What Is…Intersectionality?

Today’s post is the next installment on the “What is _____?” series, where I go over terms used commonly in social justice circles that may sound like jargon to many.

Today’s “What is_____?” post will be on a very big term in social justice circles these days: intersectionality.

Intersectionality is a term to describe how different forms of discrimination overlap, combine, and yes, even intersect, with each other. While the term was originally used by Kimberlé Crenshaw 30 years ago to describe how the discrimination of women of color differed from even that of white women, the definition has since expanded in a way that the term can be used to describe how different forms of discrimination intersect to create a set of interwoven prejudices in daily life.

A few such cases where I’ve seen intersectionality at play include the following:

  • Women with disabilities of various kinds, including my mother (who has fibromyalgia and arthritis), often face ableism from people who don’t believe that they should accommodate for someone else’s aches and pains. At the same time, many of the women I know who have chronic illnesses have said quite openly that the fact that they’re women has, without a doubt, made them less likely to be believed when talking about their disabilities with friends and doctors. In the case of women with disabilities, ableism and sexism often intersect.
  • Transgender women of color face discrimination for being transgender, for being a woman, and for being a person of color. Each of these individual statuses (being transgender, being a woman, or being a person of color) is often enough, in many cases, to be at risk in certain ways, but the combination of these three identities has arguably resulted in transgender women of color being disproportionately represented in murder counts, even in the transgender community.[1]
  • Younger people with disabilities (whether visible or invisible) are often thought to be “faking it” because they look “too young” to have a disability. This attitude, and its results, means that there are a lot of young people with disabilities face discrimination at the intersection of ageism and ableism.

An understanding of intersectionality is important because, quite frankly, intersectionality also allows us to have a basic understanding of how different groups of people, even within a community that faces discrimination, can face other forms of discrimination too (or further discrimination because of another oppressed identity). Such an understanding can result in greater empathy for others on an individual level, but also hopefully better policy on the governmental level.


[1] The majority of transgender people who were killed due to violence in 2018 were transgender women of color: https://www.hrc.org/resources/violence-against-the-transgender-community-in-2019

Addressing the “Good for Your Age” Compliment

“You’re smart, for being a young person.”

“You look good for your age.”

“You are athletic for your age.”

The “good for your age” compliments seem nice and flattering at first. But actually, these “compliments” are a backhanded knock on people your age.

For people who think that I’m being too sensitive, consider the implications of the compliments I expressed at the beginning of my piece:

  • “You’re smart, for being such a young person.” Implication: Young people are usually not that smart.
  • “You look good for your age.” Implication: People your age usually don’t look “good” (whatever good is).
  • “You are athletic for your age.” Implication: People your age aren’t athletic. By the way, I’ve known of people over the age of 100 to run marathons, so people can be athletic at any age.[1]

In summary, these compliments of being “good for your age” are indirectly critical of others of a particular age in ways that are ageist. It’s ageist because people (or groups of people) are judged solely on the basis of the age they are or the age they look.

Instead of making such ageist comments, we can just avoid the age-based compliments. Instead of saying that someone is smart for their age, say that the person is smart. Instead of saying someone looks good for their age, say that the person looks good. Instead of saying that someone is athletic for their age, say that someone is athletic. Ultimately, your traits need not be based on age because, really, age is just a number.

Please note that I will not publish a post next Monday because it will be Presidents’ Day.


[1] https://www.npr.org/sections/goatsandsoda/2018/01/01/568665002/at-age-101-shes-a-world-champ-runner

Rejecting the Notion that a Presidential Candidate Can be “Too Old”

Recently, some of the younger candidates for President of the United States have argued that certain prominent presidential candidates, especially Joe Biden (who is 76) and Bernie Sanders (who is 77) should “pass the torch” to a new generation of leadership. Congressman Eric Swalwell (now a former candidate), former HUD Secretary Julian Castro, and Mayor Pete Buttigieg of South Bend, Indiana, in particular, have made these sorts of arguments. Even CNN moderators at the recent presidential debate had questions directed at the older candidates which implied the “old is bad” thinking. Such arguments have received attention—so much so that the anti-ageism organization that I am a part of, the Gray Panthers, has gotten quoted by the media such as the Boston Globe and Daily Beast about the question of whether these candidates are “too old.”

The aforementioned candidates are wrong—there is no such thing as a candidate being “too old” for the presidency.

However, I’m going to go one step further, and also reject a number of common notions about presidential candidates and age that are ageist.

One such notion is that old candidates lack ideas. In 2016, Bernie Sanders, all by himself, rejected that notion. Some of the ideas embraced now by some on the left—Medicare for All, tuition-free public universities, and a $15 an hour minimum wage—became prominent at least in part because those were (and are) things that Sanders advocated for at times when even most Democrats suggested that these ideas were too radical. I should also note that Elizabeth Warren, who is also one of the oldest candidates in the race, has come out with many policy ideas as well. In contrast, the candidate often most criticized for a lack of policy ideas, Beto O’Rourke, is over 30 years younger than Sanders.

Some people also believe that old people lack the capacity (whether it be physical, mental, or otherwise) to serve as a president.Julian Castro’s “Are you forgetting what you said two minutes ago?” line directed at Biden in a presidential debate seemed to go along with the idea that Biden is too old and senile to have the capacity for the presidency. I can refute the “old and senile” stereotype by pointing out that arguably two of the greatest world leaders of the second half of the twentieth century were leaders in their seventies and eighties. Nelson Mandela, who was instrumental in the healing of post-apartheid South Africa, was President of South Africa from the age of 75 until he was 80. Konrad Adenauer, who helped build West Germany from World War II ruins into an economic power, started as Chancellor of West Germany when he was 73…and he served until he was 87! These two individuals, as well as many others, demonstrate that a person’s capacity to serve a country effectively does not have to do with age.

Finally, there’s a belief among some that we need to move on from the old generation, and to a new generation of people.I am thoroughly understanding of where this argument comes from—it stems from the fact that we’ve had three presidents of approximately the same generation as Warren, Sanders, and Biden. Those three presidents include the scandal-marred Bill Clinton; George W. Bush, who led the country into two wars and the Great Recession; and Donald Trump, who is currently mired in an impeachment inquiry. That being said, just because previous presidents come from the same generation as some of the current candidates does not necessarily predict how those current candidates will do in the White House.

At the same time, I caution against the opposite notion, that age is an advantage. There is sometimes a stereotype that older candidates have wisdom that younger candidates inherently lack, or automatically have the experience that younger candidates lack just because of age. Ironically, Buttigieg, who I criticized earlier in the piece, is the prominent candidate who is most prone to falling victim to anti-younger-candidate ageism. These stereotypes should also be challenged and dismantled, as positive qualities such as wisdom and experience don’t have to do with age, but with a variety of factors that have nothing to do with age. However, negative age-related stereotypes about the older candidates in the presidential race seems particularly prominent right now, hence my focus on ageism against the older candidates.

Ultimately, the question should not be what age a candidate is, but whether a candidate is capable of making the United States, and the world as a whole, a place that is more fair and more just than it currently is. If the answer is yes, then seriously consider voting for that candidate. If not, then avoid voting for that candidate.

Ageism and Technology

A few weeks ago, I was waiting for a train, and a woman came up to me asking how to fix her problems in WhatsApp.

I wasn’t able to fix the problems that she was encountering with her WhatsApp. But my inability to fix the woman’s issues with her WhatsApp was not what led me to write this blog post.

Instead, it was something that the woman said, after concluding that I would be of no help in fixing her issues. She said something along the lines of: “I thought that, since you were a younger person, you would know how to fix this issue.”

“Since you were a younger person, you would know how to fix this issue.”

Now I really believe that this woman was well-intentioned, and I’m not mad at her. Not one bit. But at the same time, I think that this quote is only a microcosm of ageist attitudes when it comes to technology. Namely, the idea that all young people know their technology, and that all old people don’t know their technology.

Such attitudes are widespread. From a YouTube video with over 4 million views called “Old People vs Technology” to that one person at the subway station asking me about WhatsApp the other day, there is this generalized assumption that old people are technologically clueless while younger people like me are technologically adept.

Based on many statistics, as well as personal experiences, that isn’t necessarily a fair assumption to make. While it is true that people ages 65 and older have internet, cell phones, and broadband at lower rates than the rest of the United States population, 47% of seniors had broadband, 59% of seniors had internet, and a staggering 77% of seniors had cell phones as of 2014.[1] Basically, there is a large population of seniors who are technologically adept and buck the notion that seniors have no clue when it comes to technology. While more people under 65 than over 65 know these things, the population of “over 65s” who know technology and work with it is quite large.

So, the next time you are encountering technology struggles, don’t automatically think that a young person will automatically bail you out of your troubles, or that an older person would automatically be clueless on how to help you. Sometimes, the person most able to help you with technology woes is not who you expect. 


[1] http://www.pewinternet.org/2014/04/03/older-adults-and-technology-use/

Ageist Responses to Florida Shooting Survivors-Turned-Activists

“Well, let’s ask ourselves, do we really think—and I say this sincerely—do we really think 17-year-olds on their own are going to plan a nationwide rally?”

“The big question is: Should the media be promoting opinions by teenagers who are in an emotional state and facing extreme peer pressure in some cases?”

“I absolutely know these children are heartbroken. But I also know they probably do not have the logistical ability to plan a nationwide rally.”

While some of the conspiracy theories about the Florida shooting survivors-turned-activists has both gotten attention for all the wrong reasons and been debunked (and rightfully so), the ageist sentiments such as the ones in the quotes above (all of them coming from prominent political commentators) should not just be debunked but also called out for what it is: ageism.

Ageism—defined by me in a blog post many months ago as “a form of discrimination where people are judged based on the age they are or the age they look”—is very apparent in some of the ways people are viewing and judging the shooting survivors-turned-activists. By saying that these teens are not capable of organizing a nationwide rally since they’re seventeen, or shouldn’t be promoted just because they are “teens in an emotional state,” we’re judging them as being too young (and therefore incapable) of doing certain things. And by promoting such messages about these teens not being capable of certain things because they are teens, we’re actually promoting ageism.

But it’s not enough to say that people are ageist for saying that high school kids are not capable of being activists on a national level. I urge us to go a step further, by promoting narratives that debunk such ageist thoughts. I urge us to promote the story of Malala Yousafzai, who became internationally known for advocacy at the age of 12 and nearly died because of her advocacy. I urge us to promote the story of Mo’ne Davis, who at age 16 has gone from being a pioneer (a girl starring in Little League Baseball, a sport traditionally for guys) to launching a shoe collection that benefits impoverished girls. I urge us to promote stories like that of my fellow Dickinson College alum Noorjahan Akbar, who was featured in major publications as early as when she was 19 and 20. Stories like these are the most powerful rebuttals to any notions that young people are not capable of doing something special just because they’re young.

People of a wide variety of ages are capable of doing special things. Young people are capable of doing special things. Old people are capable of doing special things. Middle-aged people are capable of doing special things. Ultimately, there are some things that do keep us from doing great things, but age is not one of them.