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My Turn

by Dmae Roberts

From The Asian Reporter, V29, #14 (July 15, 2019), page 6.


Back in high school, I read Passages, a book by Gail Sheehy charting different stages in adult life. One day I handed the book to my 40-year-old father because I was convinced he was going through a mid-life crisis and hoped it would help him. He gave me a puzzled look, politely took the book, and walked away. We never talked about it again.

Now I empathize with my dad and what he must have felt to have his daughter give him a self-help book. Oh, the arrogance of my teenage self to think I knew what he was feeling and going through, so convinced I had insight and wisdom because I read Passages.

Later, after college, when I was receiving radio production work, I remember sidelong glances from older colleagues as I pontificated with enthusiasm about the kind of creative sound I wanted to produce. I had enough bravado to get networks and funders to treat me as a wunderkind, an exciting new emerging radio producer. I was rewarded with grants and awards including the Peabody by the time I was 30 years old. It seemed the world was my proverbial oyster.

In my 40s, things started to change. I never told anyone my true age. When working as an actor, one gets typecast by age discrimination. When I received a prestigious fellowship, not just the local newspaper, but also the public radio trade magazine published my age. After that, it seemed commissions for radio work and invitations to panels at media conferences began to trickle off. Now I have become more of a mentor than a colleague.

In the last few years, Iíve focused more on theatre. Often I am one of the few or the only older person in the room. Sometimes I feel like Iím reliving my fatherís experience when younger people offer their own nuggets of wisdom or get excited about a "new" idea that Iíve heard or created before. Whatís irritating is the occasional patronizing tone instructing me on how I can improve a certain task or policing my language or telling me (usually a man) to not interrupt while theyíre talking, or even worse, giggling when I donít know the latest pop star.

While I have enjoyed mentoring young media producers, I became discouraged when my mentees were the ones being offered work and opportunities instead of me, even from colleagues my age who Iíve worked with many times before. Perhaps itís reality, but itís disheartening to realize youíre not wanted simply because of perceived age. I say perceived because at heart I still feel like a know-it-all 30-year-old brimming with ideas taking on the world.

Recently, I was interviewed by two 30-ish white women via Skype. I had applied to be on an advisory panel for a national media conference ó something conferences had in previous years invited me to do. Several times during the interview, the women praised my past work and experience because they were so "impressed" I wanted to work with them. This situation has now become a red flag. Iíve found that usually when it happens, they may feel threatened about their own power in the situation, asking "why would you want to do this?" I heard the same question when I applied for a local radio station job that I did not get.

I gave the two women many reasons why I wanted to be on the panel, including my top one ó to be part of changing the system for people of color in a predominantly white field. Every 10 minutes or so, they played with their hair and moved their part from one side of their heads to the other, almost like a television model would. I could tell we werenít connecting.

I was not offered the position, but I received an upbeat rejection e-mail acknowledging all Iíve done in my "past" for "many years" with no nod to what Iím accomplishing in the present.

I believe they didnít know they were being ageist. Thatís definitely how it felt.

I suppose this is the way of things, but I donít feel ready to completely make way for the younger generation because Iím not really that old. Seriously. And I become frustrated when people place others in a certain demographic box to limit their opportunities.

Iím trying to process this as a work-in-progress with no time limitation. I think back to the puzzling look my dad gave me decades ago. Itís probably a look I sometimes give to the younger people I now work with.

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