This is the second part of my interview with Elizabeth White, author of “55, Unemployed and Faking Normal: Your Guide to a Better Life”. If you missed the first part of the interview, click here.
Chip: As an African-American woman with advanced degrees from Harvard and Johns Hopkins who has clearly proven herself, what are your impressions of the times we’re living in and how we can root out systemic racism?
Elizabeth: Dare I be hopeful is my sentiment. I am in awe of the muscularity of this movement, and by the bold, fearless vision of our children and grandchildren – black, brown, red, yellow, and white. They are pushing us into uncharted waters – the beautiful and the unbeautiful. We Boomers are used to leading so the passing of the torch is uncomfortable for many of us.
I look at it as in this movement we all have bricks that we can use to build with or to disrupt and destroy. Bold change requires creation and destruction. There will, of course, be legislative battles and big court fights to address the root causes of institutional racism. But that will take years.
I am interested in what happens in the meantime. The question I pose to myself is given my sphere of influence, network, resources, and abilities — how do I use my brick? What can I do from where I am sitting with the means I have at hand?
I read about a young activist whose front teeth got knocked out in a scuffle with police. An orthodontist offered to repair them for free. That’s how he used one of his bricks. A black bookstore owner I know did $30,000 in three days because an Instagram influencer directed her followers to buy their books on race from my friend’s store instead of Amazon. That’s how she used her brick.
I am not buying that people don’t know what to do. For example, in the workplace you know whether or not black talent is being included as a routine part of candidate pools. If you’re paying attention you can see there are no black people on any of the panels at our annual conferences or in senior management or on your board. And I am not talking tokenism here. What’s powerful about this moment is that the concept of black people as decoration is being challenged more than ever before.
I said to a friend recently, if all your “diversity hires” are only people you’re really, really comfortable with, you’re probably not stretching enough. If you’re super, super satisfied with your corporate statement on “diversity, equity, and inclusion,” it’s probably too safe.
What it comes down to for me is — are we going to use our bricks or not? Are we going to start speaking up or not, are we going to create new pathways or not? An anti-racism stance is different from a diversity and inclusion stance – harder and will require more of us. When the sugar goes out of the bubble gum, will the folks who are our allies now be our allies then?
Chip: It’s been a little over a year since you were here at MEA. What lingering learning or memories come from that experience and what are you working on these days?
Elizabeth: The work of MEA is so incredibly timely now. How do we as older adults become good allies to these young activists? What is our new role now that we are in our fifties and sixties? Our work together at MEA last year dealt precisely with these questions. It’s the guts of what your book “Wisdom at Work: The Making of a Modern Elder” is about.
I learned a new word the other day – adultism which means “prejudice or discrimination against young people as a group.” In other words, age discrimination can go both ways. I thought about this when a friend reminded me recently that Black Panther Fred Hampton was murdered when he was only 21 years old. In a recent documentary I watched about him, I saw again how ahead of his time he was, phenomenal, just brilliant. It got me thinking about how open we, as older adults, would be to the leadership of the Fred Hamptons of this time, of this movement. What’s powerful about MEA is that it’s the only residential program I know of that deals in depth with this question from the point of view of us as elders.
I am in such a good place. Thank you for asking. In so many ways, I welcomed the lockdown, the pause. I needed it. I am still writing and consulting. What I’d like going forward is to find an institutional home where I can continue my work on race relations and advocating for older adults facing uncertain work and financial insecurity.
Chip: Thank you, Elizabeth, for the remarkable work you’re doing in the world. Maybe we’ll have you teach at MEA in the future?