have to practice, starting with the basics.

Nearly every resource I’ve seen on leadership is leadership appreciation—that is, books on principles and such that help you appreciate others’ leadership but not to lead. To learn to lead you have to practice, starting with basics.

To answer your question on how to lead people, I recommend my book, Leadership Step by Step, which gives you exercises to practice the skills of leadership, not just to appreciate others’ practice. You have to do the work of the exercises, not just passively read it, but what expressive or performance-based practice can you learn without work?

I’m not just plugging my book. I wrote it because nothing existed to give you experience and skills, not just appreciation.

Unit 4 covers what you want, though I’d start at the beginning and do the exercises in order.

Your self-righteousness probably isn’t helping.

The New York Times response:

You’re asking two related questions. One is about your partner’s responsibility for edifying his parents. The other is about your role, as his partner, in assisting. Clearly, he has the knowledge and the standing to take the lead here. They’ll care what he thinks, and he has had a lifetime of learning to deal with his parents. Your job is going to be to take a supporting role.

Your partner has a couple of reasons to keep working on his parents. One is that we should all want those we love to be better people, less prone to giving unintended offense. The other is that diminishing the amount of racial insensitivity in the world makes it better for all of us. The first of these reasons is limited to those he is close to; the second, of course, gives him (and you) grounds for trying to work on anybody you can help in this way.

But getting people to grasp how these sorts of remarks can be received is seldom accomplished in a moment. And you’re not conducting a new-student orientation. If your approach is simply condescending or censorious, the ratio of hurt to learning will be high. (That would be true at a new-student orientation too!) Like all of us, this couple is the product of an environment for which they are not responsible. And people visiting the Northeast from Midwestern suburbia may not feel that they represent the dominant culture.

Nor is it helpful to assume the worst of them. Note, for instance, that the “they look alike” problem — known in the social-science literature as the “other-race effect” — isn’t specifically a white thing. (It isn’t a middle-aged thing, either: Nine-month-old infants display it.) Members of a nonwhite community, researchers say, can have a hard time distinguishing among white faces, as well as vice versa. In one study, Asian-American subjects were more likely to mix up black faces than they were to confuse white ones. That doesn’t reveal a special Asian-American bias against black people; probably, it just reflects the relative frequency with which the subjects interacted with them. The lesson is that if we’re going to attend to the micro, we might also attend to the macro.

Here we’ve got a middle-aged Midwestern couple trying to find common ground with a young person from the East Coast, and yes, doing so in a ham-handed way. They have much to learn from you. But be open to the possibility that you might have something to learn from them. Conversations go better when both parties do some listening. So you might start by recognizing that their attitudes most likely reflect ignorance rather than malice — and by cutting them some slack.


I am the executive director of a small nonprofit association. Our board is elected by our membership. We allow any member in good standing to be placed on the ballot.

One member who wishes to run for our board is the ex-husband of a family friend. For this reason, I know that this man brutally beat his wife for years before she finally divorced him. I can’t unknow this. Of course, I do not want this man on my board, and I certainly don’t want to elevate him professionally; it is prestigious in this industry to be or have been on our elected leadership team. He’s planning on running next year. I am at a loss. Name Withheld

My response: We’ve all experienced trying to help someone only to find what we meant to help got the other person angry, frustrated, or the like. We’ve also all experienced someone trying to help us who only made things worse.

I usually respond to letters with no questions by saying something like, “Thank you for sharing your story,” and not giving advice or commenting much more. Not commenting may sound like an easy way out of more thoughtful and helpful writing, but I’ve learned many times in coaching, teaching, and friendships that helping people who haven’t asked for it is a recipe for disaster.

My starting point for why is that what different people consider “helping” depends on their values, views, goals, and other factors that you, giving unasked advice, don’t know. For example, offering potential solutions to someone who just wants to be heard often leads to exasperation, frustration, and feeling devalued. But just listening to someone who wants advice can lead to impatience, frustration, and other emotions neither party wants.

However obvious you consider your interpretation of what the letter-writer wants, dozens of other interpretations exist, any of which the writer may have meant, or not. Acting on unchecked assumptions risks imposing your values on others, which usually provokes responses you wish you hadn’t from others.

I’ve found the best policy to keep neutral until the person clarifies what they want so I know what “help” means to them in that situation.

The New York Times response:

You don’t say anything about what the nonprofit you run does. But whatever it is, the membership is very unlikely to want a person with this history on its board. So there are two questions to ask: Do your members have the right to know? And do you have the right, or perhaps even the duty, to tell them?

Whether they have the right to know depends, first, on whether their disinclination to support someone guilty of spousal abuse is reasonable. If they wouldn’t vote for someone who is Muslim, they shouldn’t be told that a candidate is of this creed, because it would permit them to act out of prejudice. That you should not assault your wife, however, is uncontroversial. Equally uncontroversial is the proposition that a man who does so is, for that reason alone, dishonorable. Because serving on the board is an honor, refusing a spouse-abuser a place there is entirely reasonable.

But the fact that people are entitled to know his history doesn’t mean that you’re entitled to tell them. A relevant consideration is whether you were told this with the reasonable expectation that you wouldn’t pass it on. Respect for confidences is important; without it, people would sit on information they would do better to share in a limited way. That doesn’t mean that having promised to keep something secret settles the matter. Keeping a secret can be wrong when the result would be to risk serious harm to others. That consideration may not apply here; more to the point, you don’t suggest the information was passed on in confidence. This leaves you free to make these facts known.

Still, a problem remains. This is sensitive information, and you’re circulating it in order to affect the makeup of the board to which you report. Executive directors do this all the time, of course, but it undermines the ideal of an independent board. So I’m inclined to think the best thing is to tell the board what you know. Its job is to look out for the interests of the organization. How the directors handle the situation is a matter for them.

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