What do we mean when we say millennial? Who do we consider when we discuss this generation?
I don’t ask because we are steadily aging out of being interesting. It’s not because we are steadily losing our edge to whatever we will name the generation to follow this one, some of whose members will be defined by access to tablets before they can talk and coding classes in elementary school. I don’t ask because — and this is a dirty secret for a so-called millennial columnist — I believe the concept of defining generations as cohorts who share 20-plus years in common is fast becoming obsolete, particularly as major technological shifts that once occurred every other decade now redefine our collective perspective and experiences several times per year.
I ask because I am sincerely interested in who is being represented when one millennial, intentionally or not, speaks on behalf of a generational experience. In discussing my reservations about affixing one label to a generation spanning 20 or so years, I give away many of my own unintentional or subconscious biases. Milestones defined by technology and access to advanced educational opportunities are defining interests that often are attributed to millennials by the appointed voices, which often belong to people who look a lot like me, meaning white or cisgendered — someone whose gender identity matches his or her sex — beneficiaries of a system that largely rewards and elevates those who already are doing well by it. When we talk about how optimistic millennials are as a whole, we lie about the experiences and realities of many by painting the millennial generation with a broad brush.
As we have observed in Baltimore, there are many communities that have been left behind by the technological and educational progress experienced by many of the rest of us. On its recent cover, Time magazine illustrated beautifully the nearly identical realities for black communities on the receiving end of police and state aggression in 1968 and today, in 2015.
For all that might have been worthy of celebration stemming from Diane Sawyer’s interview late last month with Bruce Jenner, the former Olympic athlete who came out as a transgender woman on Sawyer’s program, members of the trans community — particularly people of color — were reminded that America appears only to pay attention to them when represented by affluent white people. An epidemic of bullying, murders of and suicides by young trans kids has not registered in the same way, particularly because it largely affects communities of color.
We are reminded time and again by these events that there most certainly are several Americas. Again, though, “we” is a misnomer. There are plenty of people who are well aware that this reality — racism and the continued disenfranchisement of one segment of the population at the hands of and as a means of favoring another — is nothing new. They are well aware reality is not one that goes back to the 1960s but rather the 1600s.
A few weeks ago, I spoke with Broderick Greer, a young Episcopalian minister weeks away from graduating from seminary, who pointed out these phenomena aren’t new. Slave hunters put the severed heads of escaped slaves on stakes as a means of scaring other slaves into believing their plight was better than that alternative. Today, black men are shot in the street and left there for hours as a warning to the community. In both circumstances, the killers are exonerated. In the case of Michael Brown’s killing in Ferguson, Missouri, the police officer who shot him, Darren Wilson, has attracted a devoted online following. People have poured hundreds of thousands of dollars into support funds to cover his legal defense or other needs.
Ours is a system that strives for beautiful philosophical ideals, but it operates to favor one population at the fatal expense of others. It is Thomas Jefferson being a slave owner. It is a white person silencing black outrage by quoting King’s passages about non-violence without considering his actual position on riots or his death at the hands of a white trigger finger. It is white cisgender people caring about transgender issues when they are addressed by an affluent white celebrity interviewing another one instead of when intolerance kills kids and adults daily.
Perhaps a reason why many beneficiaries of this reality struggle to see its existence is because we internalize generalities and read and hear them uncritically. Whom do we imagine when we consider Americans? Whom do we imagine when we consider millennials? The young, wide-eyed, tech-savvy optimists or those crushed and silenced by a system that favors the former?
If you just now are asking this for the first time and truly considering the answer, were you comfortable benefiting from a system that favors your life and well-being at the expense of another?
Alex Steed has written about and engaged in politics since he was a teenager. He’s an owner-partner of a Portland-based content production company and lives with his family, dogs and garden in Cornish.