Photo: Elena Ray/Shutterstock

The One American "Ism" You Can't Escape

United States Narrative
by Mary Sojourner Aug 21, 2014

You find yourself sitting at a big conference table in one of those trying-to-be-classy corporate hotel meeting rooms. There’s a pad and pen in front of you. The company has sent you to a training on stereotyping. You figure it’s a waste. You’ve been through all of that before — doesn’t matter if you’re Anglo, African-American, Asian-American, whatever. You went to college and the racism training was part of the deal.

The room fills. Everybody’s got their laptops open in front of them and a cup of bad hotel coffee. A person walks in and closes the door. The person is dressed in baggy clothing. It wears a featureless mask and gloves. You wonder if this is some Occupy mic-check.

“Please put your laptops and phones away,” the person says. The voice is muffled. There’s no way to tell who’s speaking. You obey. You figure the company is paying for this, you might as well take a shot at something different from the featureless days of cell, email, Excel, tweeting, and Facebook that seem to be eating your life.

The room is quiet. A minute passes, then five. You wish there were a window, but of course there isn’t. You feel jittery. You remember that hilarious scene in Northern Exposure when the young New York doc is challenged by the Native woman to sit still for five minutes, and after a few seconds starts tapping the arm of his chair. You wonder when you got so wired.

“In the last week,” the person says, “I have been condescended to. Someone has said to me, ‘You’re really intelligent’ with amazement in his voice. Another person told me I’m not like other people she knows who share my condition. Yet another person told me there would be no job interview — even though my credentials are far better than hers. And, of course, I have been ignored.”

You’re prepared to be outraged. You tell yourself you have to be more attentive in the future. You wonder which race the person is. Is it disabled? Is it disfigured? You can see it isn’t fat.

The person carefully unties the mask. She is an old white woman. “Please begin writing on the pad,” she says. “Write everything you think you know about me. You have ten minutes to write. Keep the pen moving no matter what. I’ll let you know when time is up. Begin with this opening: ‘You are…’ Start now.”

You pick up the pen and hesitate. What if you have to read this? What if you write the truth and have to read it? She is old and she is a woman. You decide to be honest — even if it hurts. You write:

You are old. You are a woman. You are white. You are normal size. You have gray-green eyes and hair that is more white than brown. You wear no makeup. You wear two earrings in one ear and one in the other. You might be an old hippie, an old academic, an old Feminist, an old…

You stop writing. You look up. The woman smiles. You write:

You have a sense of humor. You have wrinkles fanning out from the edges of your eyes. You are angry. You are ironic. You are someone’s mother, someone’s grandmother. You are full of secrets. You are full of years. You remind me of my aunt. You remind me of my high school teacher. You remind me of something else. I don’t know what it is.

You write more, filling in the time. “Stop,” the woman says. “I’d like to hear what you’ve written.”

People read. You go last. No one has read “You are old.”

“I’m uncomfortable reading,” you say. “What do I really know about you? I don’t even know how you like your pizza!”

The woman laughs. “I don’t like pizza. Just read.”

“You are an old white woman,” you read. She nods. “Thank you. Thank you for writing the word ‘old.’ Perhaps the most interesting phenomenon in this workshop so far has been that no one wrote that I was old. What do you make of that?”

There’s silence. You look around the table and realize everyone except for the woman is younger. A woman raises her hand. “I didn’t want to hurt your feelings.”

“Now,” the woman says, “we can begin.”

An hour later, the woman has told us a little from her own experience. The woman has told us how furious she is when someone denies her age. “People think it’s a compliment to tell me I have youthful spirit, energy, intelligence, whatever. My spirit, energy, intelligence are not youthful! They are 74 years old.”

You keep thinking about all the times you’ve told an older person, who’d said something about being old, that they weren’t old. You want to explain, to tell her what you’ve meant when you’ve described an old person as youthful, but the woman stops you with her next words.

“Look,” she says, “to tell an old person they aren’t like other old people is exactly the same as the not-so-subtle racism in telling an African American they aren’t like other African Americans; or being amazed when a person with cerebral palsy is intelligent; or telling a Mexican American there are Mexican Americans in your neighborhood and they’re really nice people.”

But it’s what she does next that finally allows her audience to open up. She asks you to close your eyes. “So,” she says, “let yourself imagine it’s perhaps 30, maybe 40 years from now. You are you. You talk with a younger colleague you don’t know well. He tells you he’s just come back from running a marathon in his hometown. You tell him you love walking, that you put in three to four miles a day. ‘Good for you!!!’ he says, as he would praise a child, and pats you on the shoulder. How does that feel?”

You open your eyes. Some of the other participants are shaking their heads. One of the women looks at the old woman and nods. You begin to crumple the paper in front of you. The old woman grins. “No,” she says, “I want you all to keep what you’ve written — as artifacts.

“Today you may have learned a little, perhaps for the first time, about how it is for many old women in America, 2014. It’s slightly different for most men — especially if they’re white and middle-class. And it’s always different for the poor. But, by and large, to be old in America is to be marginalized and condescended to at best, ignored at worst.

“And that fate is heading for you at the speed of unexamined brainwashing and assumption. I hope what we’ve done today will be a significant speed bump.”

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