How Generational Categories Whitewash American History

One of the websites I work for recently sent me a new assignment: an article titled, "The Worst Things About Baby Boomers." Whoever pitched this piece of click bait clearly envisioned attracting millennial readers by rebutting all the critiques that boomers typically make about millennials -- we're entitled, we're lazy, we're narcissistic.

I've never bought into those criticisms, not because I'm a millennial and I know they're unfair generalizations, but because talking about the differences in the generations in this country is an expression of white privilege.

As I browsed the Internet to get ideas for this post, and read what other writers had to say about boomers, I saw a common theme: Boomers were economically privileged. They grew up in a time of prosperity. They could easily afford college. They easily got jobs that paid well. Many of them could support their families with a single income.

That's all true, but only for white people. Black Americans did benefit from the post-war economic prosperity, but not nearly as much as white Americans did. The income gap between black and white families in the United States has increased since the 1960s. The unemployment rate for black people has been double the rate for white people over the past half century.

I'm sick of this debate between boomers and millennials, not because of the flaws in the arguments on each side, but because the debate itself is whitewashing history. Those who say the white boomers were lucky to be born in the time they were forget that black children born during those same years were delivered in segregated hospitals, and forced to use separate drinking fountains and attend segregated schools. The Brown v. Board of Ed decision didn't come until the middle of the baby boom, and integration was a slow, painful process, which required armed guards to escort black children into white schools in the south.

And what about children of other racial and ethnic minorities born during that time period? Japanese families had to completely rebuild their lives after they were locked in internment camps during the war. Chinese immigrants faced a mounting prejudice because of the new American fear of communism. Native American soldiers who returned from the war could not take advantage of the housing provisions of the GI Bill because banks would not issue housing loans to Native Americans living on reservations.

The point is this: non-white boomers faced significantly more obstacles on their way to prosperity, and many never reached it. Erasing those circumstances from the typical story of the boomers is another way of bleaching American history. The story of the generations is colored, and it's colored white -- no room for anything else.

So how does race play (or not play) into our characterization of millennials? The typical critiques of millennials can be rebutted on their own with no discussion of race, so I won't take the time to do that here. I will say, though, that we hear too much about the laziness and entitled attitude of millennials and not nearly enough about how black millennials are leading the Black Lives Matter movement.

This could be changing due to millennial pushback. And I'd like to think that millennials can become the first generation that includes all races in one story, but I also don't know if that's possible when so many of the characteristics assigned to a generation were nurtured by the parents who produced it. One black writer points out that white millennials were raised to think that "racism is matter of personal bigotry [...] not one of institutional discrimination and exploitation," and so white millennials are ill-equipped to help solve the problems their black peers are facing.

Being the postmodernist that I am, I have to conclude that it's better to do away with the labels entirely. Humans like to create boxes to fit people into, but not only are the boxes nearly always inadequate, they're also always created using some form of prejudice.

We need to check our privilege, and lay down our weapons in this war between the generations. It's a necessary step on the way to writing a new version of American history -- one that includes the stories of all races.