Betty White Sets a Standard

Reading Time: 3 minutes

Issue 9, Volume 112

By Charlotte Peterson 

Cover Image

Beloved American actress Betty White passed away on December 31, 2021, just weeks before her 100th birthday. While her longevity and decades-long career are both widely discussed feats, the astonishing implications of her age in relation to her incredibly progressive stances are not as often acknowledged. Despite belonging to one of the most conservative generations in our society, she held some of the most radical beliefs of her time. White was exceptional, but why should her progressiveness be the exception? It is time for society to stop giving older generations a pass on bigotry and instead encourage them to follow White’s lead.

Phrases like “you can’t teach an old dog new tricks” or “they’re just a product of their time” are often used to excuse or justify bigoted remarks elderly relatives make over the holidays. With families in uncomfortable silence, awkward chuckles ensue and the topic is quickly changed. “It’s just their age speaking. Don’t pay it any mind,” a relative says, and the issue is forgotten. Despite how ubiquitous these kinds of justifications from slightly younger relatives are, they are often not remotely helpful or even accurate claims. White disproved the aforementioned judgment of age, as she was always quick to adapt to and push for social change before it became the norm.

White, born in the 1920s, was part of the “Traditional” or “Silent” Generation. Despite the regressiveness of her generation and the hateful societal standards that were present during her upbringing, White held some of the most progressive views among mainstream celebrities and actors. She announced her support of gay marriage in 2010, five years before it was legalized by the Obama administration. White, nearing 90 years of age at the time, explained that she thought “if a couple has been together all that time, […] it’s fine if they want to get married.” As an unusually progressive person, White demonstrated that despite the conditions and standards of one’s upbringing, a member of any generation can learn love and kindness over bigotry and adjust to rapidly changing social expectations.

Even before progressive views were more prevalent in our society, White maintained a devout anti-racist profile. At the time of Brown v. Board of Education in 1954, racial contentions were high as the civil rights movement gained major traction. The overwhelming majority of white America was hostile and angry. White followed her moral compass despite the times, opting to feature a Black tap dancer on her variety show. Ignoring pushback and threats from racist Americans and risking her job, status, and reputation, White stood up for what was right. Now, with the external pressures of bygone eras farther removed, it is much more straightforward to unlearn and reduce the biases taught to us since birth.

White was hardly the only progessive elderly person advocating for justice. One of the most well known progressive figures in America today, Bernie Sanders, turned 80 this past September. Born two decades after White, he was also one of the most progressive figures of his time and still is today. Sanders advocated for a whole host of reforms in his youth, famously protesting segregation as a student. More recently, Sanders has pushed for modern-day policies meant to improve the standard of living, particularly for younger generations. With some of the most aggressive climate change policies, Sanders has adjusted his viewpoints to accommodate new scientific discoveries. White and Sanders are proof that people can possess modern-day viewpoints that weren’t wholly understood or widely present in their time.

While such figures may have been generational exceptions to the rule, the stubbornly upheld ideals from past ages are not unyielding to change. More effort needs to be put into holding everyone accountable for their actions, regardless of age or upbringing. Instead of letting bigoted remarks go unaddressed, they should be discussed and learned from. Young people are not the only ones capable of leading societal change, and the claim that older generations can’t adapt furthers the circulation of misconceptions and discriminatory judgments.