The Folly of Ageism and Who It Hurts: YOU

Like most people paying attention, I’ve noticed a lot of discussion these days about age vs. youth, particularly as it relates to people in positions of power, what “generation” one is born to, or, here in the States, our particular field of Democratic candidates. The debate on both (all) sides has become an interesting litmus test, a revealing glimpse into the worldview of the debaters; a statement about how humans gauge and judge each other from their various placements on the lifespan timeline. And it’s a mess.

As I’ve lived longer, making my way into and through various decades deemed as “older,” it’s becomes evermore clear to me how strange, misguided, and uninformed the folly of ageism really is. Much like other aspects of life—where judgment about something one hasn’t experienced changes dramatically when one does—growing past what is considered “youthful” is not only enlightening, but surprising.

First of all, it informs you that youth has no franchise on vibrance, relevance, or innovation. No particular in into wisdom, ability, and value. Despite society’s aggrandizement of it, youth is not a meritorious state in and of itself. It’s just a point on the lifespan trajectory that’s usually thinner, prettier, with more hair, and an uncanny ability to embrace new technology. But, as with those who are older, it’s just a demographic moment that’s either spent doing good and contributing things of value, or wasting time denigrating and diminishing others outside the age group.

And, yes, it’s done on both sides. How many sneering articles have I read about Millennials and their love of avocados and lack of real estate? How many older folks insist “there’s been no good music since the 70s”? And lots of dialogue is happening right now, in fact, about the lack of “youth vote” so hoped for in the Sanders campaign.

But beyond any urge toward “bothsidesim,” let’s be clear: ageism is most definitely, and most often, directed at the more aged… which, depending on how young you are, could be anyone from forty to ninety-five.

It’s triggered by many factors—fear of one’s own aging with its closer proximity to death, an unwillingness to accept the physical changes of getting older, a sense of entitlement based on society’s aggrandizement of youth. But one thing it most certainly is is prejudice. Pre-judgment. Perception based on lack of knowledge.

While older people can well remember youth and their particular experience of it, younger people have no personal knowledge of what the process of being older entails. They watch the society they live in denigrate and dismiss based on age, they see opportunities denied, respect withheld, and insults applied to older people, and so the state of actually being older must seem horrifying to them. I mean, who wants to be in a group that is constantly pilloried for being dense, incapable, inept, undesirable, and utterly irrelevant?

We are currently in the midst of a presidential primary that is immersed in this debate, and the constant chatter about how old the Democratic primary candidates are would leave anyone to believe that simply being older is disqualifying. Yet, look at the amount of travel these people do; the speeches, the driving, the day-to-day demands of a campaign, and you can’t tell me they “don’t have energy” or “couldn’t handle being president.” I know plenty of younger people who couldn’t hold a candle to the energy of these guys (the women candidates being on the younger end), some who can barely get out of bed before noon, others who deal with health problems that limit their own abilities (just like older people). Yet somehow having white hair, needing a stent, or occasionally flubbing a sentence sends the ageists into caterwauls of “THEY’RE TOO OLD!”

Meanwhile, the youthful gaffes, preening arrogance, or lack of true wisdom, foresight, or experiential knowledge of younger people is allowed, accepted; even excused with,”they’re young, they’ll learn,” perpetuating the notion that only younger people learn, only younger people evolve, grow, have brilliant ideas or are worthy of our applause and appreciation.

If we still lived at a time when being sixty-something was the end of life, I’d perhaps be more willing to accept the “planned obsolescence theory of ageism.” But when vibrant, meaningful lives are often lived well into a person’s nineties, sometimes even beyond; when people like Gloria Steinem, Jane Fonda, Warren Buffet, Ralph Lauren, Martin Scorsese, Nancy Pelosi, and so many others continue to live vigorous lives of contribution, innovation, progress, and creativity, how dare we deem them “too old” to continue being relevant?

Every single person who trafficks in ageism will, one day—assuming they live long enough—become the very ages they now deem as “too old.” And I guarantee, barring any life-altering health problems, they will get there, look around, and suddenly think, “Damn, I don’t feel any different than I did at thirty, forty, fifty!” They’ll realize that they—just like the people they’re currently dismissing—still feel attached to their ambitions, their drive, their urge to create and contribute, and they will shake their heads at the stupidity and arrogance they wielded as younger people.

They’ll acknowledge their white hair, their lined faces, their perhaps paunchier waistlines and higher blood pressure, while still recognizing their spirited humor and wit, their depth of knowledge and experience, and their thriving energy to still BE WHO THEY ARE.

In the case of, say, Joe Biden or Bernie Sanders, who they are is who they’re being: two men running for office. If they drop dead while being who they are, so be it. Younger people die too, sometimes most unexpectedly and tragically, yet we still grant them the right to fully exercise their right to be. Why would we deny that to anyone, of any age?

We shouldn’t. We can’t. Because if we get to live long lives, as we all hope we do, we’re all going to want to BE WHO WE ARE at every age on the spectrum of that journey. And we’ll deserve that right. Just as Bernie, Joe, Mike, Nancy, and Betty White do. As you do. As I do.

I mean, don’t even think of telling me I’m too old to have long hair or sing rock & roll. I swear, I’ll “Jill Biden” you without a second thought.

Photo by John Moeses Bauan on Unsplash
Banner Photo by Markus Spiske on Unsplash


Visit www.lorrainedevonwilke.com for details and links to LDW’s books, music, photography, and articles.

Guest Post: The Alchemy of Noise deserves to be on your summer reading list!

As time goes on & the hoopla around a book’s launch dies down, it’s sometimes challenging to know where and what your book is doing out there in the world. So, when an unexpected review pops up, one that so artfully and accurately expresses exactly the message and narrative you were hoping to convey in your story, there is something deeply gratifying about that.

Thank you, Janny Ess, for your articulate, moving review. I am touched… thrilled that you enjoyed the book, and appreciative of your taking the time to write so beautifully about it.

Review is below:

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JanniStyles1

“The Alchemy of Noise” by Lorraine Devon-Wilke is a timely story I hope screen writers and movie makers will discover and develop. In the pages of this literary work the ride you embark on will make you stop and think more than once.  The “Alchemy of Noise” is a heart wrenching yet inspirational read as the characters inner lives leave us questioning our own role in dividing or unifying human beings.

Almost poetic in some passages, Devon-Wilke weaves “The Alchemy of Noise” with an intelligent pen of compassion and soulfulness. Her characters are all relatable as you find yourself transported inside the torn social fabric of our contemporary world to first person perspectives of family matters, addiction, police brutality and racism.

https://www.amazon.com/Alchemy-Noise-Lorraine-Devon-Wilke/dp/163152559X

While reading I felt such frustration on Chris’s behalf I yelled out loud just as I have been known to do at a movie where I felt the…

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White Fear Does Not Excuse Racism, But Empathy Might Dispel It

White people are afraid of black people.

Or maybe, more accurately, too many white people are afraid of black people.

They don’t “get them,” (as one fellow confessed to me); they find them mysterious, unknowable, different; less than, fear inducing. They blame their cultural ignorance on, “what I see in the news every day,” or “this black guy who was weird to me once,” or “they are known to be more violent” or “but they hate most white people too” (all things said to me out loud). And with that litany of presumption and stupidity, empathy is lost and the “privilege” of white fear is allowed to call the shoots, turning, say, Starbucks into a cultural flashpoint.

Why are we so afraid of each other?

For blacks, it’s not a difficult question to answer: deep historical precedent, and contemporary bias, prejudice, and lack of equal treatment. In the justice system. The economic system. The medical system. The education system. Probably every system existing in America today. Strides have been made since overtly racist pre-civil rights days, but when, on an almost daily basis, there continue to be indefensible police shootings of unarmed black men, overzealous prosecutions and disproportionate imprisonment; endless forms and manifestations of every kind of bigotry and intolerance, it’s not hard to fathom why a black person might fear a white person, particularly one with a gun, a badge, or a judge’s robe; particularly when white people still hold the keys to most (all?) centers of power in this country.

What’s the excuse for white people? What are they so afraid of? Beyond generalized prejudices like being anti-affirmative action, or holding erroneous presumptions that blacks are government-sucking “welfare queens” (when the greatest number of welfare recipients are white), what are they so fearful of? Why the lock-your-car-when-one-gets-too-close, cross-to-the-other-side-of-the-street-if-one-approaches, shoot-before-taking-other-tactical-deescalation-steps, call-the-cops-without-considering-ramifications kind of racial fear?

Given the ubiquity of facts and studies on race, given the statistics on both white and black perpetrators of crime and violence; given the benign interactions most whites have experienced with black people; given the incalculable contributions the black community has made to American life, it’s hard to put that fear down to anything other than “the fog of white privilege mixed with lack of empathy.”

White privilege – empathy = fear = racism.

That’s an unhappy equation. Particularly when science assures us that “race is not a thing,” [National Geographic, 10.14.17].

“What the study of complete genomes from different parts of the world has shown is that even between Africa and Europe, for example, there is not a single absolute genetic difference, meaning no single variant where all Africans have one variant and all Europeans another one, even when recent migration is disregarded.” ~ Svante Pääbo, a biologist and director of the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in Germany [emphasis added]

In other words: we’re all made of the same stuff; the color of our skin, location of our family’s ancestry; ethnicity of our DNA notwithstanding.

But some refuse that information, that reality. They’d rather conjure a world categorized by castes, orders of ethnic importance; pyramids of racial superiority, chains of command built on the possession of wealth… fomenting a human history rife with wars, genocide, conflict, fear, and ignorance, basedirrationally, on race, that thing that doesn’t actually exist. Illogical, but persistent.

Here in contemporary America, for example, the last person to “win” (yes, in quotes) the title of POTUS did so by appealing to the fears of white Americans who reject shifting demographics; resent the impending loss of majority status, the influx of diversity, and the widening influence of people of color and diverse religions and ethnicities. “Make America Great Again” was the rallying dog whistle for a message of, “let’s keep things nice and white,” and that message resonated with a dispiriting number of fearful white folks.

And fear is the foundation of modern racism. I say “modern” because back when plantation owners tormented slaves, post-Civil War America treated freed blacks like sub-humans, or Jim Crow laws saw sociopathic bigots inflict white-sheeted terror with impunity, it wasn’t fear driving the train; it was power. White patriarchy. Ignorance, ingrained hate, embrace of false narratives, and the pervasive certainty of superiority. The only fear that existed was that of blacks whose very lives could be snuffed out with the flick of a rope-wielding wrist, the trembling accusations of a mendacious white woman, or the bilious hate of white men immune to basic decency.

Still, in these modern times, when we now have laws protecting blacks from such abuses, racism remains, still ingrained, still wreaking havoc, but driven and perpetuated by—yes, all the above—but also, most overarchingly, by fear.

Fear of other. Fear of who or what isn’t known. Fear of presumed danger. Fear of what one has heard or read about the feared group. Fear of losing perceived power or status. Fear of change, of diversity, evolution and progress. Fear, unexplained. Fear that leads to race-based overreaction.

Like when a white Starbucks manager gets so rattled by two black men waiting for a friend before ordering that she’d call the police and get them arrested rather than behave like a savvy service professional who knows how to treat customers of every race, creed, color, or orientation.

Like Jeffrey Zeigler, a white man who—when young, black Brennan Walker knocks on his door after getting lost—picks up his shotgun and, rather than helping the child find his way, attempts to kill him.

Like the two white Sacramento cops who, rather than using their training to accurately assess a situation and manage their fear before responding with deadly force, follow Stephon Clark, a black man, into his grandmother’s backyard and shoot him 20 times before ascertaining it’s a cellphone in his hand.

The list goes on. We know it well. It’s daily news fodder. Why?

Remember the equation above? Fear metastasizes with the lack of empathy. We can’t care about what we don’t know or refuse to learn. We can’t comprehend what we haven’t taken time to understand. We can’t respect what we’ve deemed less than. We can’t treat with care and concern what we’ve chosen to believe is dangerous. We can’t empathize when we don’t have the first clue of what life is like for a person of color. And so white people continue to believe black people are a threat, a danger to them, and from there, fear reigns and racist acts persist.

Of course I am speaking in generalities. Not all white people. Not all cops, not all people answering doors; not all coffee baristas.

But when there is enough evidence, both anecdotal and scientific, to educate and convince us of our commonalities as members of the human race, any white person continuing to blame “fear” for their reactive behavior is abdicating responsibility for their part in perpetuating racism. Fear offered as an excuse is exactly that: an excuse. It is not a solution. Empathy is. Empathy is the solution to fear.

It’s likely every person has had the experience of having their perceptions, opinions, and feelings about something or someone change after they’ve had more interaction or spent more time with that person or thing. Empathy is engendered when we make those connections, get past ingrained beliefs and knee-jerk responses, to learn something new and create points of commonality and kinship with those we’ve feared.

If you asked any white person who (consciously or unconsciously) fears blacks how much time—with depth, regularity, and emotional intimacy—they’ve spent with black people, odds are good you’d find a deficit. In communities with little diversity, which is much of rural and suburban America, those deficits run deep. So how do you induce greater empathy when the opportunity to connect isn’t easily there? Or in more diverse communities where it’s too easily avoided?

It has to become a priority. Schools, churches, town and city leaders have to make it so. There has to be intention and respondent actions that welcome black families into schools. Hire black teachers and bank tellers. Attract and encourage black-run businesses. Organize diversity seminars, bring in sensitivity trainers, engage speakers and mentors who work in the field, people of the very races and ethnicities most feared. Where it isn’t endemic or immediate, circumstances have to be created in which racial empathy can be explored and engaged, where hate and fear can be disassembled, and new ideas formed.

With connection, empathy grows. We learn more about the lives and rich cultural heritage of people we feared. We listen and gain greater understanding of how life hits them, what they have to deal with; what particular obstacles are in their paths that are not in ours. We expand our thinking to realize the world seen through our prism of white privilege is vastly different and less fraught than the world seen through theirs, and with that greater understanding, we are more capable of putting ourselves in their shoes, that most basic definition of empathy.

Once in their shoes, we should be better able to respond and react with consideration, respect, and basic human decency. Which makes sense, since science tells us—and I believe in science—that we’re all made of the same stuff.

Top photo by Carolina Heza on Unsplash
Middle photo by Oscar Keys on Unsplash
Third photo by Aarón Blanco Tejedor on Unsplash

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Visit www.lorrainedevonwilke.com for details and links to LDW’s books, music, photography, and articles.