Last August, I sat on a panel with the other 1.2% of Black students in my school district to discuss our experiences with racism in our community. All of us had stories to share about encountering slurs, facing microaggressions, and being treated as though we were less than due to the color of our skin.
Yet all of us were also members of Gen Z — a generation praised by figures like Senator Bernie Sanders for our tolerance and decency (Teen Vogue). Headlines propose that Gen Z might be the generation to “end systemic racism” (Screen Shot), and celebrities like Oprah Winfrey hope that racism will die away with older generations (MSNBC). As nice as the idea of racism passively dying off sounds, it cannot be a reality without active anti-racism.
For starters, let’s take a look at the recent 2020 Presidential Election. Although young people of color overwhelmingly supported Joe Biden, 45% of white youth voted for Trump (Tufts). The candidate who shared a white power message in June (NPR) and incessantly espoused hateful rhetoric was the candidate of choice for nearly half of young white Americans this year.
For more evidence, we can look directly at the case of 17-year-old Kyle Rittenhouse, who killed two people at a protest after police shot Jacob Blake in Kenosha, WI. Instead of facing condemnation, Rittenhouse received praise from conservative figures and left custody after they helped pay for his $2 million bond (NBC News). When people think about Gen Z, they often think about the ‘Yara Shahidi’s and ‘Malala Yousafzai’s of our generation, but our generation also includes people like Rittenhouse.
Racism perpetrated by members of Gen Z is especially dangerous due to the lack of accountability that follows it. Acts of racism committed by young people are often seen as innocent mistakes. These actions aren’t harmless — they negatively impact young people of color and prevent them from feeling accepted in their schools and communities.
Historically, young generations of white Americans have effectively used their perceived youthful innocence to cover up their racist acts. In the 1920s, the KKK began “Ku Klux Kiddies,” a branch for children to advocate for white supremacy under the guise of festive and youthful parades. Teenage boys and girls participated in the Junior Ku Klux Klan and Tri-K-Klub, respectively, further perpetuating racist ideas with a youthful image (History).
Gen Z is also not the first generation in recent history to fail to live up to its anti-racist reputation. Millennials were also praised for their anti-racist tendencies (Los Angeles Times), but 61% of white people under 30 believe white people are harder-working and more intelligent than African-Americans, compared to 64% of older white people (The Cut). Millennials do differ from older generations; however, in the fact that they are less self-aware of their racist beliefs. Millennials and members of Gen Z alike will not readily proclaim themselves as racists or white supremacists but will demonstrate these beliefs through their words and actions instead. For example, a younger person may argue that because they believe Black people have a victim mentality, this does not mean that they are racist, but simply that they hold a different opinion.
Much of this Gen Z racism occurs on college campuses across America. Some racist young people see themselves as pushing back against a new culture of “sensitive” inclusivity and diversity. When Instagram accounts like @dearpwi emerged to document the racism that students of color face at predominantly white universities – from being called slurs to watching KKK demonstrations outside of campus –conservative college students responded, claiming that young white people are the truly oppressed ones. Many white members of Gen Z believe that initiatives like minority-specific scholarships are examples of anti-white oppression and use these to justify white supremacy.
This behavior isn’t something that goes away passively on its own — it’s something that’s normalized and passed down from generation to generation until an outside force works to stop it. Be that outside force.
Acknowledge the prevalence of racism amongst members of Gen Z and actively work to combat it. Encourage anti-racist texts in school classrooms, and expose young people in your life to diverse books, films, museums, and art to show them anti-racist narratives before they adopt racist beliefs. And, of course, model anti-racist behavior in your own life through your words and actions.
The idea that racism will die out with older generations is naive; white supremacy is still prevalent among members of Gen Z. 45% of white youth voted for Trump in the 2020 Presidential Election, the candidate who shared a white power message in June (NPR).
An American National Election Studies survey showed that 61% of white people under 30 believe whites are harder-working and more intelligent than African-Americans, compared to 64% of older white people (The Cut).
Younger people can be less self-aware about their racist beliefs, and their racist actions are often seen as youthful mistakes.
Historically, young generations of white Americans have effectively used their perceived youthful innocence to cover up their racist acts. In the 1920s, the KKK began “Ku Klux Kiddies,” a branch for children to advocate for white supremacy under the guise of festive and youthful parades.