Announcing The Biddies—women bringing ageism into the conversation around aging—and our new consciousness-raising guide
Hundreds of groups now celebrate women’s voice and visibility as we move into midlife and beyond. Many have emerged in recent years to bring menopause out of the closet and support going gray. Others have been around for decades. Many are ageism-aware, while others aspire to be “still young” and “still sexy.”
Growing older is different for women because we face the double whammy of ageism and sexism. Old School’s new consciousness-raising guide, Ageist? Sexist? Who, Me? addresses how to recognize this toxic intersection and come together to undo it, starting between our ears. Consciousness-raising is the tool that catalyzed the women’s movement.
Please join us at noon ET on Thursday 9 September for the launch of Ageist? Sexist? Who, Me? and the inaugural meeting of The Biddies. During this two-hour workshop, we’ll collaborate on personal and collective action plans to raise consciousness of ageism in women’s groups. Register here.
This piece first appeared on NextAvenue. It’s about why I’d like people to use “generation” less. A lot less.
When The Who howled “talkin’ ‘bout my generation” in 1968, they were referencing a group of people born and alive at about the same time. That’s what the word means to most of us: generations in a family and, more generally, age contemporaries at different stages of life. But we use it to mean lots of other things too, and that’s a habit we need to break.
The word sure comes in handy. Belonging to a generation contributes to a sense of personal and collective identity. It’s attractive to social scientists, who look for demographic patterns, and useful to the media because it lends itself to storytelling. We use “generation” to describe not only who lived through what and with whom, but also the meaning and values we attach to those experiences — individually and collectively. That’s a hell of a mandate! But precisely because “generation” refers to so many different things, we use it too much and too carelessly. That’s the problem.
We may think we know what “generation”means, but the concept has no scientific basis. Generational durations and beginning and end dates vary. It’s mathematically almost impossible to distinguish between age, period and cohort effects. This leads to unfair representations, like tarring Millennials as disloyal job-hoppers. But that’s an age effect, not a generational effect; it’s how people may behave when they enter the job market, no matter when they were born.
Because it’s vague, convenient and ubiquitous, “generation” is easy to use — and misuse.
In an ageist world, this has far-reaching implications. Generational framing sanctions and supports age segregation, which makes us more likely to accept age divides and inequities as “just the way things are” instead of questioning the grip of age-group groupthink on our policies and prospects. It also fosters age stereotypes — how could any generalization about millions of similar-age people possibly be accurate? — which delude and divide us. Most damagingly, “generation” is used to exaggerate what age cohorts have in common and how they differ, in order to encourage conflict and legitimize inequity: the myth of intergenerational conflict.
Generational framing pits old against young.
Invented by right-wing strategists in the 1970s, the myth of intergenerational conflict holds that the interests of old and young are inherently opposed, there’s not enough to go around and olders and youngers will soon be at each other’s throats. The media promotes this notion because conflict sells. It’s easier to point fingers than build bridges, and when times are tough, we look for scapegoats. This works in both directions, with olders bashing youngers for being lazy or disloyal and youngers blaming their elders for wrecking the planet, vacuuming up government benefits and sticking around in jobs. The song that started the #OKBoomer meme described boomers as racist, fascist Trump supporters with bad hair. It’s tempting to rise to that hateful bait, or to go on the defensive. But then everyone loses, and the planet smolders.
Generational finger-pointing obscures the struggles that confront every human being as we move through life, carrying a unique set of advantages and disadvantages into old age. It makes equity across the lifespan harder to envision and execute, by undermining the solidarity and collective action necessary to implement any social good, from affordable child care to a decent retirement. What we need now, especially in the pandemic’s wake, is support for young people around education, job training, health care, housing and family services and support for Social Security and Medicare for their parents and grandparents. The reality is that nothing matters more to most olders than the welfare of the younger people they love; there is no evidence that young people want to throw Granny to the wolves and it is grotesque to propose that the interests of old and young are inherently opposed.
Generational framing obscures the far larger role that class, along with race and gender, plays in shaping our lives.
Age plays much less of a role in shaping our paths through life than we think it does — far less than social factors like socioeconomic status, geography, ethnicity and gender. Falling into the “generation trap” distracts us from deeper questions of power and privilege. Yes, Congress is filled with people in their 60s, 70s and 80s, for example, but railing about age obscures the roots of the real problem: a political system that enables the wealthy to purchase political office and corporate interests to maintain it.
Applying a generational lens obscures the multitude of inequities that exist within age cohorts and also cut across them. Both the 1% and the 99% are made up of all ages.Net worth increases with age because people tend to acquire assets over time but maps far more closely to education level (a proxy for class). This reflects the legacy of systemic racism as well as the gender wage gap, which cuts across all age groups and demographics and widens significantly for women of color. Claims of shared status on the basis of age ignore or erase these important distinctions.
Everyone ages. Age is easy to establish. It’s easier to delineate than the more fraught and messy variables of class, race and ethnicity. It’s less uncomfortable to address, because ageism is less examined; we’re only now beginning to call it out. But if we want a more equitable world, we have to wrestle with these commingled aspects of identity and opportunity and give age no more than its due.
Generational framing fosters stereotypes.
Another problem with making claims about an entire age cohort —whether about how much one “generation” has in common with another or how little —is that it invariably results in crude generalizations which undergird all prejudice. Plenty of olders are in better health than millions of youngers. Saints and sinners come in all ages. And so on. The only characteristic older people share, along with diminishing physical capacity, is ever-increasing heterogeneity: the longer we live, the more different from each other we become and the less our age reveals about us. As they say, if you’ve seen one 80-year-old, you’ve seen one 80-year-old.
As with national-culture models, there’s more variation within a given group than between groups, whether the group in question is adolescents or Albanians. We tend to think of Boomers as white and middle class, but most of their age peers are neither. Individuals and communities like people of color, queer people, disabled people and immigrants hold multiple identities that have a much greater effect on their trajectories than the decade in which they were born. Historical events that mark boundaries between life stages may not be shared by everyone in the same age group. Roles and rituals that signify life transitions are far from universal across class and cultures.
Age differences are real. It’s about not weaponizing them.
We can’t wish age differences away, nor should we want to. Likewise, every generation points fingers at those who came before them and finds fault with “kids these days.” I was born in 1952, into a period of unprecedented peace and prosperity for white, middle-class Americans, and youngers have many reasons to envy my extreme demographic good fortune. But we “greedy geezers” are enacting the greatest wealth transfer in history. Families and communities are interdependent. As economics professor and longevity expert Andrew J. Scott puts it, “It’s only zero-sum if we all die young.”
The old are not the enemy. Age is not the issue. The issue is equity across the lifespan, and the stakes have never been higher. The emergence of four — even five— living generations in the 21st century is a tectonic shift. It’s happening at a time of profound uncertainty, in a world riven by deep divisions of class, race and gender. We cannot afford to add age to the mix. The alternative is solidarity across the years: coming together at all ages to tackle these wicked problems and create a more equitable and inclusive future.
Let’s break the “generations” habit unless we’re using the term specifically —to describe immigration trends, for example, or family trees or genetic patterns.
• Try “age group” instead, or “age cohort” if you want to sound like a demographer.
• Try “mixed age” or “age-diverse” to describe events that involve an age range, instead of letting “intergenerational” do all the lifting.
• Try describing what people are doing or saying or listening to instead of using their age or age cohort as a key identifier.
• Instead of referring to yourself as a boomer, Gen Xer or Millennial, try Perennial — writer Gina Pell’s witty suggestion for what those of us who don’t want to be constrained by generational moats start calling ourselves.
Generational framing serves serve marketers, reactionaries and vested interests, but not Perennials—or the public good.
This week’s Sunday Magazine features photographs of the city’s reopening taken by people age 25 and under (“The City Awakes,” 6/13/21). The introduction to the print edition explains, “We wanted to see all this from the perspective of the city’s younger residents, whose lives have been most upended by the past year and who will be the most profoundly affected by the renewal and rebirth of the next decade.”
Featuring young people’s work is fine, but your rationale for doing so is flawed. As your reporting has made abundantly clear, the people whose lives were most upended by the pandemic were the poor. It is their economic circumstances that will shape New Yorkers’ next decade, not their ages.
Don’t miss this month’s Old School Anti-Ageism Clearinghouse May newsletter. We’ve added tons of new resources on topics that range from cyberbullying to intergenerational solidarity to age privilege, including Io, Un Ageista?—our guide to starting a consciousness-raising group around age bias now in Italian! And we’re hosting more activities than ever: two Movement-Builders Convenings, a free screening of the documentary film Duty Free (meet the star and the filmmaker), and our first Ageism and the LGBTQ+ Experience workshop!
This guest post, which first appeared on Medium, is by Jennifer L. Riddell, a museum specialist and writer whose work involves engaging people with the visual arts. She is interested in how shifts toward a more caring and inclusive organizational culture can positively affect the experience of museum visitors.
Ageism is everywhere, yet it is the most socially ‘normalized’ of any prejudice and is not widely challenged — like racism or sexism. – World Health Organization, 2016
Museums have stepped up when it comes to engaging older audiences, from lifelong learning opportunities to programs for those experiencing memory loss, institutions are making note of the continued growth of the demographic in their visitorship. During the Covid-19 pandemic, many people, including older art enthusiasts, have benefitted from the increased availability and accessibility of online programs. The American Alliance of Museums also has recognized the importance of older museum visitors and cultural consumers, and the need to extend the reach of programs tailored for them. Yet AAM’s stated aim in this arena, “How museums can foster curiosity, growth, and social connections among people ‘fifty-five and better,’” leaves the subject of ageism in the museum workplace unspoken.
There is a dissonance between the institutional support for such public-facing programs for older adults — and the aspiration toward public service that museums represent — and the lack of support, or even acknowledgement, of age bias and discrimination that exists within the museum and cultural institution workforce. Successful and inclusive creative aging programs may, in fact, obscure the presence and recognition of internal issues.
In the meantime, museum workers are increasingly asking for a culture that is externally and internally consistent with the values of diversity, equity, access, and inclusion (DEAI) — and cares about visitors and staff equally. Greater institutional self-awareness of these issues has come with the ongoing crises of racial injustice and social inequality, intensified by the pandemic.
Recently instituted and often publicly available museum DEAI policies, alongside executive-level positions to support them, admit culpability for largely race-related biases and propose actions and remedies. The Getty’s statement of January 2021, for example, states frankly, “racism has stained all of our institutions, including museums and Getty, and must be confronted and eliminated.”
As a baseline and perhaps starting place, DEAI policies usually itemize the list of the seven legally protected employment statuses– race, gender, disability, religion, ethnicity, genetic/medical information, and age (over 40). Workers who believe that they have experienced discrimination may pursue remedies through the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC). While legal and civil rights are fundamental, they do not always protect individuals from the structural imbalances and implicit biases and conditions in the work environment. What DEAI policies can do is address that gap by bringing awareness, education, empathy, and action to creating a more just workplace. Yet, right now, most of these policies are fundamentally silent on age bias and discrimination. Why does ageism continue to be overlooked in DEAI?
Age Bias — Are We Still in Denial?
Age discrimination achieved legal recognition 54 years ago. Even then, and certainly since, there has existed a societal resistance to acknowledging its effects and pervasiveness. President Lyndon Johnson fully intended that age be enumerated in Section VII of the 1964 Civil Rights Act: It was Section VII that included the establishment of the EEOC and outlawed discrimination on the basis of race, sex (later expanded to include sexual orientation, gender identity, and pregnancy/childbirth), religion, and national origin. Age was omitted. Instead, a skeptical Congress commissioned the Labor Department to study the matter. The resulting 1965 report was unequivocal: it found that fully half of U.S. employers stipulated in job postings that those over 55, or in some cases, over 45, need not apply. These blatantly discriminatory conditions led directly to the Age Discrimination in Employment Act (ADEA), made law in 1967. The ADEA’s explicit purpose was “promote employment of older persons based on their ability rather than age [and] prohibit arbitrary age discrimination.”
Harassment can include, for example, offensive or derogatory remarks about a person’s age. Although the law doesn’t prohibit simple teasing, offhand comments, or isolated incidents that aren’t very serious, harassment is illegal when it is so frequent or severe that it creates a hostile or offensive work environment or when it results in an adverse employment decision.
“Simple teasing and offhand comments?” The language essentially ratifies a concise, present-day description of microaggressions that would be unacceptable in practically any other context with respect to gender, race, or religion.
Our daily life, language and behavior incorporate so much that is ageist that further normalizes it and makes it socially acceptable. Visual ageism refers to the ever-decreasing visibility of older people in society. Stock pictures of workplaces that would suggest, as existed pre-1967, that no one over 45 is employed. A collaborative project between the style media channel Refinery29 (changed to Refinery59 for a day) and AARP found that 61% of women surveyed did not see female aging represented in the media. Age denial is rampant in the promotion of an endless array of “anti-aging” products. Other actions like making assumptions about technology skills (the use of the term “digital native” is widespread in employment advertising, even though it constitutes age discrimination since it refers to a specific age cohort of people) or presuming that older workers are “stuck in their ways” and resistant to change and innovation are similarly insidious (despite the uncontested value of “lifelong learning”).
The steady drip that erodes the value, competence, and credibility of older people has concrete effects. These include decreased leadership opportunities and visibility in the workplace, and on a personal level, psychological harm from the tolls of stress, self-doubt, isolation, and even internalization of the very stereotypes others cast upon them. The association between aging and diminishment is so pervasive that people believe it is an intrinsic part of getting older. (Please let President Biden, Nancy Pelosi, Anthony Fauci and the spirits of pioneer activists John Lewis and Ruth Bader Ginsberg know.)
Evidence shows otherwise. The process and effects of getting older are as varied as the people experiencing it. Ashton Applewhite, an anti-ageism activist, notes that research demonstrates that people over 50 show more diverse physical, developmental and social traits than people under 50 (the younger we are, the more homogeneous we are). Instead, judge people on their abilities, not on stereotypes and prejudices — whether race, gender, age or any other marker of identity, visible or not.
Reality Check: Experienced Workers Add Value
The benefits that experienced workers offer are real, studied, and documented. Experience does matter — as does perspective and knowledge in navigating communication, strategy, and leadership — which makes it actually faster, not slower as many presume, to cut through workplace thickets. Deloitte’s Global Human Capital Trends 2018 research summarizes that “older workers represent a largely untapped opportunity . . . . The older labor pool represents a proven, committed, and diverse set of workers” who can be a valuable resource for training, a source of institutional knowledge and come to the table with “more knowledge, wisdom, and life experience.”
Numerous management and organizational studies underscore the benefits of age- and otherwise diverse work teams as being more creative and productive. Teams built around an in-group of generational peers, for instance, may provide its participants a greater comfort level, consensus, or affirmation of viewpoint. Such choices may read as benign sociality, however, in-group favoritism is exclusionary and ultimately, inhibits original thinking and creativity. The tendency to this form of favoritism declines as workers move through their career and generational experiences.
We can no longer continue downplay the real impacts of ageism or maintain dismissive and one-dimensional attitudes about age status. Ageing happens to everyone and ageism can occur at any time of life as a mutable set of generational biases and presumptions. It is in the interests of all to cultivate a greater understanding of why we need to collectively inform ourselves about age bias and make conscious decisions to act against it.
Larger Trends Demand Age Inclusivity
The demographic shifts that have prompted museums to recognize the value and needs of older visitors are the same ones that add to the case for clarity and urgency in addressing age bias internally, in the museum workforce. The 55+ cohort of the workforce and population is projected to increase significantly as birth rates decline and life expectancy increases — 1 in 5 Americans will be over 60 by 2030. This means that all people, and especially young and recent entrants to the working world, now will need to plan on underwriting more years in retirement by working longer, or in many cases, not retiring at all. The changes will skew the generational composition of the workforce older, as well as encompass a range of five generations in the workplace (which is already happening). In such a scenario, cross-generational recognition, support, and understanding will be key to a generationally non-adversarial work environment.
The economics and social impacts of age redistribution are a matter of global scale. The United Nations and World Health Organization has designated 2021–2030 a “Decade of Healthy Ageing” to drive public awareness, policy and structural change. The initiative’s platform includes combatting ageism, as well as community, long term care, and mobility supports for an increasingly older population. The benefits of structural improvements for older people are shown to benefit people of all ages, including families and people with disabilities.
Ageism in the Museum Field
The experience of museum and cultural professionals of age bias aligns with these larger issues and trends. I wonder if the tendency toward age-denial may explain museums’ avoidance of internal age bias issues, while practicing age affirmation within (safely) contained public programs. An informal survey that I posted to several networks for museum professionals showed that 81% of a sample of museum and cultural workers based in the U.S. and Canada have experienced ageism in their workplace. The survey is not age-delimited and includes responses from “under 30” through the “over 60” categories. For purpose of definition here, ageism or age bias can be experienced by people of any age, while age discrimination is experienced by people over 40 who are legally protected from it.
Making Progress against Age Bias
One way to make progress is to simply and explicitly acknowledge the value that older workers can bring to the museum, alongside the practices of affirmation and acknowledgement of diverse workers that are already developing and becoming, hopefully, commonplace.
In 2020, legal decisions regarding age discrimination with respect to two very large employers — IBM and the federal government — are positive signs. In one case, the EEOC found that IBM systematically forced the resignation of or laid off older, experienced workers to make way for younger hires, while at the same hiring back the older workers as contractors at lower pay rates. And, a 2020 Supreme Court decision, Babb v. Wilkie, was decided 8–1 in favor of a female federal employee claiming age discrimination. The case actually lowered the bar for evidence of age discrimination after decades of cases that imposed increasingly stringent standards on discrimination claimants. Justice Samuel Alito wrote that, “A personnel action must be “made,” namely, in a way that is not tainted by differential treatment based on age. Thus, the straightforward meaning of … the statute does not require proof that an employment decision would have turned out differently if age had not been taken into account. Instead, if age is a factor in an employment decision, the statute has been violated” (my emphasis).
Age is an inseparable part of our shared humanity alongside race, gender, ethnicity, ability, and the many markers that frame who we are. Perhaps we need to let go of our cultural obsession with naming, defining, and policing generational boundaries. The researcher Gina Pell has proposed an alternative term that can encompass people of any generation:
“Perennials … describe[s] an ever-blooming group of people of all ages, stripes, and types who transcend stereotypes and make connections with each other and the world around them.” They are, “People of all ages who continue to push up against their growing edge, always relevant, and not defined by their generation.”
Remediating Age Bias in Museums
My survey of museum and cultural workers, which encompassed respondents from under 30 through over 60 years of age, also show most supporting remedies for ageism. The following steps can increase understanding, awareness, and spur action around age-biased practices.
DEAI: Spell it out
Do all workers in your museum know what is meant by diversity, equity, access, and inclusion in your institution and how it applies internally and externally? The American Alliance of Museums advises that it often said that there are as many different definitions of these and related terms as there are people in the conversation. Developing written definitions of your terms can bring clarity and be a means of assessing who may still be excluded by the language you are using.
Adding descriptions of the forms that age bias and discrimination take to your institutional DEAI policy lends immediate legitimacy to the issues. Staff training in which age bias is integrated into discussion the multiple forms of discrimination and how they are experienced is key.
Multigenerational work and collaboration
Do you look up in a meeting and see a roomful of people representing a very narrow age range? Make an explicit assessment of the composition of teams, committees, and leadership in terms of diverse age representation and other qualities. Foster a multigenerational culture that recognizes ability regardless of age and rejects age stereotypes, just as it would reject stereotypes involving race, disability, national origin, religion, or gender. Stop policing and reinforcing generational definitions and boundaries.
Age 50 is an early “expiration” date to pin on people, but sadly, it is an age by which many begin to experience structural obstacles in the workplace that become increasingly difficult to surmount. Assess aspects of your organization’s culture, the association of specific organizational roles with certain age brackets, and anti-age practices or policies.
Tay K. McNamara, Marcie Pitt-Catsouphes, Natasha Sarkisian, Elyssa Besen, and Miwako Kidahashi, “Age Bias in the Workplace: Cultural Stereotypes and In-Group Favoritism,” The International Journal of Aging and Human Development, 2016.
Here’s an excerpt from Ageist? Sexist? Who, Me? How to Start a Consciousness-Raising Group Around the Intersection of Ageism and Sexism (out later this spring from the Old School Clearinghouse). It’s about how women with privilege have left other women behind in the struggle for equal rights. We’re well into a new century, and at a time of unprecedented potential for social change. It’s no surprise that women are leading the movement to dismantle ageism. We cannot afford to repeat the mistakes of our predecessors, which are what provoked the emergence of intersectional feminism. In the words disability justice advocate Dr. Angel Love Miles, “Intersectionality demands that we work towards the liberation of everyone.”
The women’s movement has a troubled history.
Because it focuses on women of reproductive age, the women’s movement is ageist. The concept of “sisterhood” is integral to women’s rights, but by definition, sisters are close in age. (An image search under “sisterhood” yields no gray heads.) The practice of dividing the history of feminism into “waves” likewise consigns us to same- rather than mixed-age cohorts, and relegates older participants to the margins.
The women’s movement is also racist, because it has long focused on the interests of white women. Many activists for women’s suffrage were overtly racist, and many supported women’s right to vote as a way to offset the Black vote and bolster white supremacy. The movement has also been homophobic. In the 1970s , it was the failure of the women’s movement to address their issues that compelled Black and queer women to invent and demand intersectional analysis and activism. At the time, Betty Friedan, head of the National Organization of Women, coined the term “lavender menace” to describe the threat posed by outspoken lesbians, claiming their presence would slow progress towards economic and social equality for women.
Class bias has also slowed progress towards women’s liberation. Middle-class white women were instrumental in the defeat of the Equal Rights Amendment, which was designed to guarantee equal legal rights for all American citizens regardless of sex. Tech executive Sheryl Sandberg’s advice to ambitious women to “lean in” ignored structural discrimination: the glass ceiling that keeps the vast majority of women and minorities from reaching their professional potential. Because they benefit from white privilege and the shelter of patriarchy, middle-class white women were instrumental in electing, and attempting to re-elect, an overtly racist president who bragged about degrading and sexually assaulting women.
Achieving true women’s liberation requires that white women learn to give up those privileges; that we keep in mind the way problems play out differently for different people; and that we aim for remedies that do not come at the expense of other women. The purpose of consciousness-raising is for women to identify experiences that unite us without ignoring our differences. Categories like gender, sexual orientation, class, and ethnicity may set us apart, but they’re also important vehicles for collective identity. The only effective and lasting way to advance equality is through solidarity and collective political action.
Here’s how the Black and Asian Feminist Solidarities’ website defines solidarity: “Solidarity at its core is about relationships. Solidarity means: we understand and commit to taking responsibility for one another—and that is the radical feminist future we believe in.” Are we willing to expand our circle of relationships? To be brave, and accept risks? That’s how we rise to the challenge posed by the Black and Asian Feminist Solidarities project: “What can we do together?”
This guest post is by Keiko Shirokawa, a Tokyo-based senior producer for the German television network Zweites Deutches Fernsehen, who has long focused on anti-authoritarian and environmental justice initiatives. She wrote this letter to help persuade a Japanese publisher to acquire the rights. It worked. I just accepted an offer from Korocolor Publishers, which has hired Keiko to be the translator. Thank you, and hooray!.
In Japan – as in many other parts of the world – tackling issues affecting the aging population, improving public health, bolstering the medical system, and raising citizen’s awareness of health issues are critical, yet daunting, tasks. Concurrently, the elderly are barraged by advertising of commodities aimed at elderly consumers. And when the Japanese government recommended that their citizens not rely on the public pension system, they made it clear that they had abandoned means to address this issue of financial security properly.
The absence of a culture in which one feels comfortable can be tormenting to those who look ahead at an extended life expectancy in this super aging society. Contemporary culture – plays, music, literature – fail to speak to their hearts. In Japan, you can find a few who claim the necessity of studying gerontology, which is something, but these studies remain the subject of academia and scientific research.
In my case, I suddenly re-entered the world of broadcast television news when I was contacted to join a news crew covering the areas hit by the earthquake, tsunami on March 11, 2011, followed by the nuclear disaster in Fukushima. I was 63 years old. On that day, I headed to the affected areas where dead bodies could still be found everywhere among the debris. Since that day, I haven’t stopped working for the foreign news agency that hired me then as a news producer. Ten years have passed since I started leading my life in a way so unexpected in Japanese society, and even unexpected to myself. I have been very healthy and competent enough to still keep this demanding job. However, my mind has been full of questions and fears for the many others who are not enjoying such a fulfilling life. And, in my heart, I feel a sense of alienation and isolation in Japanese society because of my age.
Under these circumstances, I came across This Chair Rocks: A Manifesto Against Ageism by Ashton Applewhite. Every point in this book seemed to brush away the cobwebs in my mind. I read it in one sitting. I was wondering how to convey these thoughts to Japanese society, which remains sexist as well as ageist. In other words, I was automatically translating it. Anti-ageism should penetrate Japanese society. I decided that the first thing I had to do was to publish a Japanese version of the book. I was unable to find a translated version of it on the market, so I approached a publisher, Korocolor first, whose reaction was very positive. I then sent an e-mail to Ashton Applewhite directly to ask for permission, which she enthusiastically granted.
In the meantime, the #MeToo movement had spread all around the world, and in Japan as well. A man of my generation and an old acquaintance was condemned because of sexual harassment. That led me back to the writings of the 1970s activists such as Betty Friedan. It was while reading her important book, The Fountain of Age, that I found Ashton Applewhite. Her work addressed so many questions that were filling my mind. I returned to the writings of Simone de Beauvoir as well.
I consider this book as a work that could spark an anti-ageism movement literally. At the same time, I see it as being on the vanguard, conveying a new culture for the elderly. I would like a translation of this book to be a first step in the creation of a new culture for the elderly in Japan and to be ready to make a declaration of anti-ageism to Japanese society. Therefore, it would be good to work with the publisher, Korocolor, which has published several in-depth books on the subject of the racism in Japan and has succeeded in reprinting many of them.
Also, in order to fill the inevitable gap existing between two different cultures, I asked Carol Baldwin, who is my best friend and a film producer and runs a community farm in Connecticut, to help fill in the gaps which might otherwise be lost in translation. She kindly accepted my request. The title, “This Chair Rocks,” is a good example to show the difficulty in translation, as a rocking chair is not associated in Japan with the elderly! Our elderly do not use rocking chairs when they rest; ours is not a chair culture.
I am 100% certain that the sexism I have been experiencing since I was born into Japanese society, the discrimination against Asians I was exposed to while living in the UK, and the ageism I am feeling deeply internally and externally these days should function as an ideological foundation to translate Ashton’s words into accurate and strong Japanese words.
My latest newsletter, announcing a historic event: the launch last week of the World Health Organization’s Global Campaign to Combat Ageism, complete with toolkit, video, and gorgeous graphics like this one:
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.