I’ll admit, I think “OK boomer” and the memes it has spawned are a funny response to the older generation’s befuddlement about the modern world. But the rise of the phrase also leaves me (an older millennial, or more specifically, a “xennial”) scratching my head. I thought millennials and Gen Z already had our rallying cry — one that was created not just as a sarcastic response to adults who don’t understand the plight of younger generations, but one that was an actual call to action.
“Black lives matter” has been a demand to stop the senseless killing of black people since it was sparked by a hashtag in 2013, a war cry that encouraged us to take to the streets to protest for our lives and reclaim our humanity in a country that still did not see us. It wasn’t just a sly phrase to show the grown-ups that we were mad; it told the world that we would fight for equality.
Young Americans of color have been speaking out about the state of the world that boomers have left for us for years, and we, too, tried to engage our elders in the conversation. But we were met with mixed success. We were told to sit down. Do more work. Pull our pants up. Get off social media.
Writer Valerie Jean-Charles called out our beloved Oprah for her generational oversight in 2015, noting that her “views, as many of those from her generation, are a curious mixture of what happens when our elders refuse to understand what is currently taking place. This is not the 1950s. This revolution is happening in real time, across digital and social media platforms.”
Black Lives Matter attracted enough attention to win some battles: Several cities adopted police body-camera policies and the Obama administration oversaw changes in some of the most problematic police departments (efforts that the Trump administration has since rolled back). Young activists successfully pushed criminal justice and mass incarceration into mainstream political discussion, made “woke culture” popular, changed conversations around racism, respectability and gender, and helped challenge patriarchal systems that enable inequality and misogyny.
But in the shadow of Michael Brown’s death, as we marched through the streets of Ferguson, Baltimore and New York City, few lifted us up. The mainstream didn’t embrace our plight. Rather, we were shut down. Called terrorists. Our leaders were slung death threats. Yet we continued on. Fighting. Listening. Crying.
Our movement was broad, our allies were multiracial and many of our peers began to understand our grievances. But “black lives matter” was not seen as the rallying phrase of a generation. No one proclaimed that the youth had found its voice.
Perhaps the diversity of young America is really a hall of mirrors, filled up with empty platitudes of progress and change. It seems that a generational cry, even of the most diverse generations in U.S. history, can’t center blackness or brownness. Even with our so-called progressive millennials and our even more progressive Gen Zers, no one is really radical enough to embrace a phrase or sentiment reflective of the true diversity of our generation.
While those in Gen Z are more liberal than their parents on issues like climate change, legalizing marijuana, inequality and not conforming to gender identity, there’s still a racial disconnect. A 2017 study by the Public Religion Research Institute and MTV found that 36 percent of white people ages 15 to 24 say discrimination against white people is as serious as discrimination against minority groups, and 48 percent of young white men think that diversity will harm white people. More telling is that only 37 percent of white young people say race relations is a critical personal issue to them, compared to 80 percent of blacks, 55 percent of Asians/Pacific Islanders and 52 percent of Hispanics. This shows that divides still exist within this community, and Gen Z isn’t all kumbaya and colorblind.
So yes, “Ok boomer,” may have captured an attitude for some people that are looking for change, for some who have finally snapped. But so many other young people didn’t need another phrase to crystalize their thoughts about the generational divide, because they already had a mass of work to prove their point. They had to find their voice while waiting for ICE to raid their homes, or as they marched for women’s equality or pleaded with the public to care as another brown trans person had been killed. They already had snapped after the deaths of Michael Brown. Rekia Boyd. Eric Garner. And the many others whose deaths they didn’t want to see in vain.
I don’t discount the hard work that so many young people of all colors are doing to bring about change: The Parkland survivors. Greta Thunberg. The New Zealand politician who responded with “Ok, boomer” when she was heckled during an impassioned speech on climate change. But this shouldn’t be characterized as the first phrase for frustrated young people to come about in a generation. The millennials and Gen Zers who came of age as Black Lives Matter rose to prominence have been in the protest lines, taking a knee at school and creating memes and hashtags to rally support for their causes for years. It’s not fair to say that young Americans finally have found their rallying cry, since so many young people of color have already been crying out loud for years.
Our problems are not just intergenerational. We’re still battling issues of power and privilege within our own cohort, inequalities around whose story is heard. So while it’s all good and humorous to make fun of our elders’ lack of so-called “wokeness,” and their apparent hatred of avocado toast and lattes, let’s also call out our peers who continue to embrace racism, sexism, and a range of other -isms. And let’s give props to those young people who have already sung their cry, spoke their truth, and shouted their pain, only to get erased in favor of a popular meme.
We can make fun of older folks for not understanding our experience, but we all have a lot of work to do before this country can realize its promise. Ok, Gen Zer?
More from About US: