Dear Liza,

I’m a 35-year-old white woman working for an arts and community nonprofit on the South Side of Chicago. Last summer, while we were painting a mural, a 12-year-old girl from the neighborhood befriended me. Later she asked me to take her to a high school open house when her parents were working and she needed a ride. Since then, I’ve been helping her with homework and occasionally taking her and her siblings to dance lessons. Her parents, who work a lot, say they appreciate my help.

A couple of months ago, I went to her school’s talent show, and this is where race comes in. Out of 200 people in this space, I appeared to be the only white person, which brought her obvious attention. She told me after the fact that because of her light skin, people thought I might be her mom.

Her worries about this have persisted. Last week we went to get pizza, and she said she didn’t want to go inside with me “because they might think you are my mom.” She’s been asking me to go see her play sports for months, so today I went to her game, but she did not acknowledge me. (Again, I was the only white person there.) When she called me after the game, I mentioned her not speaking to me, and she again said she didn’t want people to think I was her mom.

I don’t know what to do. She is a bright, fun child and seeks me out regularly. I enjoy hanging out with her. Yet her embarrassment over my whiteness makes me feel sad, conflicted, and ashamed. Should I stop going to her events, even though I’m invited? Should I ignore the fact that she ignores me? I don’t want to be oversensitive, but I don’t know how to navigate this.

—Embarrassed Mentor

Dear Mentor,

The situation is awkward for you, Mentor, but the feelings of this young person may be healthy. Extensive research—according to a 2007 literature review by professors W. David Wakefield of Cal State, Northridge, and Cynthia Hudley of the University of California, Santa Barbara—shows that developing a strong and positive racial identity is crucial to the mental health of adolescents of color, even helping to protect them from some of the trauma inflicted by racism. For this girl, being viewed as biracial—if she sees herself as black—complicates the process of developing that identity.

If adults treat us rudely, we tell them to fuck off. But children need and deserve our patience. Silly humor can help: “No problem. At the game, I’ll use my invisibility superpower.” Keep showing up to her events, and worry less about your feelings. After all, in general, it’s easier being a white grown-up than a black middle-schooler.

Additionally, any middle school parent can attest that having your presence demanded and then being treated as an embarrassment isn’t unique to your situation. You’re being asked to perform an important parental function: Show up and be ignored.

Dear Liza,

My girlfriend and I have been dating for almost two years. I just finished as an undergrad, and she works in a nursing home. I plan to go to grad school in environmental humanities and become a professor because I care about the environment and want to help address climate change in some small way. I believe that this is what I would be best at and most enjoy doing. My girlfriend is not a very politically conscious person. This doesn’t matter to me, because her actions and work speak for themselves. However, she has a difficult time understanding—and therefore respecting—what I’m doing with my life. She has told me that she doesn’t believe I share her goal of helping people and that if it were up to her, I wouldn’t be doing what I’m doing now.

I want to gain my girlfriend’s respect. I appreciate where she’s coming from, and I agree that simply being an academic isn’t the most effective way to help change society. What can I do to demonstrate that my studies are important and can help people? Is it OK if that’s part of what I’m going to school to figure out, or should I be able to explain this now? Are my studies important only if nonpolitical people can see them as such?

—Aspiring Academic

Dear Academic,

You didn’t ask me if this relationship has a future, but I have qualms. Having a lover who doesn’t respect your ambitions is demoralizing. It doesn’t seem fair that you value her work and she doesn’t value yours. Sure, partners should challenge each other, but at this exciting time of life, you deserve a girlfriend who supports your career explorations with enthusiasm and curiosity. I’m not convinced she can become that person.

But perhaps she’s the problem you need right now, Academic. We sometimes (mostly unconsciously) choose relationships with people who force us to face crucial issues in our lives. You—not just your girlfriend—are doubting the political value of an academic career, asking big questions: How should we understand the social contribution of intellectual work? How do we share it with others, especially working-class people?

Studying climate change seems indisputably important to me, but your effect on the world as a scholar will be slow and subtle. Consider another field in which you might feel more immediately useful, perhaps in advocacy, policy research, or environmental education. Or embrace the academic path you desire while finding other projects with more direct impact (like volunteering to help kids get outdoors, teaching your community to compost, organizing environmental direct action, and building a socialist organization). We can’t make the revolution in our jobs alone.

Have a question? Ask Liza here.