Let's Talk About White Millennial Racism

by Jenn M. Jackson

At some point we have to come to terms with the transformative nature of modern institutional racism. It isn’t bound by time. It isn’t bound by geographical location. And it certainly isn’t bound by the life cycles of individual human beings. In other words, racism isn’t located in people. It’s a system of processes, policies, and interpersonal norms which guide daily life. Social conditioning reproduces racism just like families reproduce acceptable behavior. So, why are we so surprised that White Millennials are just as racist as their parents?

Recently, the Washington Post found that racism amongst White Millennials isn’t significantly different from that of Generation X’ers or even Baby Boomers (AKA their parents). Across five survey categories spanning data collected between 2010 and 2014, the findings seem in discord with popular notion that racism in the United States is the product of socially-backward Southerners hell bent on preserving the archaic systems of the past.

From questions asking if Blacks are lazier and less hardworking than Whites to those asking if Whites would be willing to live in neighborhoods with 50% Black residents, the data suggests that White Millennials are closer to Baby Boomers on racial prejudice than one might think. Essentially, this data suggests, White Millennials aren’t as racially liberal as many would like to believe.

In fact, White Millennials only really diverge from their parents on the issue of interracial marriage. Apparently, 50% less Millennial Whites are opposed to a relative marrying a Black person. No, the question did not ask if they themselves would be comfortable marrying a Black person. It only asked about a “relative.” What this doesn’t account for, though, is that many folks in this age group don’t actually have children yet. And, if they do, those kids likely aren’t old enough to be considering viable marriage partners at their current age. So, we might get a more accurate result on this question in a few years.

Perhaps the cognitive dissonance on this issue lies in the diverse daily experiences many people of color have today, compared to those historically. Due to globalism and changes in access to travel, many people of color have broadened their worlds and gained exposure to social groups to which they might otherwise have no access. But, many Whites still live in highly segregated, highly isolated communities and report having very few friends of color. That could also be part of the reason many Whites think racism is basically a thing of the past. But, clearly, perpetual racial segregation and “tokenism” is still an issue for many Millennials of color. It’s a tale of two cities in racial politics.

While some people of color have suggested (erroneously) that Blacks should respond to anti-Black, racial animus on college campuses by exclusively attending HBCUs, this won’t change the ubiquity of White Millennials who still think that blackface is an appropriate costume. It won’t limit the ongoing issues of “casual racism” that happen in the privacy of White social circles.

The fact is: Millennial racism is able to persist because it is linked to what Eduardo Bonilla-Silva and Tyrone A. Forman call “color-blind racism.” This issue was first articulated in their 2000 iconic article, “I’m Not a Racist, But…: Mapping College Students’ Racial Ideology in the USA.” They argue that “color-blind racism allows Whites to appear ‘not racist’ (“I believe in equality”), preserve their privileged status (“Discrimination ended in the sixties!”), blame Blacks for their lower status (“If you guys just work hard!”), and criticize any institutional approach – such as affirmative action – that attempts to ameliorate racial inequality (“Reverse discrimination”).”

In essence, this system is denoted by language maneuvers and social norms which avoid the topic of race altogether without ever really addressing how it operates in the daily mundanities of the United States.

Thus, it follows, that White Millennials are able to hold on to many of the same biases as their parents because they have become adept at transforming that racism into public actions that cannot be read as explicitly racist. The combination of private racism (which has become increasingly public thanks to social media) and the rhetorical attribution of anti-Black racism to “kids having fun” allows this generation to remain mired in racism without ever having to be held accountable for it, at least not in any tangible way.

So, what’s the solution?

Bonilla-Silva and Forman would suggest that we “blow the whistle on color-blind racism.” But calling out implicit and casual racism hasn’t worked terribly well, especially for Black women who are subjected to targeted misogynoir both online and in real life.

Instead, I set forth that the only real way to combat and defeat White Millennial racism is by creating public space for ourselves. By existing freely in public (including White) spaces together, we exist in both rebellion and self-reclamation. By not backing down from our right to exist on our own terms, we keep ourselves from what Audre Lorde called, “being crunched into other people’s fantasies for [us] and eaten alive.”

Photo: Shutterstock

Jenn M. Jackson is a regular contributor at For Harriet. For more about her, tweet her at @JennMJack or visit her website at jennmjackson.com.

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