Will old dogs ever learn new tricks?
Ahh, the holidays. Such an excellent opportunity to spend time with family. We love them (of course), but our three-day visits might not seem like three years if it weren’t for certain family members’ comments that, if posted on Twitter, would lead to their swift demise. I’m talking about the racist grandad who declares that targeted admission schemes are the real unfairness in society or the great-aunt who criticises her boss for making her put pronouns in her email signature. Or maybe they aren’t family members, but whoever they are, we tend to go through the bevs just a little quicker than normal when they’re around.
While many of us may feel an urge to speak up, pointing out an old person’s wrongness is difficult, to say the least. First, there’s the “respect your elders” dynamic at play. Second, depending on your relationship with said old person, telling them that their comment is racist, sexist or whatever-ist may see you cut out of their will for good. Third, is it even our job to show them the flaws in their thinking? It’s not like we’re lecturers.
Then there’s the critical fact that engaging in these discussions can be upsetting and draining. This is especially the case when they get defensive or take your statements about racial injustice as a humble opinion rather than fact, supported by social analyses and statistics. (Seriously, just Google it, okay?). Even more frustrating is when they retort that you’re “too politically correct.” It can feel like you are kicking Albert Barrack’s Wall, making you wonder if the whole thing is worth your time.
Why are old people like this? I decided to go to the source and ask my own family.
According to some relatives, it’s not necessarily calling out their bigotry that makes them standoffish, but that you’re challenging their opinion at all. Some of my more senior relatives “learned to accept their [parent’s] view, but to keep [their] own to [them]selves.” They said they never went against their parents because challenging them was seen as insulting. In other words, for some older people, it doesn’t matter if you’re telling them that you think chicken is better tender instead of drier than the Sahara Desert or that they cannot equate the waiter’s gender expression to their sexuality—they’re going to be offended regardless.
Another relation described how raising an issue is confronting, again not because you are pointing out some prejudice, but because it goes against their expectation of you: “[they] may be intimidated by [your] opinion because they’re still looking at you as a little seven-year-old with bouncy curly hair who would be quite happy to do anything and everything that someone asked.”
It’s as though the demonstration of our maturity is too hard for some older family members to accept. Instead of facing reality, they try to avoid the conversation altogether.
Admittedly, these answers prompted a little more empathy on my part. But, I feel their sentiments reflect the “it’s just how they were raised” or “you can’t teach an old dog new tricks” rhetoric that old people employ to excuse their refusal to change.
Funnily enough, when I asked my various family members what they thought of the idea that “you can’t teach an old dog new tricks,” they all felt it was untrue. One offered the example of the pandemic, saying, “everyone has had to learn something new, whether it be because it’s gone online […] or that you have to remember to wear a mask when you go into a place.” That’s right Beryl. There’s no hiding that even though Apple was only a fruit in 1965, you figured out how to share from your iPhone ‘what negative personality trait is revealed from the way you draw a Y’ on Facebook pretty quick.
That got me thinking that perhaps my arguments were the problem. I asked them if they found my claims convincing and found that it’s not what I say that sounds wrong per se, but that we value different kinds of evidence. For example, a relative said, “sometimes I think we’re approaching it from different viewpoints. Mine is a life opinion and interactions I’ve had, whereas sometimes yours is more a book version.” Another said, “we just take for granted that what we see on the news is the gospel and what people tell us is correct.”
Admittedly, it’s practically impossible to deny something you’ve seen. It’s also hard—and possibly unfair—to expect everyone to question what they see, especially if they haven’t been to university, where asking “but, why?” is constantly encouraged. Similarly, traditional media outlets don’t tend to reference systemic injustice every time they run a story on race relations, limiting some people’s ability to understand the whole picture.
I mentioned it earlier, but waiting for old people to die is undoubtedly easier than standing up to them. However, letting them say whatever they want maintains frameworks of division and does nothing to protect the victims of such messages. While Christmas dinner is probably not the best time to point out that the reason why there are less white children going to school hungry has very little to do with parental choices, if you’re in a position to do so, I believe it’s important to say something. Apparently, old people enjoy hearing our perspective. (At least the ones I spoke to do.)
To help us have more productive intergenerational conversations, the boomers proposed some tips.*
Suggestion 1: Do not abruptly end a discussion by saying you are tired or some other excuse (this is definitely an attack on me—oops). If you notice the conversation going around in circles, let the other person know. Suggest returning to it later after you’ve both had time to reflect and collect your thoughts.
Suggestion 2: Take into account what might be going on in the other person’s life. Just because they’re willing to engage in a difficult conversation doesn’t mean they don’t require compassion.
Suggestion 3: Use anecdotal evidence when making your case. That is not to say you should disregard the data, but if the person you are talking to is unlikely to ever read a journal article, then quoting academics will not help them understand your POV.
Obviously, everyone’s family situation is different. It is more than okay if pointing out an older person’s prejudice is not an option for you. Furthermore, no one’s expecting us to shut down every problematic statement that comes out of an old person’s mouth, or for one conversation to turn Beryl into the next Desmond Tutu (may he RIP). Exhibit A: during one of my discussions with a relative who I have had numerous debates with, they said, “we think there is a lot of reverse racism in this country now […] we’ve always been led to believe that there’s been equal opportunities for every single New Zealander.” I mean—facepalm.
Yet, if Beryl is the kind old lady she mostly appears to be, then hopefully your words have an effect. Maybe the next time she feels the need to make an unconsidered comment, Beryl thinks, to quote Rebel Wilson in Pitch Perfect, “mmm, better not.”
*Please note these suggestions are useful but have come from amateurs with limited experience. There are many great resources on having conversations about contentious and taboo topics. If you are interested in further reading, I like: “So You Want to Talk About Race” by Ijeoma Oluo and “White Fragility: Why It’s So Hard for White People to Talk About Racism” by Robin DiAngelo.