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Millennials and Racism: How We Can Change the Discussion

06/23/2014 03:35 pm ET | Updated Aug 23, 2014

A study released last April confirmed a couple of things about Millennials: first, that we have progressive attitudes about race; and second, that we would rather not talk about them.

According to the poll, conducted by MTV and David Binder Research, 91% of 18-24 year olds strongly believe in racial equality, and 73% of them think that having "open, constructive conversations about bias would help people become less prejudiced."

That would be great, except only 20% would "feel comfortable" having such a conversation. As nice as it is that we feel more tolerant than our parents, refusing to publically acknowledge the problem of racism only makes it worse. As Jamelle Bouie puts it. "A generation that hates racism but chooses colorblindness is a generation that, through its neglect, comes to perpetuate it."

So why do Millennials, despite our fervent belief in equality and open discussion, seem so resistant to having a truly open discussion about equality?

Part of the answer is in the distance between the way our culture portrays racism and what racism actually is. Most popular movies that deal with prejudice (e.g. Remember the Titans, Freedom Writers, The Help) portray a conflict between two kinds of people: "Racists" and "Not-Racists." "Racists" are utterly consumed by their conviction that white people are superior beings. "Not-Racists" are people who have no trace of this conviction and, by getting everyone to just work/talk/play football with one another, make the more redeemable "Racists" realize the error of their ways.

The irredeemable "Racists," on the other hand, are isolated from the community that once accepted them, left to choke on their own hatred in their now obscure and invariably Southern mansions.

These clichés aren't bad just because they're hackneyed, but because they teach us to think about racism in black and white terms. If anyone points out that something we say or believe is tainted by racism, we get incensed because we can't get the image of that wheatgrass-chewing proto-bigot out our minds. The truth is that you're probably not the kind of racist who is also a cartoonish villain. You're more likely one of the millions of people who have been unknowingly corrupted by institutionalized racism. It's just that that kind of racist makes for a less engaging storyline.

But Hollywood is an easy target. More interestingly, this easily digestible narrative about racism is all over the Internet: it's what allows liberal Millennials to get self-righteous about all things racist in pop culture, sort of like I just did about Hollywood.

Having grown up with the Daily Show and the Onion, Millennials have developed a taste for brutal political satire. We like to see the things we dislike or disagree with taken apart point by point and ridiculed, preferably with an arch sense of humor. As a result, there are hundreds of blogs and websites that apply this exact formula to all issues that are important to progressive-minded young people, including racial inequality.

Armed with an enlightened perspective on what racism and its effects are, sites like Upworthy and Jezebel mercilessly attack those who passively or actively perpetuate racist ideas, laws or stereotypes. This way, everybody gets to learn something about racism in America with the added benefit of seeing somebody extremely hateable (usually somebody who works for FOX) get "totally DESTROYED!"

The only problem is that this is just applying the Hollywood trope to our political reality. By making public ridicule our chosen method of dealing with racism, we've advanced the idea that people infected with prejudice are fatheaded bad guys and not normal people. It might make us feel good to vilify Sean Hannity for having bigoted ideas, but would we feel comfortable doing that to people like our friends and our parents, people who might have similar biases? And are we so free of prejudice ourselves that we've earned the right to laugh?

This isn't to say that we shouldn't hold public figures to higher standards. Politicians and celebrities have a lot of influence on our culture, and they should consider it their responsibility to think about the example they're setting.

But this fictional battle between "Racist" and "Not-Racist" is hurting our ability to speak candidly about actual racism. The only way that our discourse can be "constructive" is if it is unafraid to call racism what it is, but the only way it can be "open" is by treating people with racist beliefs respectfully. This means that Millennials are going to have to start recognizing prejudice as a disease best treated with empathy, not disgust.

In real life, there is no such thing as a "Not-Racist" - just a whole lot of people like us who are trying to navigate the complex problem of American racism. Knowing this, our job as people who care about these issues is to educate others with more compassion and less snark. Millennials already have a more progressive outlook on race than our predecessors - to make a serious impact, it's a more progressive look on racism that we'll need.