"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:
"[Younger] Americans just don't think about race in the same simplistic ways [as Americans over 40]. They're more likely than older Americans to be minorities themselves, for one thing. In 2006, only 19.8 percent of Americans over 60 were minorities, compared with about 40 percent of Americans under the age of 40. And younger minorities come from a far wider range of racial and ethnic backgrounds than their older counterparts."
So, we're mixing more than ever. That's for sure. But diversity doesn't necessarily equate to cultural understanding. Gen Y'ers often deal with race in an overt, in-your-face manner through jokes, stereotypical references and cultural tourism. David Tarrant hit these complications dead-on in his January 2006 article for the Dallas Morning News, "Should Race Still Matter to Gen Y?" After interviewing several students at a local high school, Tarrant learned that young people often assert pop culture consumption of race to be indicative of their open-mindedness.
Note: Knowing every line of a Lil' Wayne song does not mean you know the black experience. The black experience cannot be defined one-dimensionally, especially not in the lyrics of a single track. Neither can the Latino experience, or the Asian experience or the white experience. Yet, somehow my peers and I feel more comfortable skimming the surface rather than sitting down for an honest discussion about race.
Our predecessors are no less at fault for the confusion. Depicting Gen Y as colorblind is essentially placing all the proverbial eggs in our basket. Not fair and definitely not plausible. Our youthful perspective may be wide-eyed and techno-colored, but it has also been affected by the perspectives of past generations.
Considering all that you went through, how can you expect so much from Gen Y? You ask us to look beyond skin while demanding, again and again, that we check boxes to define our identity. You emphasize diversity and allow our classrooms to be monochromatic. You've told us to hold hands and love each other's differences, but we grew up watching you draw lines and hold up picket signs (think O.J Simpson, Rodney King, The Bell Curve controversy, etc.). Understandably, our wires have gotten crossed.
Sure, your intentions were good. Gen Y with its post-digital potential is seen as a beacon for all that is new and innovative. But we can only paint on the canvas you gave us, and the color palette was predetermined at birth. As a result, Gen Y came into the world with a keen understanding of the rules: Color matters.
Yes, white kids listen to hip-hop and black boys rock Polo shirts, but race has not yet reached the point of being a non-issue. The elephant is still very much in the room. It certainly was for me when I made a request to ban one boy from simply speaking his mind. N-bomb notwithstanding, I understand his position and can only hope he understands mine. Ours is a time of abundance— plenty of color and plenty of confusion.
So, please—Gen X, Baby Boomers, all you generations before, after and in-between—stop dubbing us as the colorblind generation. We see race. We may reference it more without truly understanding it. We may color outside the lines. But we do see. Our eyes are open, and our vision is clear. It's we who are blurry.
Saaret E. Yoseph is a writer and editorial assistant for The Root.
Saaret Yoseph is a writer and Assistant Editor at TheRoot.com. She manages and blogs for \"Their Eyes Were Watching …\"