Gen Y and the Colorblind Lie

For millennials, race is more complicated than ever.


"Are you serious?" he asked. And though I was, I couldn't help but notice the disbelief in his blue eyes, his pale face furrowed in confusion. I searched his expression for an inkling of empathy. There was none.

"Why," he had to wonder, "can't I say the word 'nigga'?"

Before you judge, consider the confusion, the people and the times. He, the semi-down white boy and me, the weary black chick restricting language deemed suitable by the three other black folks in the room. We are both products of our generation—Generation Y.

The situation was definitely awkward. Yet, the fact that the two of us, from different cultural backgrounds, were even interacting would likely be seen as a triumph by our elders, especially those who struggled to make it happen. Casual chit-chat between a young black woman and her white male counterpart might have been the gleam in King's eye as he conceived his "I Have a Dream" speech, and it was probably the distant hope of Thurgood Marshall as he argued Brown v. Board of Education. They, and countless others, fought tirelessly to solve the problem of racial conflict. But with an issue as controversial as race, there will always be remainders.

Let's get one thing straight: Race is a socially created concept, and since its inception it has been a socially fed nuisance, to say the least. It sprang to life and run amok. Lyrics, lawsuits, lynchings, boycotts, bombings, preferential treatment, superiority complexes, inferiority complexes and inhumane acts based solely on skin tone and misconceptions.

Millennials like myself are often steeped just as deep in the troubles of race as generations before us. This isn't to say that advancements haven't been made. Civil rights, career options for minorities and intercultural dynamics have no doubt improved in America since my parents' day. But progress in regard to race is not linear—it never has been and never will be. Every generation has different ways of dealing with the rainbow-colored elephant in the room; influenced, no doubt, by previous eras, but distinct in its own right.

We Gen Y'ers, born between 1978-1997, handle race with our own brand of complexity. The nuances of Gen Y's viewpoint seem all the more relevant considering the huge impact of young voters on this year's presidential election. On the night of Barack Obama's victory speech in St. Paul, I sat in my living room with my eyes fixed on the TV set, contemplating the mind-boggling prospect of a black president in my lifetime. Minutes before the presumptive Democratic nominee stepped on stage, CNN commentators began speculating on the reasons for Obama's success. Famed news anchor Tom Brokaw chimed in with his perspective, explaining that today's youth, unlike their parents' generation, are simply not bothered by race; that, by and large, youngsters are "colorblind." He echoed these remarks the next morning on MSNBC's Morning Joe, mentioning encounters he had with parents—across party lines—who told him that their children "don't see skin color."

"Are you serious?" Now it was my turn to ask.

Somebody needs to get the facts straight. I'm sorry to break it to Mr. Brokaw and to all others above my age bracket, but my peers and I are by no means colorblind.

What may be fueling this concept of the raceless Millennials is the extent to which we're intermixing. There are more interracial couples, more biracial children and an expansion of the definitions of ethnicity, but all of that has done little to help us understand each other better. Los Angeles Times writer Rosa Brooks discussed the impact of race on my generation in her January 2008 piece, "Sex, Race and Gen Y Voters." Brooks explains: