The Case of the Racist Roommate

April 28, 2011 | By | Comments (3)


Earlier this week, a reader named Allison posted a dilemma on Real Simple’s Facebook page that is as much about ethics as etiquette:

“I have a prejudiced roommate to be. She sublet from another roommate. How should I handle other people who want to rent rooms?…At first she didn't want to live with any more girls, which seemed strange, but then it was African Americans. She uses the phrase ‘she totally jewed me,’ and she does not seem to have many kind things to say about Greeks or anyone of Asian descent. Ahhh! We have sublet the rooms for May only to a bunch of Caucasians (female, much to her actual chagrin), but we have to go through the whole process again in June.”


How should Allison handle this sort of talk…and the roommate's unwillingness to rent to "other kinds" of people?
 I don't know about the rest of you, but I have a messy, visceral reaction to reading those comments— a combination of shock and outrage and embarrassment that makes me want to instinctively turn away from them.

Fight that urge, Allison. Stand up for what's right. You need to make it clear you won’t tolerate her intolerant views.  Step one is to rent rooms to the first qualified applicants you meet, and do not judge their suitability based on race or religion or gender. Do not allow your roommate to make you an accomplice to her ugly views.

Next:  Deal with her. Here are two possible approaches:

(1) Her bigotry may be ignorance, an artifact of her upbringing and youthful inexperience. You told me you’ve tried talking to her sincerely ("wow, I don't really feel that way"). Since that didn’t work, next try biting humor. I remember in college that an effective way older, more sophisticated students made callow freshmen realize that they were callow freshmen was to make a humorous comment with an edge, which felt like a cold slap.  Next time she says something derogatory about an applicant, say sarcastically: “Great idea, and we can all start walking around wearing white sheets over our heads, too.”


If that doesn't work?

(2) Announce a mandatory all-roommates meeting where you can present a strong, united front. After you call the meeting to order, use an implacably reasonable and measured tone when you say to her,  “We’re all concerned about you. You’ve ignored our attempts to point out that your bigotry is unacceptable. Is something preventing you from understanding what we are saying?”


Give her a chance to answer. If she defends her position, another roommate can chime in and say,  “It’s really weird you aren’t getting the message.  If you have some underlying problem you haven’t told us about, please tell us now, so we can help you. Otherwise, don’t talk like that in our home.”


Stay strong. Her name may be on the lease, but if she isn't willing to change, she needs to come to the inevitable conclusion that she may be happier living somewhere else.


OK, that's my two cents. Anybody else care to weigh in on this one?