Generation Y Refuses Race-Gender Dichotomy
I was born on the last hour of the last day of the last year of the '70s. So, like so many of my Generation Y peers, I was raised on Free to Be You and Me, hip hop, and feminism. I was 11 when Anita Hill changed the world and just about Monica Lewinsky's age when her blue dress dominated the headlines. So that just gives you some perspective on where young voters like me are coming from when we consider race and gender in the political environment, the topic of a panel I had the honor to speak on today at The Paley Center titled "From Soundbites to Solutions: Bias, Punditry, and the Press in the 2008 Election" (co-sponsored by The Women's Media Center, The White House Project, and The Maynard Institute for Journalism Education .
According to PBS News Hour, 5.7 million people under the age of 30 voted in the primaries, a 109 percent increase from the last presidential election. There's no question that young people are excited about this political moment; there's no question that we care deeply about issues of race, gender, class, and religion; we are not, however, endeared to partisanship. Chalk it up to Facebook, competitive college admissions, or all of the other phenomena that influence us to see ourselves as individual project, but it's clear that we resist groupthink. We shy away from taking on any sort of movement identity, preferring to vote for the individual candidate and his or her policies, and preferring to be seen as individual people -- not a texting, IM-ing mass of technologically superior and socially inferior sons and daughters. As my peer Keli Goff put it in her wonderful book of the same name, we're into "party crashing."
When we do take the leap to identify with a movement, as I have in the case of feminism, we still seem to buck against the idea that our affiliation determines our vote. I, for example, am an Obama voter, but was and will continue to be an avid Clinton supporter. I hate the sexist coverage that she endured, and have written and spoken out about it widely, but that doesn't change my vote. My feminism is not just about gender equality in government, but also about racial justice, global security, community ethics, etc., and I resent being made to feel as if there is a "right" way to vote if I am a feminist. I'm grateful for being challenged to justify my choice to pull the lever for Obama by feminist friends and mentors, but only when it's initiated in the spirit of dialogue, not a litmus test.
Our tendency towards thinking and acting solo isn't such a surprise when you consider the ethnic and cultural origins of this generation. The country is becoming more and more interracial, thanks to the increasing incidence of interracial pairings like Obama's parents, as pointed out by public education projects like Loving Day. And further, genealogy and genetic efforts like Henry Louis Gates Jr.'s The Root are pointing out that even before interracial unions had been destigmatized (at least in urban centers), plenty of our ancestors were crossing the color line behind bedroom doors. It's not so strange these days to meet a Chinese-Chilean guy living in Brooklyn or a Vietnamese Baptist in Houston. How could we affiliate with one party/movement/organization when we contain such a multitude of loyalties in our own little legacies?
The million-dollar question: How, with a generation bent on individuality and multiplicity, do we confront racism, sexism and all the other insipid -isms that have been brought to light by this unprecedented campaign? To my mind, we must continue to use novel interventions -- like the Women's Media Center's great montage "Sexism Sells, but We're Not Buying It," the brand-new blog Michelle Obama Watch, and the evergreen experts at Racialicious -- to educate people. We must use humor -- as my group blog Feministing often does, as the brilliant Sarah Haskins does on Current TV, as Ann Telnaes does through cartooning over at Women's eNews. (Note: It's not just the boys -- John Stewart, Stephen Colbert, and the Onion crew -- that know the power of a laugh.)
We must take our roles as media consumers dead seriously, calling television executives and newspaper editors on their misguided choices and celebrating them when they get it right. In an increasingly corporatized media landscape, it is your dollar, not your disgust, that will most readily get big-wig attention. Don't buy sexist magazines, don't tune into to racist radio, and don't watch reductive, recycled infotainment being pawned off as news.
But most of all, it seems to me, we must continue to push for a deeper, more authentic conversation overall. We must let the mainstream media know that we don't want to debate "reject" or "denounce" for 24 hours or go on witch hunts for Geraldine Ferraro or Samantha Power. We want to understand what these women were trying to say. We want to explore the real issues. We want to, as my co-panelist Juan Gonzalez of Democracy Now so brilliantly put it, call into question the whole idea of empire. The debate shouldn't center on the quandary: How can we make our empire more effective? But, do we want to be an empire in the first place?
And we must demand that our candidates rise to the occasion, as I believe Obama did so beautifully with his speech on race following the Reverend Wright controversy. He brought that conversation to a new level, and we are all better off for it. We need to continue to push for that kind of brazen truth-telling -- about gender, certainly, about class, for sure. That's what politics is supposed to be about -- not partisanship or strategic spinning, but honesty and uplift. Call me naÃƒÂ¯ve, but that's what the young are supposed to be, right?