Recently, more articles have popped up that debunk the heightened “racial tolerance” that supposedly makes millennials the most “tolerant generation in history.” As these articles point out, white millennials, while more self-congratulatory about their progressiveness, score similarly as older generations on tests of implicit racial bias. White millennials have some of the same implicit beliefs about race, yet they believe themselves to be more enlightened on race.
These studies and articles terrify me, especially when I see this white “progressiveness” in action. It terrifies me to see when white people claim an informed stance on issues of race when in fact, they but steamroll the voices of the oppressed and plug their ears when told they are racist. That behavior terrifies me because the whole key to being a white ally is to acknowledge bias, fight racism in oneself (as well as others), and listen to those who experience racism and have been fighting this fight longer than white millennials have.
Unfortunately, racial “progressivism” is in action everywhere.
As co-administrator and co-founder of the Humans of St. Louis page, I regularly help moderate commentary that unfolds on posts and find myself watching viewers interact. We have over 35,000 followers, and at times, the interactions are harmless and kind; other times, there can be debate and tension, particularly around issues of race. Furthermore, these posts come from a majority millennial fan base, as approximately seventy-one percent of Humans of St. Louis followers are millennials.
Recently, white millennial self-assuredness on race came glaringly to center-stage on a seemingly innocuous post. We posted a picture of two white women who talked about how much they dislike college food and appreciate mom’s food now.
One said, “Going away to college makes you realize the things you took for granted. You appreciate everything so much more when you don’t have it.” The other affirmed, “Yeah. We have chicken strips every day at school. I need my mom’s food now.’”
In the comments, however, a white millennial jumped in to jab, “The white privilege, it burns me.”
The white commenter was soon challenged by a black woman, who claimed that missing home-cooked food was not exactly white privilege. She noted it was more a “college kid” experience and her black friends often have the same discussions with her friends. She requested the commenter use the term “white privilege” correctly.
She noted, “I resent the notion that it is considered white privilege to complain about eating chicken strips. You make the assumption that black people are so poor that we would be begging to eat chicken strips everyday.”
The white commenter replied with zeal, claiming that her use of the term was correct, and she knows she is right because she herself was a “formerly ignorant, classist white girl who has learned why my way of life was wrong.”
The black woman quipped, “You come off as some white woman who had some Epiphany about oppression and now you are on some kind of mission to speak for black people.”
That, in essence, is what terrifies me about white millennials when it comes to race. They reek of the dangerous potential to become white saviors. White millennials with their “progressiveness” play at the dangerous edge of taking racial issues into their own enlightened hands and forgetting that the issue is not theirs to take over.
It does not matter how “informed” one has now become on issues of race, we can all stand to be quiet and listen to the voices of others who experience racism. We can stand to learn how to correctly use terms like “white privilege.” We can stand to understand the ways all types of privilege are built, maintained, and intersect with one another.
No, I do not expect a nuanced and informed college essay on privilege on a Facebook post. Yet, if one is white and makes a statement about race and is then challenged by a person with personal experience of racism, I would hope that one could be quiet and take to heart what a black person heard in the statement.
In the discussion above, the person of color felt that decrying college food as white privilege was a misrepresentation of the term and made her feel like the commenter meant all black people were poor folk who would never complain about eating chicken fingers.
By insisting she was right to use the term “white privilege,” the white commentator ignored the way her statement felt to a black person, maintained her white know-it-all dominance, upheld a power system that denies black experience and, all-in-all, perpetuated a microaggression wrapped in the cloak of “tolerance” and “understanding” of race issues.
How millennial? Maybe not. It’s the same age-old struggle: race issues become white-washed and handed back to black people in a way that insists something has actually been done, improved, changed for the better when in reality, we are masking the issues with superficial allegiance, “tolerance,” and “progressiveness” as we entrench the same power dynamics that keeps oppression alive and well.
The full discussion:
Postscript: More on race from Humans of St. Louis
Even before the events of Ferguson, when we started the page, comments on the racial diversity of the subjects we approached came up often. As a policy, we strive to cover diverse neighborhoods from a racially diverse city. For those not familiar with St. Louis, the make-up of St. Louis City is forty-seven percent black, forty-three percent white, three percent Asian and three percent Hispanic. St. Louis County is sixty-eight percent white, twenty-three percent black. East St. Louis is ninety-eight percent black.
The way I see it, in at least two major areas of St. Louis – the city and East St. Louis – non-white people are the majority population. We capture that statistic every time we post pictures of people from those areas, just like we capture more photographs of white people when we go to Forest Park or Clayton.
Yet, one white high school boy from the St. Louis area kindly pointed our racially representative photographs in a comment with the question, “What is this, black people of St. Louis?”
In response to his question—which suggests that we are denying white people representation—it is not that we post more pictures of black people than there are in the population of St. Louis. We post what exists. If a person’s world is so white that s/he is surprised by the number of non-white people that live in St. Louis, that is the problem. Not our posts.
The racial make-up of the city means that we seek to post a representative amount of photographs of all types of people. It is no easy feat. Lindy and I talk about diversity almost on a weekly basis and struggle with questions like, “Have we posted an African American female recently? Do we need to approach more Hispanic subjects? Where can we go to get a good story from a queer couple?”
It’s not a science; it’s not orchestrated; but we are conscious of the people we talk to, what we post, and whom we represent. That includes all humans of St. Louis in as representative a way as possible. In fact, perhaps we are drawing people out of their “bubbles” through social media, bringing people into their homes with whom they may not otherwise talk. I am always affirmed in our mission when I see what people Lindy, co-founder, is able to capture in her daily excursions in the city: interesting and diverse people from all walks of life.