Q: Dear Meredith,
My boyfriend of four years and I recently traveled to the Midwest to visit his older brother and sister. They are twins, moved far away years ago, and my boyfriend hadn't seen them in forever.
So we get there and within 20 minutes, I hear his older brother use the "N-word" in a joking manner. My boyfriend is white and I am African-American. I honestly didn't know what to do. I've dealt with the word being used in the past and always found it easiest to confront the person and basically lay down the law by saying, "Just strike it from your vocabulary."
I know it's best to have an open dialogue about it but I froze. I felt like if I said something then we would have been starting the trip off on the wrong foot, and my boyfriend was so happy about seeing his siblings after so long. When his brother said it I saw my boyfriend give him a look of death but nothing was said. I pretended it never happened for the rest of the trip, but I'm really bothered that I didn't say something.
Did I cop out on this one? Should my boyfriend have said something? I feel like I not only let myself down, but I did his brother a great disservice in not letting him know that what he said was wrong, even in a joking manner.
– Why Didn't I Say Something, Boston
A: You didn't say anything because you were in shock. It's almost impossible to hear a word like that, process it, ponder the intent of said word, consider the fact that you're in your boyfriend's brother's home, and react appropriately -- all at the same time. I'm sure your boyfriend was having the same experience. Your look of shock and his look of death had the same meaning. Your boyfriend is probably second-guessing his reaction, too.
There's no statute of limitations on this, which means you're still allowed to talk to your boyfriend about what happened. The discussion will give him the chance to admit how uncomfortable he was when the word was said. It'll also allow you to talk about how you want to handle this as a team. For all you know, he's been stewing about this since it happened. For all you know, he already spoke to his siblings about this in private. Find out.
The most important thing is that you and the boyfriend acknowledge what happened so that there's honesty, not repressed resentment. You said it best -- open dialogue. I have a feeling that you're already on the same page about this, but it will be nice to hear your boyfriend say so. And there's no statute of limitations with the siblings either, which means you can teach the lesson whenever you're ready.
Readers? Should her boyfriend have done more? How do you correct a significant otherís family member without alienating everyone involved? Anyone ever heard an in-law say something awful? How did you react? Discuss.
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Meredith Goldstein is a Boston Globe columnist who follows relationship trends and entertainment. She offers daily advice on Love Letters — and welcomes your comments. Meredith is also the author of "The Singles," a new novel about complicated relationships. Follow Meredith here and on Twitter. Love Letters can be found in the print edition of The Boston Globe every Saturday in the G section.