Not Your Grandma’s Racism

When browsing through Facebook yesterday, I came across several articles that said that Millennials (those born approximately after 1980) are about as racist as the older generations.

What the what?


The younger generation–– my generation–– are supposed to be one of the most openminded and liberal generation there is. We support LGBT equality in record numbers, care more about the environment, think nothing of interracial marriages, among a host of other similar issues. Yet we still have a problem with racism?

I am black, but the majority of my friends happen to be white. Recounting some experiences I’ve had, it makes sense that my generation is still pretty racist. Everything from being called an Oreo (someone who is black on the outside, white on the inside) to being told being told that I don’t sound like a black person, I’ve heard from friends. Self-admittedly, I’m not very politically correct, especially around close friends, so it’s more annoying to me than offensive. Still, this is definitely evidence that even educated young Millennials harbor prejudices thought to be found only in the older generation. The difference is that while parents and grandparents were more explicit about such racism and prejudices, White Millennials display their racism in a more subtle way.

And that subtlety is what makes Millennial racism dangerous–– it’s so subdued that people think nothing of it when discovered. A member of the SAE fraternity at the University of Oklahoma (the frat that sang about lynching black people) was quoted as saying, “I never thought of myself as a racist. I never even considered the possibility.” Despite singing these lyrics with his fellow frat brothers, “There will never be a n—– SAE/There will never be a n—– SAE/You can hang ‘em from a tree, but it will never start with me/There will never be a n—– SAE”, this young man never thought of himself as racist.

That, my friends, is the new racism we have to deal with. The question is if this is any better (or worse) that the explicit racism my parents and grandparents have had to deal with.

Whereas with explicit racism, I can easily dismiss and disregard the people who would say such awful things. But with my generation’s subtle racism, it is definitely harder to dismiss, at the very least confusing. If a friend jokes about me not knowing how to play basketball or makes a joke about me liking watermelon or fried chicken, do I laugh? Do I call them out on saying such stereotypical things? How do I approach this type of racism with the friends who say them?

You see how damaging this Millennial racism is compared to the old racism to which we are more accustomed.

On the other end of the spectrum, we have Millennials who don’t even believe racism is even an issue anymore. They are “colorblind”, they see no race. Which, as a matter of fact, is racism (or at least some form of it). To see no race is to ignore the history that comes with my skin color. It disregards the disadvantages I will have as a result of my skin color. It discounts the countless experiences that People of Color suffer at the hands of police and society in general. It reinforces the notion that race still doesn’t matter, making it easier to dismiss situations like Mike Brown, Eric Garner, and the more recent shooting of an unarmed black man in South Carolina.

Millennials unquestionably have problems with race and how to talk about it. It is an issue and it needs to be fixed. This is not your Grandma’s racism, but it is racism all the same.

East River Lady

24 years old. LDS Convert. New York Native. Mormon Feminist.

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21 Responses

  1. Ziff says:

    I agree, East River Lady. This is so disappointing. Like you said, it might be easier to fight the more obvious, more blatant racism that may have been more common in the past simply because it’s so blatant, than the subtler forms that are more common now. It’s like racism has gone semi-underground to make itself more difficult to eradicate. (Related: I think there’s a similar problem with sexism, where more subtle versions have taken the place of more blatant forms, but the overall level doesn’t seem like it has moved.)

    • East River Lady says:

      For sure, there are definite similarities with sexism. Our generation is not immune from that either. It’s getting harder to know if we’re really progressing as a society (subtle sexism, subtle racism, etc).

  2. I’ve wondered if this isn’t the same as any number of things we’d like to eradicate; abuse, violence, murder. It’s not so much we’ve been able to get rid of them as they’ve become less easy to see unless a light is specifically shined on it. You’d almost think police just started shooting unarmed men this past year, for all the attention it’s gotten.

    Are we getting better, or just caring less about what’s not right in front of us?

    • East River Lady says:

      “You’d almost think police just started shooting unarmed men this past year, for all the attention it’s gotten.”

      THIS. EXACTLY. We’ve developed an out of sight, out of mind mentality and that has got to stop.

  3. Heather says:

    You always leave me with lots to think about. I really appreciate your insights and ability to get me to see things in new ways.

  4. AuntM says:

    I recently read an article on PBS that discusses millenials and racism: “White Millennials are products of a failed lesson in colorblindness.”

    From the article: “Furthermore, with respect to this particular generation, the Millennials, the education these young white people have received have left them ill-equipped to understand the nature of racism and subsequently supplied them analysis that won’t address the problem. As children of the multi-cultural 1980s and 90s, Millennials are fluent in colorblindness and diversity, while remaining illiterate in the language of anti-racism. This may not be the end of the world, if weren’t for the fact that Millennials don’t know the difference between the two.”

  5. Caroline says:

    Great post, ERL.

    “On the other end of the spectrum, we have Millennials who don’t even believe racism is even an issue anymore. They are “colorblind”, they see no race. Which, as a matter of fact, is racism (or at least some form of it). To see no race is to ignore the history that comes with my skin color. It disregards the disadvantages I will have as a result of my skin color. ”

    When I was a teen, I think I remember thinking that colorblind-ness was the way to go — totally disregard race and color in our thoughts, analysis, interactions, etc. Only as an adult have I begun to understand what you just described here — the insidiousness of taking on a colorblind perspective and the way it ignores what people of color experienced in the past and experience now.

    • East River Lady says:

      I think back in the early days of the Civil Rights movement, colorblindness was the ideal (don’t judge by color of skin, but by content of character, etc), but with the subtle racism, we can’t afford to ignore skin color anymore. Only when racism in all its forms has been eradicated can we think about ignoring race. But I don’t expect that to happen in my lifetime…..

  6. rebba says:

    Not to take away from writing about the worlds problem but i think if you write a post that inspire us to commune together it would fill the world with good and displace the bad. Just like turning on a light to get rid of the dark rather than chasing the dark away with a stick.

    • East River Lady says:

      Unfortunately, the world is not always a good place and we must acknowledge and shine a light on the bad, along with the good.

  7. EmilyCC says:

    That University of Oklahoma story is just chilling. I know that for years I wanted to insist on being colorblind so I didn’t have to deal with my own inherent racism. It’s so much easier to be self-righteous about others’ racism 😉

    Thank you for this post, ERL. It makes me thing how and what we are teaching this upcoming generation about race.

    • East River Lady says:

      “It makes me thing how and what we are teaching this upcoming generation about race.”

      That would be a good post for someone to write–– how to teach our children about race. That’s especially important, I think.

  8. Liz says:

    I also went through a period of thinking that color blindness was the way to go. I’m reeeally hoping that this is a temporary phase for the millennials, and that we’ll all naturally grow to a more mature, nuanced, responsible stance on this.

    I love that we’re having these conversations. I don’t think I ever had them growing up – I remember learning that racism was a thing of the past, eliminated with the Civil Rights Act, and that talking about these difficult issues was like opening up old wounds that should be left to heal. As it turns out, if you don’t scrub out all of the dirt/racism in a wound/world, it doesn’t heal very well. I’m talking with my kids about this now, in hopes that maybe we can move the conversation along as much as possible. I hope we can all talk about these things and recognize our complicity without having more horrible acts of violence bringing these issues to the front page.

    And, for the record, if I was making a racist joke like about fried chicken or watermelon, I would want to be called on it. There have been times when I really haven’t realized just how racially charged my words were. If I’m committing those kinds of micro-aggressions, I want to know.

    • East River Lady says:

      I would love to hear about how you are teaching your children about race–– like I mentioned in my comment to EmilyCC, I think that conversation is also so, so important!

      Regarding commenting about micro-aggressions, I am working on correcting friends, while also still maintaining a friendly nature. I know they mean no harm or ill will, but that behavior still needs to be corrected. Very delicate balance. Again, much more difficult to handle than explicit racism. Boy, we’ve got a long way, but I’m optimistic. Or at least, I’m trying to be!

  9. Emily U says:

    I’ve been thinking about your post a lot, ERL. And with the recent shooting in South Carolina as a backdrop. It’s heartbreaking. It seems like cell phone cameras are really changing how the public will view these crimes. In the past the police officer would have told the only side of the story, now there is a video record of it. I hope the fact that things can be recorded will change things for the better over time.

    In addition to wondering what could posses the police officer to commit such a terrible crime, I’ve wondered why Walter Scott ran. I wonder if it was because as a black man he felt that if he was taken in by the police, he’d never make it out. There are too many stories of wrongful convictions, 1 in 4 black men have been incarcerated, too many stories of people getting trapped in the system. If that is your backdrop, it may very well feel safer to run. If I were stopped by the police I wouldn’t run, because consequences of running feel more dangerous than the consequences of staying. But my reality is not Walter Scott’s and that is a privilege I can’t forget.

    This all feels so heavy because I feel responsible but also pretty powerless about racism. I have two kids I can teach about race, which is something. They definitely see color, and I don’t try to tell them they shouldn’t. We talk about dark skin, light skin, freckly skin, medium skin, and all kinds of hair, but we aren’t talking about culture and ethnicity much yet. I want them to see people as just people and not a category as much as possible and for as long as possible. I think appreciating diversity without over-categorization is a real challenge, something I think about quite a bit.

  10. SilverRain says:

    I grew up in a world about as close to a caste system as possible, but it had everything to do with rank and less to do with skin color (though there was certainly some of that.) I had no idea black/white racism was still “a thing” in America until I moved back to the States at 14 years old. That kind of racism was for the skinheads which were definitely active where I lived. I’d actually had a scary experience because I was hanging out with a black kid outside of the fence once, but I thought that was just a fringe-crazy thing. (Though I’d been exposed to blatant anti-Turkish racism.)

    I don’t talk much about racism, and I don’t comment often online about it because it’s not my story to tell. It’s not about me. I read all of the personal stories I see, and let them soak in and hope it affects my thought patterns and assumptions, but I don’t read much of the white-guilt-ridden rants, nor do I spend a lot of time wondering if I’m racist or not. I probably am in some ways, mostly that I sometimes get nervous when I meet someone that I’ll say the wrong thing. (Like the time I was in a public place, someone asked the person next to me if they wanted fried chicken with their watermelon, and I cluelessly said, ‘ooo, yum.”)

    In this way, I act racist at times, but didn’t know until years later about the chicken-and-watermelon stupidity. (I happen to like both, though I always peel off the skin of my fried chicken.) I know I’m privileged in that way, and am not in others, but I try to not take for granted that privilege and the help it’s given me in my success.

    My daughter’s first school was highly racist, with only 7% white kids in the school, and over 70% Hispanic. When it came up about her “peach skin,” I just made sure to emphasize that skin is only skin deep, and that some people have had to live some truly horrific stuff because of their skin, but that I truly hope she’d never have anything to do with that.

    As a child, I was often mocked for my appearance. (I’ve never met anyone paler than me.) I wished for darker skin, and hated my snow-whiteness, chubby height, and curly hair. And while that was nothing like the systemic, cultural, and historical racism against darker skin hues, it still sucked as a kid who knows nothing about the larger picture.

    Racism will always happen, I think. We all look for excuses to judge people who seem different than we are used to, whether it’s due to skin color, hair color, or any other quality. The unknown is frightening, but no one wants to think of themselves as a monster. We can only learn the right way to talk about it by practicing, but people in privilege are afraid to open their mouths and be seen as stupid or evil.

    It just goes to show you can force change legally, but people’s hearts take a longer time to come around. I may not be able to do much personally to fix the larger problems, but I can do what I can in my own sphere and not ignore it or scorn other people’s lived experience simply because I have the luxury.

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