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Adult Supporters and Privilege

Written by Katrina Moncure Aug 20, 2010

NYRA President Jeffrey Nadel often says “The worst thing you can do is forget what it is like to be young.” Very true. After all, how can you effectively defend youth rights, or do much of anything involving youth for that matter, without any kind of memory or knowledge of the lives of the people involved? As such, our young supporters swear to never forget. Our adult supporters swear to have never forgotten. We can’t ever let go of those memories and experiences…

Yes, you will.

Sorry to break it to you, but yes, you will forget or have already forgotten. Don’t get me wrong. That doesn’t mean you won’t still passionately support youth rights. The common ageist assertion that you’ll “grow out” of caring about this cause has almost entirely proven to be a myth, as even if those who were heavily involved as teens are doing other things with their lives now, they still very much support the mission and make contributions.

But if we adult youth rights supporters are to more truly understand our role in this movement, this is a fact we’re going to have to face. If we are to truly be sure we aren’t perpetuating beliefs and mindsets that work against youth rights, this is a fact we’re going to have to face.

Being an adult youth rights supporter does not mean we don’t still have adult privilege. We do. And the number one symptom of privilege is being blind to it, and blindness to privilege perpetuates it. So what sets adult youth rights supporters apart from ageists is not in having a perfect 20/20 memory of our own youths, but in recognizing we do not have this perfect memory, we are not living the lives of young people anymore, and as such do not have the authority to say or act like we do. What sets us apart is that we are aware we are privileged, and just because we’re seeking to take down that privilege doesn’t mean we’re exempt from it.

And what happens when an adult youth rights supporter is blinded to his/her own privilege? I won’t name names but I’ve seen it in some of our older members. It’s usually in the form of disagreement with other (usually younger) supporters that often comes off as adult chauvinistic, and almost always ends with “but I would say the same to/about an adult!”

Thing is, that little excuse there doesn’t mean anything. For example, I can think of at least two members, who are in their 30’s, who support corporal punishment, but mostly because they believe corporal punishment should be used for all ages, not just kids. So if there’s a thread on the forums about school paddling or some other issue where a young person is so assaulted, they’re perfectly fine with it. Why? Because, in their apparently superbly logical (adult) minds, they’re just being equal, since if it were an adult rather than a kid in this scenario, they’d believe the same. So they think they’re the fair ones while the younger members appropriately balking at them just want “special treatment”.

Just one problem. In the real world, corporal punishment isn’t legal for adults. So saying “I’d say the same for an adult” has no meaning and no bearing on the reality. Adults can’t be beaten, at least not legally, but legal physical punishment IS a reality for youth. Just about every young person who wasn’t lucky enough to be born to non-hitting parents and/or in a non-hitting school district has to live every single day under the possibility that the people responsible for their care will assault them at any time, and that there isn’t a damn thing they can do about it. Even the “lucky” ones aren’t totally safe, since even non-hitting parents can change that stance at any moment. So while these adult supporters may claim this “corporal punishment for all” stance is the fair way to be, they, as adults, are not subject to it, will not be subject to it in the foreseeable future, and are therefore supporting a system, contrary to their promises of fairness, whose brutality is targeted exclusively at the young people they claim to support. The youth are aware of this, as it’s part of their lives to some degree or another, but one aspect of adult privilege is downplaying the importance of these things because it’s not in our lives anymore. And once we do that, begin down the road of denying youth their own experiences with the presumption of “fairness to adults” and not wanting to look like you’re asking for special treatment, we become at best ignorant and unhelpful, and at worst an ageist wolf in anti-ageist sheep’s clothing.

Similarly, adult youth rights supporters often assume we still are youth, even those of us over 25. Sorry, that just isn’t the case. A 25-year-old and a 15-year-old live very different lives, have different concerns, different limitations, etc. because of the ageist society we live in. Just because we want the two age groups to be living the same lives doesn’t mean we are. Had a similar realization myself this past year. I turned 27 this past May. For a while, whenever I thought of high school students, I considered them to be about my same age, just a few years younger. This past year I found myself still thinking that, until it finally hit me that the students about to start 12th grade are TEN YEARS younger than I am. In 1993, the year I completed 4th grade and began 5th, when my family moved out of our townhouse to a bigger house about a mile away, when a bunch of other little mundane things occurred that I still remember… these people were only being born that year. My middle school and high school days were a full decade before theirs. There were different rules, different technologies, different information, different settings, different cultures, different a lot of things! Now in 2010, they have to go to school and do homework and do extra curriculars in order to impress college admissions staff. I work a full time job 5 days a week, and get to goof off on evenings and weekends. I do not live their lives, at least not anymore, and as such I have no business pretending I do.

Or, more accurately, I never lived their lives. Late 1990’s and late 2000’s were different times to be teens. Even if I did have a perfect memory of what it was like when I was a teen, it wouldn’t matter. That memory is of being a teen a decade ago, which has little bearing on what it’s like to be a teen now. Only the current teens can speak to that.

True, the feelings of injustice from when we were that age linger in those of us who have taken up the youth rights cause. But they are just memories for us now, not our current 24/7 reality like it is for current teens. Our knowledge of that simply is not what theirs is, and we certainly can’t claim it is. To do so is really just another form of adult privilege, to assume we know what it’s like when we really don’t, to assume we have equal knowledge or insight when we really don’t.

So what are we older supporters supposed to do? For one, recognize that we are in fact adults, adults who have the rights we’re trying to extend to our younger colleagues. Yes, it can be nauseating to admit, but we have to. We’re adults. We have age privilege. We want to tear down this privilege because we don’t want or need it, because it marginalizes and harms our young friends. We believe the youth, the actual youth, as in people still subject to the ageist laws we’re trying to reduce or remove, are the only ones who truly know first-hand the effects of the current system which hates them and pushes them aside. We take them seriously, value their words and experience, and defend them in the face of our own age-peers who have succumbed to ageism and embraced adult privilege.

What little we do remember of the injustice we suffered in our teens drives us insane to realize our younger friends are still going through this, are feeling it so much more than we are in this little memory of a past we’ve permanently escaped. Most adults try to block it out, or rationalize it by believing they deserved the poor treatment or that it wasn’t really that bad. Instead, we join the youth in mobilizing against this oppressive construct. We offer advice, money, moral support, and help keep the organizational structure intact. But it is the REAL youth themselves who will lead the way to victory. Couldn’t really happen any other way.

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