What Should I Do About a Friend’s Racist Figurines?

I have been friends for years with someone on the opposite end of the political spectrum. He is conservative, and I am liberal. I try to understand where he is coming from, though we differ on many issues.

When I recently visited his home, he had a collection of Santa knickknacks on the mantel. One that he thought was particularly hilarious was of a Santa in Black face, holding a large slice of watermelon. I explained how offensive and upsetting this was, but he shrugged it off, saying no Black person would see it. I replied that you don’t have to be Black to be offended.

I later sent him an article explaining the origins of Black face and why it is so upsetting and hurtful. I thought that when he read it, he would throw the figure away. Instead, he said he had talked about it with his wife (who bought the Santas) and that she refused to get rid of it. Again, his excuse was: If no Black person enters the house, what harm is done?

I have always thought that by staying friends with him and explaining my views, some of his ideas might change. That isn’t happening, and I feel I can’t in good conscience remain friends with him. What should I do? David, Northampton, Mass.

Your friend’s contention is misconceived. For one thing, if the image reflects the way he and his wife think of Black people, as objects of humorous contempt, they are (in my view) wronging Black people, regardless of who learns about it. People can be defamed, furthermore, even if it never becomes known to them or causes them disadvantage. So you’re appalled and offended for good reason. Your concern, as your friend doesn’t grasp, is not just for those wrongs but for the moral blinkers — the defects of character or culture — that prevent this man from seeing the wrong. Racism is a vice. You want your friend to be better and want to help him be so.

That’s not to say owning racist memorabilia is necessarily a problem; a friend of mine who is a Black scholar of African American culture has a considerable collection of sambo iconography. (His mother collected the stuff, too.) For some Black people today, it’s a reminder of the history of racism in this country; they may find it amusing because the mind-set of those who made it and for whom it was made strikes them as absurd. They’re in on a larger joke about the risible nature of racism.

Your friend, alas, is not. His apparent certainty that nobody Black will cross his threshold is unsettling. So is his implicit confidence that his visitors will share his simple delight in the spectacle of a melon-​eating Black Santa. You’ve responded to his misjudgment the way a friend should, patiently presenting the relevant considerations, and he has tuned you out. At this point, you could fairly decide that those visitors won’t include you.

A few years ago, a friend and I assumed limited responsibility for a 90-plus-year-old gentleman in our church who asked for our help when, after a fall and rehab, he had nowhere to go. His affairs were a mess. He has no dementia (he has been screened), but is, by his own admission, temperamentally incapable of managing his life. Using his funds on his behalf, we paid off/negotiated debt, found him a secure living situation and enrolled him in V.A. health care. We do not charge for this; indeed, one of us took him into her home for six months to allow him to repay debt. Our relationship was legally established with a power of attorney. He is a lovely man, nothing but grateful to be taken care of.

Here is the current dilemma: Before the accident, he went to a physician at a longevity clinic who, after lab tests, prescribed supplements. The tests and supplements cost thousands of dollars he could not afford. The supplements that he was taking have been replaced by the medicines he actually needs. Now he wants to return to this practitioner (in spite of free V.A. medical care). He is adamant: “I’d never felt better in my life.”

My friend and I are both opposed to this enterprise; the new “needed” tests cost half of the financial cushion we managed to create. He has no car, but of course he can sign checks. Friends can drive him there. He is, after all, legally in charge of his life.

He cannot be talked out of this. Do we have the right to refuse to facilitate his desire for this treatment? It seems unfair to deny him our help, even though doing so goes against our principles. Name Withheld

You have both been enormously generous in everything you’ve provided this man, and you have every right to keeping telling him, as his friends and benefactors, that he’s making a mistake. But yes, it’s his life. While he remains competent, you can’t overrule his decisions about how to use his money. What about simply refusing to take him to this dubious doctor, given that he can find other ways to get there? If you provide his normal way of getting around, you’ll have created a reasonable expectation that he can rely on you for transport. Declining to accommodate him in this respect, then, would still be disrespectful.

He may already feel disrespected. Relationships of dependency often involve a trace of resentment; even as our spirit humbly bows with gratitude, our yearning for autonomy may shake a prideful fist. You think (no doubt correctly) that the supplements he’s getting are based on junk science, but he recalls feeling better when he was on them. You think that he’s being swindled, but he probably thinks that the blood panels and the white coats prove the treatments are genuine, and that you’re taking him for a fool. Possibly the way forward is to do some careful research together. Do you have any physician friends with whom you could all discuss the scientific evidence about these costly tests and supplements, including possible adverse interactions with the medications he needs? (If the latter were at issue, you could legitimately tell him you weren’t willing to take him to a clinic that was putting his health in danger.)

Of course, his ignoring your counsel after you’ve done so much for him may strike you as disrespectful, too. And you can certainly make it clear how you feel. Good relationships permit, and sometimes require, the expression and acknowledgment of such feelings.

I am old and disabled, so particularly sensitive to Covid. I need to hire someone to do chores. Can I require that she or he be fully vaccinated and show proof thereof? Name Withheld

It can be a problem when a potential employee is required to do something unrelated to their work. But you’ve presented a clear job-related rationale here. At the same time, a community benefit arises when individuals choose to get vaccinated, even those at less risk from the disease. One reason hesitant people get vaccinated is to avail themselves of a wider range of employment opportunities. If you incentivize someone to do so, then, you won’t just be helping yourself; you’ll be contributing to protecting others.

To submit a query: Send an email to [email protected]; or send mail to The Ethicist, The New York Times Magazine, 620 Eighth Avenue, New York, N.Y. 10018. (Include a daytime phone number.) Kwame Anthony Appiah teaches philosophy at N.Y.U. His books include “Cosmopolitanism,” “The Honor Code” and “The Lies That Bind: Rethinking Identity.”

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