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July 2, 2020

Black Community Needs Generations to Unite in Fight for Justice and Equity

This is a call to the Black community to organize, unify, and act.

Our differences in generational experiences can separate us and cause contention that slows us down. Or, they can make us stronger, more effective, and harder to oppress.

Gen Z is not having it. Millennials have never been with it. Gen X has had enough. And Baby Boomers are flat out exhausted. Traditionalists are still hoping they see the day of change.

Racism is a cross-generational plague that has haunted Black America from generation to generation. It looks slightly different as time passes, but it feels the same. Equally as painful and degrading to the current generation as it was to the one prior. For many reasons, it is relative.

For one, as time passes, the U.S. has grown more racially diverse and more liberal.

With that evolution has come a slight lifting of the proverbial knee that has rested on the neck of Black America since we were first snatched from our native land and drug to the land now fertilized by our blood, sweat, and tears. What seems like an ideal situation to a Baby Boomer, based on their experience– having Black CEOs of Fortune 500 companies, for instance– is clear systemic racism and tokenism to Millennials and Gen Z– seeing that only 0.8% of Fortune 500 CEOs are Black.

It is relative.

The second reason has a lot to do with what generations actually are and how they form. A generation is the aggregate of people born within roughly a 20-year span. Generations are often separated and shaped by defining moments in history that shift norms in some way and create a new normal– be it socially, politically, technologically, etc. These events– snapshots of history– change the way people think and behave, creating markers in the field of generations.

For example, the passing of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, the Voting Rights Act of 1965, and the Fair Housing Act of 1968 marked the end of Jim Crow. 1965 also marked the separation point of Baby Boomers and Gen X. A new normal had begun. Socially, politically, legally. These changes in norms are reflected in the views of Baby Boomers and Gen Xers at large, and in the Black community. To Black Baby Boomers, not being able to vote or sit at a lunch counter or purchase a home was racism. Gen Xers (and their successors) never experienced those things. And so the experience of racism changed. Racism was still alive; however the clothes it wore were different.

It is relative.

The generationally relative nature of racism is the root of the cross-generational contention in the Black community, as it relates to the fight against it. It is the reason Black Millennials and Gen Z are frustrated and bewildered by the seeming acceptance of “the way it is” by Black Baby Boomers and Gen Xers, particularly in the workplace. It is the reason Black Baby Boomers and Gen Xers are frustrated and embarrassed by the seemingly unthought out, emotional responses of Black Millennials and Gen Z to today’s injustices.

But we do not have to let the relativity of racism prohibit us from coming together, using our collective power as a community, and fighting against today’s version of racism that is hurting us all now. In fact, it is our duty to not do so, for the sake of the generations of our community yet to be born; our children’s children, and their children’s children.

So what do we do?

It Starts with Empathy

As with any cross-generational initiative, effectiveness starts with empathy.

We, as a Black community, must sit with and attempt to understand the perspectives of those who have gone before us and those who will come after us. Let us be slow to ridicule the actions of another generation until we’ve taken the time to fully consider their realities within context.

Black Baby Boomers, systemic racism– police brutality, mass incarceration, voter suppression, undercover school segregation, discriminatory lending practices, and so much more– is the Jim Crow of today. It is to Black Millennials and Gen Z what Jim Crow was to many of you. And here’s the kicker: Just because it looks different, and maybe looks like progress compared to the treatment of Black people throughout history and from your vantage point, doesn’t mean that the experience of Millennials and Gen Z is better. The tools of oppression are simply more covert.

Do you remember the fury you felt seeing the “Whites Only” signs at the lunch counter or learning of the Birmingham Church Bombing or realizing your textbooks were “hand-me-downs” from white schools? This is the same fury Black Millennials and Gen Zers are feeling watching the inequitable funding of black entrepreneurs, the mass murder of churchgoers by a white supremacist fed Burger King before being taken to jail, and the uncovering of the school-to-prison pipeline. In the 2010s!

Photo by: Joshua Galloway

To you, it could be worse. Shoot, it was worst! And protesting in the middle of a pandemic isn’t smart and the burning and looting of buildings isn’t how we get things done.

But you must understand that your successors are looking at all you have been through and all the Black community is still going through and, with the words of Malcolm X ringing in their ear, think “by any means necessary, things will change. Period.”

Black Millennials and Gen Z, I know that as we watch the modern-day lynchings of unarmed Black people in broad daylight and the overt systemic oppression of Black and Brown people, it is difficult to see that Black America has come a long way. Further, it is hard to understand any degree of gratitude for the progress that has been made. But to a Black Baby Boomer, and even an Xer, based on their experiences with racism and white people, Black America has indeed come a long way. Observing the diplomacy with which Black Boomers and Xers navigate conversations about racial injustice, particularly in the professional world, can be hard to comprehend, appreciate, or respect. But we must understand that, in many cases, it is this diplomacy that has gotten them where they are, and laid the path for you to be where you are.

Whether we like the way it looks or not, their approach has made some degree of progress for Black America. We cannot negate that and we must respect it. It is now up to us to pick up where they left off and move the cause forward. And here’s the kicker: we will need them to do so.

Passion, energy, and even intelligence can only take us so far. We need our elders to cover our blindspots with the wisdom, experience, relationships, and influence they’ve amassed over a lifetime. The truth is there are some things that only come with time and those things have value in this fight for equity and justice.

Black Gen Xers, your identity as the sandwich generation shows up yet again in our fight for racial justice and equity. Sorry! You’ve had an interesting experience growing up, as children and professionally, post-Jim Crow, and in the age of alleged colorblindness. You experienced a degree of success that proceeding generations never had access to and you realize your success is a direct result of their fight, struggle, and sacrifice.

But you also realize we have a long way to go.

Torn between the realization of where we were, being the first beneficiaries of major racial change by law of our lifetime, and the awareness of where we should be, I would dare say there is a degree of survivor’s guilt for Black Gen X. Just as you sit sandwiched between two massive generations chronologically, you find yourself sandwiched between the appreciation of progress and the disappointment in the evidence of the contrary. This position can leave you at a loss of what to do or say and show up as unintended silence and a perceived complacency with the state of Black America in the workplace by Black Millennials and Gen Zers.

I get it. You don’t want to risk the progress made, as it rests on your shoulders, but you also carry the weight of leadership now and understand that if further progress is going to be made, it requires a degree of boldness that you were taught is inappropriate. But your successors, potentially not understanding any of what was previously explained, are looking to you.

After we increase our awareness of the realities of other generations within the Black community and begin leading our internal work with empathy, we have to commit to ending the cross-generational comparing.

X the Comparison

We cannot compare pain.

I’ve never seen cancer patients compare pain and the effects of their form of cancer on the body with amongst each other. The goal, individually and collectively, is simply to defeat cancer altogether.

As I consider the innumerable scars our ancestors accumulated during centuries of slavery, what we are experiencing today pales in comparison. We are not naive enough to even compare the two. But we do so all the time in our living generations.

We constantly compare the scars of our generation’s experiences with racism with another’s and it undermines the agenda at large. Black Boomers talk about how bad they had it and how grateful Gen X, Millennials, and Gen Z should be. And their successors gaze in confusion, as it is evident that based on their lived experiences, we haven’t come very far at all.

As we’ve covered at length already, racism is generationally relative and as long as we are in the playpen comparing scars, we are not in the ring fighting the system inflicting the injuries to begin with.

No more scar comparison.

Execute with Intention

Unfortunately, we have allowed the difference in experiences to dismember our community across generations in this fight for racial justice and equity in America. But the dismemberment stops here. Every member of the body is necessary.

Each generation brings to the table we’ve long not had a seat at, a unique offering consisting of skills, experiences, and perspectives, that can effectively be used in our fight.

The Value You Bring

Millennials and Gen Z bring an energy, a passion, and a boldness that is required for capturing the attention of the powers that be and not letting go until things move. Their youth brings stamina. They also bring an undeniable understanding of technology and the way information is disseminated today (social media), along with a global awareness unseen in prior American generations. They are smart and know how to efficiently access information. They can bring immediate value to any movement through increasing efficiency, speeding up execution, and achieving scale.

Baby Boomers and Gen Xers bring the experience, wisdom, and strategic vision required for long-term, sustainable change that penetrates all levels. Their careful, methodical, and steady approach based on experience can ensure that the depth of a movement is present, in the event the wind blows. Because of their tenure, the social capital they’ve accumulated along the way can be valuable in influencing the actions of the powers that be at an institutional level. At worst, they have the access to challenge them. They can bring immediate value to any movement through assisting in strategic planning, negotiating, securing sponsorship, establishing checks and balances, providing mentorship, and providing access to decision-makers.

We must recognize and leverage, with intention, each generation’s strengths in this movement as a Black community. Whether we are running a grassroots organization in the community or a Black employee resource group inside of a corporation, it is vital that we assemble cross-generation leader and member base to set a generationally diverse strategic and tactical plans for change. Ensure that every present generation is represented in meetings we hold and the plans we design and the demands we make.

Our differences in generational experiences can separate us and cause contention that slows us down. Or, they can make us stronger, more effective, and harder to oppress.

I’mma go with the latter.

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Raven Solomon

Raven is a Diversity, Equity & Inclusion Speaker, Author, & Strategist who helps organizations understand generations, racial equity, and their intersection.

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