The cover story for this week’s edition of TIME magazine, titled “The Me Me Me Generation,” claims that millennials, more than previous generations, are extremely narcissistic and entitled. The cover features a young woman staring intently into a cell phone (presumably taking a “selfie”). Despite author Joel Stein’s insistence that his claims were backed up by statistics, the article generated a strong negative backlash on the internet. The Atlantic responded with an article citing nine historical studies in which an older generation has accused a younger one of the same problem, and ultimately says that you can’t paint sweeping generalizations about an entire generation.
I found this curious, because despite our generation’s supposed aversion to “sweeping generalizations” about our identity, no one seemed to take issue with the fact that the girl on the cover was white. No one seems to have a problem with the fact that the May editions of Cosmopolitan, Allure, Marie Claire, Teen Vogue, GQ, and Men’s Health all featured white celebrities and models on their covers. No one seems to have a problem with the fact that 14 of the 18 shows in NBC’s lineup this past fall featured a majority white cast. For a generation that supposedly values uniqueness and individuality, we appear pretty whitewashed.
Ours is arguably the first generation born into a so-called “post-racial America,” so why is it that the many races that make up our generation are not equitably portrayed by the media? Why is it that a Google Image search for “average American teenager” renders overwhelmingly photos of white people? The answers to these questions are numerous and complex.
The first has to do with the very myth of a “post-racial America.” Even a passing glance at the newscast auto-tune video meme on YouTube, or a Victoria’s Secret runway show, or a political campaign ad makes it clear that this country is most certainly not “over” its issues surrounding race (sorry, Brad Paisley). But somehow, the idea has been perpetuated that since progress has been made towards racial equality, and overtly racist acts are no longer common, somehow we have “overcome” racism. This myth is especially pertinent to millennials, because we have generally been raised with the mentality that all people are equal, and have been encouraged “not to see race.” This mentality, while admirable, does not reflect reality.
The fact remains that other forms of racism, namely institutional racism, remain alive and well in our modern culture. Institutional racism describes certain norms and systems that are based on and perpetuate racial inequality, but that have become ingrained into our culture over time. These inequalities include the privilege associated with “whiteness,” and the negative attributes associated with being anything other than white. Because white Americans have for so long been a powerful majority, whiteness was established as “standard,” and “normal.” Anything or anyone else was deemed “other,” “exotic,” or in some way abnormal. This paradigm is an aspect of white privilege that has been reflected in mainstream media since the country’s beginning, and is still the case today. But because white privilege in media — like all institutional racism — is passive and not active, it is easily overlooked, and continues unchecked. The idea of a post-racial society makes it even harder to question institutional racism. When you’re working under the assumption that no one and nothing is racist, these instances of white privilege aren’t seen as discriminatory or exclusionary, they just happen to be that way.
This issue of white privilege leads into the next reason for the whitewashing of the millennial generation, which is simply this: We have no other blueprint for the present but the past. Because media has historically disproportionately represented white people over other races in the past, it only follows that it continues to do so today. Change and progress are natural, of course, and media is much more equitable today than it ever has been before. Still, it is also natural for television producers, ad executives, and magazine editors to look back to see what has worked in the past and emulate it. It takes a bold mind to depart from the established tradition, and so progress happens slowly. Only this year, Fei Fei Sun became the first Asian model featured on the cover of Vogue Italia, the edition most respected in the fashion world.
Representing races more equitably for the millennial generation means an entire paradigm shift, and it will only happen if people call for change. The good news is, though, that people are starting to demand this change. More and more millennials are beginning to realize that whiteness is not synonymous with standard, and are calling people out who claim it is. HBO’s TV show Girls has been severely criticized for its lack of diversity, despite its claim to be a “voice of a generation.” ABC’s hit show Scandal is successful in part because it features a black woman as the central protagonist, but in a role that is not “othering.” Kerry Washington’s character Olivia Pope is not a stereotypical “strong black woman,” but simply a strong woman.
Advertising is changing as well. Microsoft’s "Child of the 90’s" commercial — perhaps the first nostalgia ad for millennials — features a curly-haired African American girl as well as a blond boy. Advertisers are learning that their audience is broad and diverse, and that everyone wants to see themselves represented.
For a long time, the United States has been majority white, and it still is today. But population trends indicate that it won't stay that way forever. As of July 2011, more minority babies were born in the U.S. than white ones, suggesting that we millennials will one day life in a minority-majority country. That is why it is more important than ever that our generation be represented accurately in the media. We are many, with a range of experiences, backgrounds and identities. And the more of our voices that are heard, the stronger we become.