My Facebook feed is filled with my grandma’s comments and likes of various racially charged “news” articles. The headline she liked today was “First Thing Trump Did as POTUS Today was a HUGE ‘SCREW YOU’ To Racist Black Lives Matter Thugs”. As I called my sister to commiserate about the offensive nature of this post, I found myself, once again, repeating a phrase I’ve used often: “I guess she doesn’t know any better, things were different when she was growing up.” As I stopped to think about this, however, I can’t really come up with an adequate reason why I don’t challenge the subtle racism of elderly people in the same way I would my peers. I believe it comes down to discomfort at confronting someone you love for saying something wrong and the sympathetic view that they “can’t help how or when they were raised”. While this may be true, this dismissal of racism as being appropriate in another time is, I think, unproductive. By brushing off these micro-aggressions as something that was okay in another time period, we are normalizing it in today’s context.
My grandma has frequently said things equating whiteness with beauty, such as commenting how lucky I am to have blue eyes, how I should try not to get a tan in the summer, and, when I got my ears pierced, that the only people she knew with pierced ears growing up were “Latinas with bad reputations”. Comments like these, which I would never tolerate from someone my own age, are usually met with a quick change of the subject. Many of my friends have similar experiences with their grandparents, and the stories are usually told as a funny story about a quirky grandparent. It is a mark of privilege, as well, that these stories can be told as funny, and not reminiscent of the discrimination your grandparents felt decades prior. In this way whiteness acts as a form of social protection while age acts as a free pass to say whatever you want. To fully address the impact of racism or the privilege of whiteness, all who benefit from these systems of oppression, I think, have to be held accountable, regardless of age. While we may be used to rolling our eyes at the out of touch things our grandparents or parents say, by not engaging in discussion I think we are doing a disservice to them by assuming that evolution of thought ends after a certain age. This idea that elderly people are “set in their ways” allows for ideas of white superiority to go unchecked and possibly even continue into later generations.