by José Rodríguez
“Cry-babies” seems to be the latest insult being hurled at a generation of American youth trying to understand the direction our country is headed under a President Trump. The political pundits and commentators have flooded social media and the Internet with opinion pieces and memes ridiculing Millennials for their collective response to the 2016 election. As a college minister for nearly a decade, I bring my own experience to the table and while I quickly came to terms with our new reality on election night, I do not find fault in the Millennial’s struggle to make sense of current events. Honestly, I have been stunned and left speechless by the paternalistic backlash and name calling that has been unleashed on them by older generations that have not shown grace in winning and have instead taken on the persona of the bully.
There is a dramatic irony to the incessant name calling of “cry-baby” by an older generation to the much younger Millennials. I am not a Millennial but a common thread connecting my generation to the next is the various incarnations of the schoolhouse bully that are manifesting themselves in the voice of an angry, older generation. Those taunting the Millennials as cry-babies have cast themselves in an iconic role. They have woven themselves into a story that has been told and retold. They have chosen the part of the bully, and this generation knows that the bully will reap what they have sown (unless we are in the middle of a horror movie and then there may not be hope because there is almost always a sequel). Either way, Millennials are lashing out because they are caught between fighting a good fight and finding themselves in a hopeless situation.
Even though the generation preceding mine has had its own bullies – think the Wicked Witch of the West or every villain Shirly Temple has ever faced in all her films – the top cinematographic villains I’ve seen listed on most “Top 10” lists are almost exclusively bullies from Generation X and beyond. It’s as if Generation X and the Millennials cornered the market on the film villain. No one forgets the 1970s Nurse Ratched, all the bullies from almost every school house or coming of age film of the 1980s, let alone all the bullies portrayed in the multi-decade life story of Forrest Gump in the 1990s, or even the Mean Girls Lindsay Lohan faced off in the 2000s. To those of us caught in the middle of the Millennials and those thrashing them we can’t help but see the cry-baby as a messianic hero. Messianic in that the story has been foretold and the end in most of these stories has already been decided.
Almost every attack on Millennials has cast them as somehow deficient or failed by poor upbringing. The taunts being thrown at Millennials are especially cruel. The jab either emasculates you or belittles you. It is a jab that attacks you for doing the most human of things – grieving. The generation that lived through desegregation and Civil Rights has responded with an especially fierce and cruel jab at the newer generation who is now pointing fingers at them and calling them out as racist. In all honesty, how is this the Millennial’s fault? If for the sake of argument, the “racist” word is being misused how can we hold the Millennial accountable for slander? Is it their fault that we raised them up with a false sense of security regarding the state of race relations in this country? Why aren’t we from Generation X and all preceding generations taking personal responsibility for our role in all of this?
We sold Millennials on an illusion and they have bit into it hook, line, and sinker. Not only that but, they have invested themselves into the multiculturalism we sold them. Millennials aren’t naïve and have been aware that preceding generations are not as progressive as them but I strongly believe that this election caught them off guard to the magnitude of how broken and shattered our communities are along racial lines. They grew up thinking their way of life was safe but now have had that illusion shattered by previous generations refusing to pass on the baton.
The hashtag #notmypresident has been trending at a tremendous pace. Nearly two weeks after the elections protests are only intensifying. In our country, presidencies are established by an electoral college and while it is not the plurality of votes that make a president, the plurality does matter in discerning the court of public opinion. To that, as of today, the plurality rejected the campaign rhetoric of the President-Elect. To Millennials the political race may have been settled but they will and cannot accept rhetoric that threatens the way of life of their generation. This generation has not only accepted multiculturalism but they have structured their lives, social networks, friendships, and marriages accordingly.
Millennials are speaking out in protest because they refuse to accept that Mexicans are rapists and bad hombres or that their Muslim friends are all terrorists. They refuse to cede any rights and reject any attempt at erecting walls around their families, friendships, and communities. According to Pew Research, Millennials are significantly more likely than any preceding generation to accept interracial marriage and they are considerably more likely to have friends of a different race. Millennials in general, are more likely to marry outside of their race than any preceding generation. White and black Millennials have cross-racial friendships at a higher rate than those in the generations preceding them. Millennials also outperformed Generation X in accepting interracial relationships. When Generation X was first polled in the 1980s only two-thirds agreed with the statement that it is “all right for blacks and whites to date each other;” whereas, Millennials almost universally accepted that statement at the onset of tracking for their generation.
As part of Generation X, I have always known better than to accept what has been sold to the generation that proceeded my own. The generation before mine struggled and fought to racially integrate classrooms. My generation struggled with what to do with those who are linguistically different than us. The conversation didn’t morph or evolve, it expanded. We added a third dimension to a binary conversation that had yet to be settled and is still being wrestled with today.
My younger friends grew up with Dora the Explorer teaching a generation of children Spanish and about Hispanic culture. I grew up with few public role models and was forced into an ESOL classes in inner city Hartford in the 1980s—even though I spoke English—because my school at the time didn’t know what to do with the new influx of Hispanic school children arriving daily from Puerto Rico. Millennials were blessed that they benefited from national education standards adopted in 1989 that saw their Hispanic classmates integrated across the country into mainstream education. In general, Millennials rarely experienced the last vestiges of segregation in our country and have been the first generation to experience classrooms free from segregation—though there are notable exceptions to this.
In the early 2000s I remember reading a piece published online that discussed children’s television programming when I was a child that compared it to the television programming of the Millennials in the 1990s and beyond. The author reminisced about Sesame Street picture of diversity, “A Latino couple, Luis and Maria, and their black neighbor Gordon.” That was the extent of the diversity I was accustomed to seeing on television. There were exceptions, like Fat Albert and the Cosby Kids, but those were exceptions and there was very little mixing of the races to the extent that the 1990s saw other than the occasional token minority character.
The Millennials not only grew up with Luis, Maria, and Gordon but they also grew up with a diverse field of children’s characters. The 1990s opened with Nickelodeon’s Doug and his cast of multi-colored friends and followed up with an equally diverse cast on Hey Arnold! Not to be outdone, Barney and Friends gave us over 100 diverse children over its run to include. A well-known Barney alumnus, Selena Gomez, crossed-over into a hit Disney Channel show, Wizards of Waverly Place, showcasing a bi-racial family of wizards. This list of children’s shows cannot be closed without giving honorable mentions to the Latina Dora, the Latinos Diego and Bob the Builder, the Jewish Arthur, the cartoon version of Jackie Chan, and the black Susie from Rugrats.
Millennials grew up with a children’s television cultural landscape much more greatly diverse and inclusive than my own. Millennials grew up with a very clear understanding of the equal dignity and worth of all people regardless of their station or allotment in life. Millennials also grew up reading J.K. Rowling’s books about a young wizard named Harry Potter. Harry Potter was a truly global phenomenon and the impact those books had on an entire generation cannot be understated. As soon as the children of the 1990s were old enough to read they were immersed in a magical world that took them from grade school all the way through early high school. These literary adventures cast the villain as a genocidal maniac who was a supremacist in his own right in favor of magical people of pure magic blood. This story was filled with its own racial slurs—mudbluds—and even a magical secret society for the liberation of elven kind.
Rowling weaved together a world where words matter. Many years ago, I sat in on a lecture titled Left Behind with Harry Potter. The lecture itself was a play on words pitting the Harry Potter saga against the Left Behind book series. That play on words brought importance to words themselves. The magic of Harry Potter was akin to wordsmithing. That is, the witches and wizards of Rowling’s world didn’t invoke spirits or supernatural entities, they invoked words. The magic in these books was incantational and it was words themselves that were powerful. Lumos!
Words became the impetus of powerful magic in the world of Harry Potter. Jesus cautions us, “Out of the abundance of the heart the mouth speaks.” Rowling echoes this. She taught Millennials that squib and mudblud are slurs that degrade people and have no place in society. Rowling taught a generation of children the power of racial slurs and the importance to actively resist them. Even the absence of words became powerful—in people’s persistence in calling the villain “He who must not be named” and in Harry boldly saying the villain Voldemort’s name.
Rowling even represented slander itself as a villain in the form of Rita Skeeter and her muckraking for the Daily Prophet. Rowling drove the point home that words matter and that rhetoric has consequences. Notionally, it makes some sense that those few Evangelical Millennials that supported President-Elect Trump were also least likely to have been allowed to read Harry Potter as children. The power of Harry Potter on this generation was clearly seen in the aftermath of the 2016 Pulse Shootings in Orlando with the remembrance and memorialization of victim Luis Vielma at Universal Studio’s Magical Wizarding World of Harry Potter.
It could not be ignored that Rowling’s magical world of words has coincided with the rise of Twitter. The Twitter storms that brewed through this election were epic and fodder for a never-ending flood of viral YouTube videos and late night television. Moreover, the rise of social media itself embraces a world where raw words on a screen drive communication through status updates and memes. It also makes sense that in trying to escape reality there has been a rise in memes embracing the vice presidency of Joe Biden. Millennials are seeking both an outlet to vent protest and frustration while simultaneously searching for a safe space to retreat to.
We coddled the Millennials; however, we didn’t coddle them with entitlements we coddled them with a false sense of security regarding racial harmony that is quickly dissipating. We simply have not been honest with our youth concerning the state of race relations and dialogue in our country. We’ve been forced to offer our young people safe spaces to hide them from the lies we’ve sold them, and now some of us are attacking our youth for seeking the comfort of safety.
I am reminded of the Neverending Story, a film franchise that came at the end of Generation X. In that story, the hero Sebastian escapes his bullies by immersing himself in a fantasy world. It seems we created a fantasy world for the Millennials with the lie that racism is a thing of the past. They’ve structured their lives accordingly. Given that false reality, we’ve given them how else will they respond when the abomination of white nationalism has reared its ugly head?
Many of our Millennials were children when President Obama was first elected. All they have ever known is an America where their Government looked like the television shows of their youth. The first election many have participated in as voting adults saw a female presidential candidate vying against a Jewish man on one side; and a Black doctor, Hispanics, women, and a former governor of Florida (himself in an interracial marriage) vying against a man whose rhetoric cast him as the villain. The cast of characters in this election was as diverse as this generation would have demanded. They became invested in the story when it became epic with the emergence of a literal villain who struck down each player one by one.
We have failed our young people, but not for the reasons proclaimed by those shouting “cry-baby.” Instead of looking inward and owning up to our mistakes—those of us who have preceded the Millennials–are lashing out at them. We even have an Iowa lawmaker planning a “Suck it up, Buttercup” bill to cut counseling for Trump-sad students. This election cycle has brought back denigration into the mainstream. We are remembering the words that were said during the campaign, that vocabulary is growing. In all honesty, our problem isn’t young people protesting but it’s a hardness that has settled into the American heart and otherwise good people inflicting painful and cruel words on their neighbors.
The truth is, we haven’t fixed America’s race problem. We’ve tried to skip over real reconciliation contrary to a well-established principle in the social sciences that we cannot skip over stages of development. In fast-forwarding past work that still needs to be done, we sold our children a false bill of goods—the illusion that our country had overcome racism. Millennials have taken a good hard look and have proclaimed, “the emperor has no clothes!” The onus is on us to accept that the anger that has been manifesting in the streets deserves our compassion and not our disdain. We need to stop paternalistically belittling an entire generation. Instead, we need to restore Millennials, and all the rest of us, to a place of hope. Remember, we must “avoid godless chatter because those who indulge in it will become more and more ungodly” (2 Timothy 2:16).
The Revered Jose Rodriguez is Episcopal Chaplain to the University of Central Florida and is also a missioner at a Hispanic Congregation, Church of the Incarnation in Oviedo, FL