This guest post is by Toni Calasanti, a professor of sociology at Virginia Tech. She has long been passionate about fighting ageism, advocating for “our right to grow old in diverse ways without facing mockery, stigma, or exclusion, however grey-haired or wrinkly we become; and whatever care or support we need at any time.” Professor Calasanti generously served as an expert reader of Old School’s forthcoming consciousness-raising guide to the intersection of ageism and sexism, Ageist? Sexist? Who, Me? In it, we relied on the dictionary definition of ageism as stereotyping, prejudice and/or discrimination based on age. Here’s why she thinks we can do better:
“Personally, I would not include these all together; and I find it useful to take them apart. Stereotypes are just that, group-based generalizations that are applied to individuals; they can be positive, negative, neutral. And in and of themselves they are not problematic, i.e., stereotypes often are rooted in “reality” at least in terms of the majority. As a group, old people ARE weaker than are younger people, or are more wrinkled, or whatever. At issue is how we EVALUATE these stereotypes, which is how I think of prejudice–a negative assessment of those stereotypes. But this is also different from discrimination–i.e., exclusionary behavior. This latter is how I choose to define ageism, drawing on [Dr. Robert] Butler’s work and even more, the comparison between ageism and other forms of oppression, such as sexism. So yes, old people are more marginalized; this is not because of stereotypes per se (or even prejudice; policies or laws can protect disadvantaged groups such that they can evade discrimination).
“These distinctions are important to me for the reasons implicit above; but also they do not allow us to get at the deepest level of ageism, i.e., what if a stereotype is true, or is true of an individual? What if they are frail, or wrinkled, etc.? Does this mean that they should be excluded/marginalized? If we are going to fight ageism, in my opinion we need to be able to validate those stereotypes in the sense of being able to say that a person is valuable regardless of the extent to which it fits them.”