Dr. King would have turned 81 this week – an excellent opportunity to discuss ageism, an insidious form of discrimination.
The starting point in any discussion of discrimination is why difference is an issue at all.
Some of your discomfort with difference derives from sheer inexperience. It has been proven that a witness in a courtroom will more accurately identify a defendant of his own ethnic background. Most of us are used to seeing faces that look like our own. Faces that are different tend to blur into sameness.
Another basis for discrimination is what psychotherapists call “transference.” That’s when you transfer an expectation based on an earlier encounter into a prediction about future encounters. If you are used to seeing Asian men deliver restaurant food and spot an Asian man carrying a bag from a Chinese restaurant, you might assume he’s delivering it. That happened to one of my patients last week when he showed up at a friend’s place with take-out. The doorman called up a delivery. My patient was a guest, not a delivery man – and he felt insulted.
Transferences can crop up anywhere. If you grew up in a world where African-American people, or Jews, or Muslims, or any other group, were supposed to be dangerous, violent, money-grubbing, untrustworthy or whatever, you might carry an unconscious assumption from that early programming.
Some of the worst discrimination arises from what you fear in yourself. Think of the “straight-appearing” gay man who disdains the effeminate gay man. Or the “bourgeois” African-American who looks down on the “ghetto” African-American.
Seniors face all three sources of discrimination. They are unfamiliar, since our society tends to shunt them aside, separating them from the mainstream of younger people. There is also transference – the images of older people in the popular media are often misguided and condescending, leading you to make assumptions about older people you meet in the real world. And finally, you fear old people because you fear growing old yourself.
A few years ago I introduced a new member to one of my psychotherapy groups. She was 77 years old. No one else was over 50. The new member’s arrival triggered discomfort, especially in the youngest members, who expressed it by becoming flustered and telling her over and over again how terrific it was to have her join us. Their response felt out of place and condescending – like it was all about her age. Instead of the bright, prickly, opinionated, vain, complicated person in front of them, they seemed to be seeing a small child.
Over time, the group confronted this issue and explored unconscious feelings.
But their initial – and bizarre – reaction was all too familiar to the 77 year-old.
She shared powerful examples with us of ageism in her daily life:
- If she went to a restaurant with younger girlfriends, a waitress always seemed to ask “oh, is this your mother?”
- If she went out to shop for clothes with younger friends, the clerk told the younger people they looked great in their outfits, then, if she even noticed her, added, “even you look great!”
- When she went to President Obama’s inauguration, a man chased her down and insisted on asking her age, then exclaimed “You’re terrific!” for no apparent reason. This was typical – people are always telling her they “love” her for no apparent reason.
Enough. Let’s listen to Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., the man we’re honoring on his birthday. I hope, if he were still with us, he would be treated at the age of 81 as the man he truly was – not some crazy stereotype about older people based on ignorance, misguided assumptions, and fears of death and dying.