From lazy and entitled to open-minded and accepting, the label “Millennial” can represent very different things to different people. Indeed, as the biggest and most diverse adult generation, Millennials exist at the intersection of conflicting identities, experiences, and expectations.
Despite our noted diversity, frequently overlooked in discussions about Millennials is the degree to which race, gender, sexuality, faith, and other factors can contribute far more to our personal identities than our age group. That notion has been made clear by GenForward, a series of monthly surveys published by the Black Youth Project at the University of Chicago.
Over the last three months, GenForward has been illuminating the depth of race’s impact on Millennial identity formation. Its latest survey suggests the progressive ideology widely prescribed to young Americans is, in fact, often only true for young people of color.
For example, the report finds that although Hillary Clinton enjoys the support of Black (60 percent), Asian-American (52 percent), and Latinx (49 percent) 18 to 30 year-olds by broad margins, white young adults are evenly divided in their support for her and Donald Trump (28 percent each). The survey also finds that 66 percent of white young adults believe that the Black Lives Matter organization’s rhetoric encourages violence against police, compared to just 19 percent of Black respondents.
The data is clear: race crucially informs drastically different and even oppositional worldviews among young adults. A Millennial monolith is a myth, and this truth should instruct how we engage the term and the diverse group of individuals it’s supposed to represent, especially when it comes to politics.
Many young people are presenting questions that force us to rethink our world, understanding the truth that it only now works for some as it is. There are, however, just as many young people for whom the world works just fine, and who fight with equal vigor to keep it that way. Politically, these groups of young people are as different as night and day, and those differences matter. In overlooking them and presenting Millennials monolithically, we set ourselves up for a future that is a mere mirage of social and political change, while many of society’s flaws continue to advance. Indeed, progress will not be made around racism in particular while white Millennials remain as racist as their parents.
A view of young people that lacks this racial lens allows white youth to escape the difficult and necessary responsibility of addressing systems of violence they uphold on the backs of their peers of color. If we equate youth with progress in general terms, we promote the false idea that systems of oppression can somehow be bred away and require no more work than time. We allow many of the very people responsible for the social ills of racism off the hook, while also ignoring how they make possible the continuation of the problems of those whom are most afflicted.
Conversations that acknowledge the ever-present realities of oppression are difficult to have. They demand that we give up unearned privileges and require more of us than simply waiting for new generations to take charge. These conversations demand that every one of us actively deconstruct racism, sexism, and our participation in social barriers of marginalized people every day, even and especially the youngest of us who are responsible for ushering in our future.
That young adults share the experience of youth and relative inexperience is significant. But equally significant is the way youth is influenced by other factors and experiences. Understanding and engaging this influence could mean the difference between a genuinely freer future and one that is only an illusion.