During my book tour, I often closed readings with a passage about aspiring to “agelessness,” declaring it a form of age denial. A woman at Powell’s Books in Portland said, “Saying you’re ageless seems like saying you’re colorblind,” and the comparison stuck in my head. Later on, Robin DiAngelo’s White Fragility helped me understand the problem with “colorblind”: if we don’t see race/color, we don’t see racism. Eventually I put the two ideas together in a graphic that read: “’I’m ageless’ is to ageism as ‘I’m colorblind’ is to racism” and posted it to Instagram. I was pleased with the formulation, and even happier when an ally made the more elegant version below, setting the text against the silhouette of a Black woman.
Until a friend shared a different viewpoint: “As a woman of color I believe both ageism and racism need to be highlighted and addressed in today’s society, but I do not think they can be compared to each other. If it’s with reference to how they intersect, I get it, but when comparing one form of injustice to another, it can be interpreted as disregarding that group’s experiences and feelings. Racism deals with years of oppression, injustice, and countless moments of individuals feeling defeated on the basis of their skin color. Not everyone will know what that feels like, at least not in the eyes of BIPOC.” I apologized and thanked her, and received a gracious thanks for hearing her out.
Then I got defensive. Yes I knew I had to respect her experience as woman of color, but the woman who’d made the original analogy was Black! Yes I knew it was a mistake to compare “isms” (see Straw Man #4), but I was comparing ways of thinking about bias, not the biases themselves! Yes I knew this was defensive-white-person squirming, yet I squirmed. Then I asked for advice.
My partner told me I might be correct but that my friend was right: at the end of the day I was equating the two forms of oppression, which is unacceptable because the overall effects of systemic racism are so much more severe. My friend Julia confirmed it, although they cut me a bit of slack: “When you’re one-up in terms of privilege, when you haven’t had the lived experience, it’s easy to get yourself in hot water.” Julia does diversity and inclusion training professionally, and helped me see the issue as part a pattern of people “not seeing the part of you that maps to marginalization.”
What I should have done is place “I’m ageless” within a broader context. It’s part of a universal phenomenon in which people maintain, often with the best of intentions, that they “don’t see” difference. If “I don’t see your otherness” is a compliment, it reinforces what poet and activist Audre Lorde calls the “mythical norm”—typically white, male, thin, straight, cisgender, and non-disabled—as the standard against which other identities are weighed. The more closely people conform to that “norm,” the more privilege they enjoy. And vice versa: the fewer “boxes” people can check, the more oppression they’re likely to be up against. When people “don’t see” difference, they’re denying the lived experiences of those with less privilege, even though those experiences are at least as valuable.
- “You don’t look trans to me.”
- “I’d never have known you were disabled.”
- “Sometimes I forget you’re Black.”
These experiences are not equivalent. Comments like these come from a place of privilege—from someone who conforms more closely to that “mythical norm” and thinks it’s a compliment to suggest the other person does too. They’re not compliments. They assume that “passing” is the goal, and that difference is something to overcome or overlook.
Our differences, whether of age or background or gender or something else entirely, are real. They’re part of our identities, part of what make us us. Lorde again: “It is not those differences between us that are separating us. It is rather our refusal to recognize those differences, and to examine the distortions which result from our misnaming them and their effects upon human behavior and expectation.” Paradoxically, when we “don’t see” differences, we give them both too much power and too little. We allow them to reinforce hierarchies of human value and at the same time close ourselves off to perceiving their intrinsic worth: the ways in which aspects of ourselves that include age, Blackness, queerness, and disability enrich our lives.
There is no norm. We are not broken. We are not “special.” We are not lesser. We are perfect. Systemic discrimination is a formidable obstacle. But it is real, which makes it easier to tackle than something nonexistent: the imaginary failings which these systems created and need us to believe in.