How is ageism like racism – and how is it different?

That’s the question that came in to Yo, Is This Ageist? a few days ago, and I’ve been banging my head against it ever since. Not that the question hadn’t come to mind long before, in particular the notion of of discriminating against a group you aspire to join, but the answer is far more complicated.

Thanks to Brian Drolet, Rachel Drolet, Dread Scott, and Bob Stein for their invaluable input. 

Here’s the question as asked, and my answer.


I have a question. Is ageism the equivalent of racism? I feel that it is but I wanted to get your feedback on it?

both are entrenched systems of discrimination, but their histories make them different. people have been held in slavery because of the color of their skin, never because of their age. the brutal scale and intensity of racism stands alone, and its legacy is ongoing.

racism and ageism share an economic basis. disenfranchised people are paid less, pitted against each other, and vilified as parasites. American society criminalizes young blacks because of their skin. decades later, everyone finds out what it’s like to be marginalized because of their age.

if you’re poor, racism and ageism eventually converge. as writer Walter Mosely put it, “When you become old, you become black.” 

6 thoughts on “How is ageism like racism – and how is it different?

  1. Ageism’s similarity to racism has occurred to this old lady.  One very important difference is that the folks who do serious study about your condition often do so without input from old people themselves.  Oh, they may “observe” us, make judgments based on “working with” us but mostly keep their distance from what it is we ourselves think.

    In her memoir, My Body Politic, Simi Linton speaks of the rallying cry of the disability movement, “Nothing about us without us.”  A 79 year old feminist, I feel almost as untouchable as the disabled by people ten to twenty years younger whose fear of the inevitable that I represent is almost palpable.
  2. For what it’s worth, ageism is strictly cultural, whereas racism seems to be universal. I’m talking here about unconscious racism, as revealed by psychological tests.

  3. I just don’t see how it is in any way possible to compare systemic racism in the US to ageism. Older people, while perhaps judged for how old they might look, do not have a history of being lynched, separated from/sold away from their loved ones, branded with a hot poker —  clearly, I could go on. But the history of black American slavery in this country stands in a category of its own when it comes to structural racism. There is nothing in the history of this country that holds up next to the ways in which black people en masse have been crushed, physically and mentally: maligned, killed, denigrated. Disenfranchised, in my opinion, doesn’t even begin to cover it.

  4. Racism and sexism come from the same tree. The tree that is rooted in domination, oppression and a group dynamic that grows in colonized soil. I am writing a book on women and aging. Clearly, ageism completes the troika.  Hope to see some of you on April 8th.


  5. If there is an economic interest in enslaving stronger bodies, what of weaker bodies? Is there an inverse to slavery correlative to the weakness of an older body? If strong bodies are enslaved, are weaker bodies neglected, left to die, treated as disposable? In the Nazi death camps, because of their perceived or real illness or weakness, older people were often first to the chambers (and in this limited sense, given the brutal, binary choice of forced labour or death, forced labour was even to be “preferred”, if one can say that without obscenity). I do not say this to diminish the horror of slavery or the history of racist oppressions. I suppose my question is whether ageism and racism can be treated as *qualitatively* different on this point of slavery, or whether the neglect, abuse and disposability of older, weaker bodies is a kind of logical corrollary of the enslavement of stronger ones.

  6. Another, related question is the following. If it had been in our economic interests to enslave older bodies – if, for instance, older bodies somehow grew progressively stronger, rather than weaker, even while the cultural denigration of older bodies remained unchanged – would it be inconceivable that we would have done it? Do the denigrations of older bodies pave the way for this kind of treatment, in the way that racist denigrations do? Perhaps the fact that, as a species, we have been willing to enslave children gives us a clue.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *