The Root: Is Generation Y Colorblind?

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Saaret Yoseph and Mebrahtu Grmai
Writers for The Root
Wednesday, July 23, 2008; 12:00 PM

Many describe the millennial generation as the most "colorblind" in American history -- but does that really mean that Generation Y is free of racism? This week, The Root offers several perspectives by young writers on this question.

Saaret Yoseph, writer and editorial assistant for The Root, and writer Mebrahtu Grmai were online Wednesday, July 23 to discuss their differing views on colorblindness among their peers.

A transcript follows.

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Saaret Yoseph: Hi everyone! My name is Saaret Yoseph. I'm a writer and editorial assistant for The Root. I just wrote a piece for the site called, "Gen-Y and the Colorblind Lie" that discussed the misconceptions about my generation's perspective on race. I know it's a dicey and complicated issue, but I'm excited to talk to you all and have an open discussion about race in America.

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Mebrahtu Grmai: Hey everyone, my name is Mebrahtu Grmai. I am a recent graduate of UMBC, and a novice writer. I grew up around the melting pot of Montgomery and P.G. Counties.

I recently wrote an article for The Root, basically describing my sentiments towards the ever-debated "N" word. You could sum up how I feel by saying, I really don't care one way or the other if it is in our vernacular, for me (excuse my selfishness) it's lost its meaning. I just wish it was consistent. I think it should either be used by all, or by none. No middle ground. Basically, unless black people stop using it first, the word will endure.

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Bend, Ore.: How racially educated do you feel a white person can be solely through exposure to black media? Substantially different than one with black friends? Can you tell that someone asking a question like this is desperate for approval? Have you had a chance to hear Nas' new tracks?

Mebrahtu Grmai: If by black media you mean outlets like BET, then not very much at all. Granted that I have observed efforts made towards the educational or empowering side, the majority of programming still feeds directly into black stereotypes.

This creates another interesting problem, as some black youth (some not so young) are obviously emulating what they see on the tube. So even with a peer group comprised completely of African-Americans, one still may not be as racially educated as they hope.

That being said, having black friends, as silly as this may sound, if it is a truly natural and comfortable relationship, can highlight one's openness to different races. Not understanding the black experience and not wanting to understand the black experience are completely different.

And no, I couldn't tell someone asking a question like this is desperate for approval. Desperate for knowledge, maybe.

By the way, haven't heard the whole CD, only a couple tracks, and from what I've heard, Nasir Jones is on point, as usual.

Saaret Yoseph: I'm going to have to agree with Mebrahtu on this one, at least to some degree.

We both went to the same college and had a lot of moments like those mentioned by Dave Chappelle in his "Killing 'Em Softly" stand-up comedy show--"Dang, that was racist!" These are the moments when you just have no words; when someone not of your race does something or says something that unintentionally (or intentionally) offends you, but the sting of the offense hits you when its too late to respond.

That being said, my "Dang, that was racist!" moments were not always caused by white people.

Saaret Yoseph: I've been to parties where Indian guys have said the word "nigga" while singing along to rap songs or where they've strutted around with bandanas around their heads in the fashion of "gangstas" they saw on t.v. Seeing this would piss me off, to say the least, because I noticed the behavior would usually be exhibited by people who rarely hung around black people but did their best to "act black". In this case, I absolutely feel like approval is what is being sought out, but that's just because nowadays the mainstream concept of hip-hop is considered to be cool. In this sense, my peers were trying to be "cool" and not offensive.

The bottom line is, there is no need--for you or for anyone else-- to look for approval from black folks. Cool is not conscious and, in my opinion, a conscious perspective and a real discussion with other races and cultures is more important than some mainstream idea of what black is.

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Richmond, Va: How does social class fit into your thinking about the meaning of race?

Saaret Yoseph: When having a real and open discussion about race,the concept of class and division is ultimately laid out, as well. Social topics inevitably intersect with one another and I think it does us all a disservice if we attempt to look for "solutions" to any one problem (i.e. racism, self-imposed segregation, stereotyping/profiling, etc.) without considering the overlap and allowing ourselves to get confused.

Disparities in education, for example, are often classified as a rich or poor thing. Privileges with suburban schooling versus overwhelmed inner-city school systems. But, why are so many minority children lumped into the latter category? If we dissect a social problem like this and over-simplify it as just "a race thing" or "a class thing" then we're not really addressing the issue.

For honest dialogue to occur, we have to admit that society is just confusing as hell--social issues are never one-dimensional because people aren't one-dimensional. Race, social class--its all part of the same conversation. And I'm just glad that people are willing to talk.

Mebrahtu Grmai: I'm glad someone asked this, I always say that classism is becoming dominant over racism. But Saaret is right, the real issue becoming so convoluted now that its hard to tell whether its classism or racism that is the culprit. The only thing we can know that classism always will exist regardless of race. And racism will always exist regardless of class.

Honestly, I believe that classism and racism are so closely linked because they were forced to be. Black people were of a lower class by default long ago, and its understandably taking a long time to break free.

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Austin, Texas: The way we talk about race reflects how we experience race. I am a 45 year old black guy who has talked about race in black only groups and in mixed groups with whites. I would like to share a couple of general observations. First, blacks talk about race more than whites. Second, blacks talk about race differently from whites. This reflects differences in how blacks and whites experience race. I think that one indicator that we have overcome will be when we talk about race similarly.

In your experience do Generation Y blacks and whites talk about race similarly or differently? Do you have any thoughts about my observations?

Thanks.

Mebrahtu Grmai: Honestly I don't think most people are ready for that yet. What I've experienced is black people talking about race and white people listening. There's no way that white people and black people can go through the same experiences, as you said, and once they do that will signify we have made an immense amount of progress.

Really, I think you answered your question before you even asked it. But its good that you brought it up, I don't mean my previous comment to indicate that there are no white people that can have a discussion with a black person about race. It's just really rare.

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Birmingham, Mich.: Whenever there is a discussion about racism it always seems to invoke Blacks and Whites. What about the racism of other ethnic groups including Jews towards Blacks?

Saaret Yoseph: I definitely agree. Most discussions about race and racism are boiled down to black and white, which can be very limiting. Just as race and social class intersect, so do the relationships between various races and cultures.

All of us have experiences unique to our background and our environment. In college, for example, I was stung by more race-based offenses from South Asian people than I was by my white peers. Which isn't to say that the racism conversation has turned into a Black and Indian thing, the discussion has just expanded and evolved. We are all mixed- up about one another. Every one of us--and I mean everyone--is walking around with preconceived notions about people who are not considered to be within our in-group. We make assumptions based on what the media tells us, stereotypes, personal experiences, etc. and use those to shape our perceptions about others.

To pierce the veil and really get things moving, we have to open up our minds and our conversations. Things are so much bigger than black and white! I really appreciate your comment.

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Honolulu, Hawaii, USA: Most white people I know are about 70% color-blind. Only about 10% of the non-white people I know are such. This means that for the 'nons', the tendency toward strong ethnic or racial nationalism is stronger than in the case of whites.

Isn't this ethnic nationalism a normal and natural human tendency to which we should give more recognition and acceptance?

Mebrahtu Grmai: That's very true, and it human nature to lean towards people that look like you. This fact definitely deserves recognition. However, human nature needs to be checked by human nurture, and I think that it takes effort on an individual basis to open your mind to other people. But I can easily understand how if you live and have grown up among people of the same race is you, it may be hard to do this.

I'm not sure what the racial make-up of Hawaii is, but I feel like the more racially diverse the area, the more you see open acceptance of different people.

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D.C.: Doesn't every generation think its parents are racist and its kids are colorblind? My 90-year-old grandmother talks about how racist her parents were. My 60-year-old mother talks about how racist HER parents were. And the subtly racist things that cluelessly come out of my mom's mouth make ME cringe. Doubtless my kids in turn will have reason to think I'm a giant racist, and so on down the family tree. Isn't this just how cultures gradually mature over time?

Saaret Yoseph: For sure, advancement comes as the years progress, but I think it's also important to understand how cyclical things can be, as well. The saying "history repeats itself" does not exempt the issue of racism. In 2008, we still have acts of violence that are racially-motivated, we still have incidences of discrimination, and segregation still exists (whether self-imposed or institutionalized by way of class).

I think it's awesome that you are able to see the limitations of your mother and your grandmother's thinking, but if nothing else, our present-day positioning allows for reflection. Every new generation is placed at a vantage point in history where it can look back, look ahead, and keep it moving. Maturation does, indeed, happen with time, but it also occurs through honest reflection. A recognition of not just how much has changed, but how much has stayed the same.

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Philadelphia, Pa.:"But Saaret is right, the real issue becoming so convoluted now that its hard to tell whether it's classism or racism that is the culprit."

But you just missed the most important part of Saaret's post, that trying to pinpoint one or the other as "the culprit" is counterproductive. This seems to be a point that is consistently misunderstood and overlooked (I recall Kim McLarin's XX Factor posts being summarized as "which is worse, race or gender?" Not only an oversimplification, but completely missing this important point.) Why is the entirety of Saaret's post so difficult to understand? Why is the knee-jerk reaction still to frame things in terms of "the culprit" or "the real issue"?

Mebrahtu Grmai: Well, I also added (not sure if it was that same post) that the two issues are conjoined, due to the fact that racism in the past forced placement of black people into a lower class. The two issues growing and evolving up until this point has made them indistinguishable. I think trying to separate the two is counterproductive because it's a waste of time. But I'm glad you pointed that out I don't want anyone to misunderstand what I meant.

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New Orleans: I have read surveys where the Millennial generation is indeed the most colorblind, and also the generation that does not recognize as many differences between men and women. It seems this generation is more accepting of immigrants. It does not mean that racism is totally dead. But, do you think these surveys are correct in that this is the most colorblind generation so far?

Mebrahtu Grmai: You're right, racism is not dead. It's just not openly accepted. Now racism has mutated into a shrouded, covert bandit.

I'm sure almost everyone has realized that by now. Unfortunately, we have to be weary of this, and watch out for new forms of discrimination on account of race, whether it be denied entry into venues because of a certain "standards," or being carefully watched or even followed in Macy's.

Fortunately, though people (on every part of the spectrum, mind you) still have to watch out for discrimination, as a whole I believe overall acceptance of other people's color or creed is going up, mostly due to different people slowly intermixing. It's a start. But now the main issue is moving from race to class, with racial undertones.

Not as racist? Most certainly.

Colorblind? Not a chance.

Saaret Yoseph: I am so reluctant to embrace the word "colorblind" because it, by definition, denotes some absurd idea of not seeing color. By simply interacting in society we see color because society has drawn the lines up and down and all around us. Millennials did not magically appear and raise themselves some race-free world. We grew up in a world where concepts of race already existed and, just as generations before us were, we are inundated by them

The cool and complicated thing about our generation is that inter-mixing is occurring more than ever. So, I can get down with the idea that we are, perhaps, more accepting of America's multiculturalism because that, too, is an aspect (a big aspect) of the environment we grew up in. But the multiculturalism has caused more issues to spring up, as well. We don't have clear cut lines of black or white and we don't deal with racism in an overt sense.

Now, it would be nice to say that because of the increase in inter-racial relationships and immigration that Gen-Y'ers are all happy-go-lucky and carefree about race. We aren't though. It's just a whole new ball game and the races are loaded.

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Washington, D.C.:"What I've experienced is black people talking about race and white people listening." -- What about if you had a group of black managers and vice presidents and a group of white construction workers and secretaries in the discussion? I can see the managers and VPs listening. Point being, is it about power and perceived power, too?

Mebrahtu Grmai: Classism and racism again. It's no surprise to me that it keeps coming up. You're absolutely right, and examples like the one you gave make it a lot more confusing. I was just talking about my personal experiences, in which most people I associate are the same or similar class as myself.

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Williamsport, Pa.: Do either of you have any observations on how a person who is exposed to diversity for the first time at college compares to a person who grew up in "mixed" classes from elementary class on? I'm wondering how indelible the early "in-group vs. out-group" racial imprinting is, and how important early integration is.

Mebrahtu Grmai: Good point. You know how they say "you can't teach an old dog new tricks?" Not entirely true but its definitely worth noting that it's a lot harder.

I can say this though, that while I have experienced downright ignorance, some people are wide-eyed and seem open to learn more about things they don't understand, separating themselves from 'stupid'. I can't call exactly how people being exposed to different races for the first time truly feel; some people's acceptance may be borne of necessity or desire to fit in with the whole "liberal college student" vibe.

I think I'm way too optimistic to think its impossible to overcome early imprinting at a later stage in life. And unfortunately there's still way too many areas with high concentrations of one race for this not to be necessary.

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Alexandria, Va.: I can't speak for Gen Y, but it seems to me that any "color-blindness" today is in really a selective filter. Certain people - Oprah, Will Smith, Tiger Woods and, yes, Obama - are seen by whites as "safe" blacks. Individual friends might also be added to the list, but it doesn't change the overall racial stereotypes that people still hold.

We still have a long way to go.

Saaret Yoseph: A racial filter--I think that's a really interesting concept. The media has a big hand in selecting the "safe blacks" you mentioned, but what of the other filters? I know plenty of folks (myself included) who meet white people that are "down". So, would those white people be considered "safe whites" because they aren't considered an oppressive threat?

I think we all have filters and in order to lose them, we just have to make conscious efforts to go out of our comfort zone and head into some dangerous territory, now and then.

Yes, we have a long way to go. But, check out how far we've come.

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Wilmington, N.C. : this really isn't a question, more an observation, I'm not sure what the specific definitions of racism and classism are, i.e. treating a person poorly or differently due to color of skin, genetic race or human created class... but I give the human species more credit than that ... that we ARE capable of overcoming both problems.

Saaret Yoseph: I definitely think that our personal and social aims should always exceed our grasps so, I think it's awesome that you're so positive about dealing with racism and classism. Still, in thinking of them as problems to "overcome" it's almost as if we are noting an end point--some be all, end all solution to our social woes. And, to be frank, I don't think it's that easy. Simply recognizing our mental roadblocks and social barriers is often the best way to help tear them down, but as I emphasized in my piece, I don't see social progression as a linear journey. We shouldn't burden ourselves with the pressure of "getting over" race or class. It's more about dealing with those issues and others that intersect with them in a more positive and productive context.

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Montreal, QC: When two different cultures intersect we see a two-way trade of thoughts and ideas. Much has been made of the adoption by white youth of hip-hop and other elements originating in black American culture. Which elements that originated in white American culture, if any, do you see being adopted by black youth?

Mebrahtu Grmai: Skateboarding and hockey.

Just kidding. But this question is hard to answer without making an overreaching statement that doesn't apply to many people. Looking up the word culture I found this definition:

"the quality in a person or society that arises from a concern for what is regarded as excellent in arts, letters, manners, scholarly pursuits, etc."

I think there is a blending of the cultures, in a lot of aspects. Music just happens to be large piece of what culture means, and if you can reference hip-hop, I can reference rock as an example. I love rock. (Though I can point out that rock has roots in black culture as well, but it has become more closely associate with white culture since).

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Baltimore, Md.: Ms. Yoseph, I have to say I identified the with what you wrote. I'm Gen X, and 20-plus years ago I grew up in a mixed neighborhood, had friends of all races and creeds, do not consider myself a racist -- and yet, to say that I'm not "aware" of people's race would just be silly. Of course you notice it, just like you notice other physical features. You just don't assume that that particular feature means someone is X or Y or Z.

That "colorblind" thing really bugs me. If people were using it as a shorthand to explain how people are judged on their merits instead of their skin color, that would be great. But that's not how it plays out. "Oh, Johnny doesn't even see race" is most frequently spoken by a mom bragging about her son. But is she really bragging about her kid? Or is she patting herself on the back for having raised him the "right" way -- for having seen the errors of the older generation, corrected them, and thus "fixed" the problem? When I hear that phrase, it almost always leads me to believe that the speaker is clueless, content with self-congratulatory platitudes instead of really understanding -- or even trying to understand -- the complexity of the issues or the people involved.

Saaret Yoseph: I absolutely agree! Embracing the idea of a "colorblind" America, however well-intentioned, is ignoring the complexities of American culture, and society, as a whole. Thank you for your comment and thank you for reading the piece!

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Boston: Re: black people talking and white people listening

Isn't this a result of of the attitude that white is not a race per, more of a default? This may just be gross ignorance on my part, but it seems like discussions of race often focus on how life differs for people who aren't white from those who are.

So what does a white person have to add to the conversation? Unless their life is significantly different then the norm (which mine wasn't).

Mebrahtu Grmai: Maybe that is part of it, and it might have something to do with white American culture beginning as a conglomeration of a few different European cultures, not necessarily just England. Honestly, I don't think this is a good thing at all, and I often as people that simply classify themselves as "white" where they can trace back their ancestry. There's a lot of culture there that has been lost.

On the other hand, there has also been a great deal of mixing among different people of European descent and you often find people that can trace back their lineage to two, three, four or more nationalities.

Back to the topic, since this problem runs pretty deep.

You can always contribute, even if you have to listen first. I don't think anyone should look at it like "I don't know anything about this, what can I say?" Everyone starts out completely ignorant, we just learn as we go along. As long as you're trying and making an effort to understand the situation from as neutral a standpoint as possible, you're doing your best. Also remember that sometimes asking questions is more productive than giving answers.

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Boston: As someone who was born in 1983 I'm on the younger side of "Gen-Y," and being lumped into that group makes me cringe. I really enjoyed both of your pieces, though, and think the points about how pop culture decontextualizes racism are extremely important. That brings my mind straight to my younger brother, who was born in 1990. I see him watching TV comedies that deal with race, for example, and he might think that a bit is funny, but I don't think he always understood why. Knowing the jokes without understanding the history has all kinds of repercussions for a group of kids just starting to go out in the world, and feeling their way through what's appropriate and what's not, in which situations, often by trial and error. Is it even possible to address, if not correct, these mixed messages through the same media channels that are sending them out?

Saaret Yoseph: I think it's possible to address them just by having conversations like this one. We don't have to rely on the media to do that. I mean, it would be nice if the mainstream media did attempt to clarify such complicated issues, like that of race, but media and pop culture is usually more about money. And misconceptions are money in the bank.

Your brother is 18 and that means he is old enough to really discuss race with you. Poking fun at the arbitrary divisions in our society is cool, but I think those jokes need to be supplemented by some real talk.

The sad thing is that our generation is more comfortable making jokes about race than having a serious conversation about the issue. And if all we can do is make jokes then we're really not comfortable, just complacent.

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Alexandria, Va.: There are multiple reports that show that public schools have become increasingly segregated. Urban schools are primarily African-American and Latino, while the well- to-do suburbs are overwhelmingly white. If this is so, it seems that the perception that Gen Y'ers are "colorblind" would be very superficial. White kids liking rap, rooting for Tiger Woods, and voting for Barack Obama does not make one colorblind. Wishing does not make it so.

Mebrahtu Grmai: That's a good observation, colorblindness is different from acceptance. Liking such and such black people is a sign of acceptance (not necessarily 100%, though), but understanding that there is a difference between black and white won't be going away tomorrow.

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Alexandria, Va.: How can we, as a culture, be colorblind when the media makes a big deal out of someone's race? Obama is the first African-American to do this, Tiger Woods is the African-American for that. Halle Berry etc is the...You get the point. Don't we also do a disservice to point out their African American Heritage but totally disregard their mixed heritage? Tiger Woods has NEVER been designated the first Asian-American. Does that smack of racism, ignorance or the fact that the media and culture want to point out more on looks than actual heritage?

Mebrahtu Grmai: I think the problem is indicative of how visual people really are. You see Barack Obama on the television, you think: Black. You see Halle Berry at the movies, you think: Black.

I think its up to mixed individuals whether or not to play up the fact that they're mixed. Otherwise people are just going to call it as they see it. Unless of course the media wants to have fun with it, but that's another story.

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D.C.: As an Asian who's been on the receiving end of racism from almost everyone else- whites, blacks, Latinos- how do you recommend dealing with comments from other minorities? It makes me sad that people of color do not extend the same courtesy to other minorities that they (rightfully) expect to be given themselves.

Mebrahtu Grmai: It makes me just as sad, and its important to point out that white people are not the only ones discriminating on the basis of race.

All you can do is try to educate people through your words and actions. If they're not listening, move on. But don't let the ignorance of a few affect your own perspectives (as hard as that may be).

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Saaret Yoseph: Thanks everyone for all the great comments and questions! I am so happy to be a part of an open and honest discussion like this--one of many, I hope.

If nothing else, please remember that race has evolved into a multifaceted matter and nothing gets dealt with if we oversimplify. "Colorblind" is a Band-Aid and we need our wounds to breathe.

Peace to all!

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Mebrahtu Grmai: Thank you guys for all your questions! This has been a great experience for me, I got to see many different perspectives. I learned a lot, and my world is opened up a little bit more, I hope I have done the same for someone out there. There's a lot of very intelligent people out there, SPREAD THE KNOWLEDGE!

Later people,

Mebrahtu

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