People probably don’t mean to be cruel but scarcely a week, and sometimes a day, goes by without at least one insult. As one of my improv classes came to an end, a man who appeared to be in his forties said to me, “You know, I think it’s great that you get in here with these kids.”
I pointed out that we had some white-haired students and half our class had graduate degrees. They weren’t kids.
Can you imagine saying to an African-American, “I think it’s great that you’re in here with the white folks.” Or to a gay person, “How nice that you want to do things with the straight community.”
At a networking event, a thirtyish African American male comes up. Instead of saying, “What do you do?” he asks, “Are you retired?”
People try to tell me he meant it as a compliment. Yeah, right. Suppose I’d said to him, “Wow – you’re black. Do you have rhythm?” I think “having rhythm” is a good thing but I doubt that I’d get away with saying, “I meant it as a compliment.”
One of the best commentaries on stereotypes of aging comes from a chapter in Brene Brown’s book, I Thought It Was Just Me.
Brown says we have four key stereotypes of aging: the active “golden ager,” the perfect grandparent, the small town neighbor and the John Wayne conservative. These stereotypes “fit so closely that they give us permission to dismiss anything that deviates from that image.”
For instance, a “perfect grandma” knows her grandchildren are teasing when they say, “Dance for us, Grandma.” She does, although she feels hurt ad shamed. They want to see her as a clown, not a whole person.
Totalitarian prisons often demand that inmates perform dances for the amusement of their captors. Think of the Nazis and scenes from the movie The Magdalene sisters.
It’s sobering and should be shocking.