Woke, but tired: Trappings and love languages of freedom for Black millennials

5 mins read

“The American dream, the idea that anyone can succeed through hard work, is one of the most enduring myths in this country,” penned newly minted author and journalist, Reniqua Allen in a NY Times article.

Addressing the generation pegged for hashtags and beer yoga, the conversation of the state of Black millennials at a New York University (NYU) panel started with Allen’s sobering statement.

Allen who just wrote the book, “It Was All a Dream: A New Generation Confronts the Broken Promise to Black America,” emphasizes that the promises of upward mobility in the United States is especially mythical for Black millennials.

To take a deeper dive, Kaia Shivers, NYU professor in Liberal Studies curated a discussion for Black History month. The conversation between Allen, Dayo Adiatu, Ari Melenciano, L’Heureux Lewis-McCoy and Afrodesia McCannon, unpacked what it meant to be a generation equipped with technology and disrupter intuition, but still fail to have access like their white counterparts.

In exploring how Black millennials deal with the American dream, their stories often become invisible or disregarded in mainstream conversation. “Some millennials do not even entertain this idea of the American dream because they say that they know it is not for them,” Allen explains.

“The experiences of millennials are still shown through the lives and perspective of whites, while the Black millennial narrative is consistently left out,” says the former New American fellow. “But we are not avocado toast.”

On Technology and navigating racism

Afrotectopia became a direct response to glaring gaps in the millennial experience for Melenciano, an Afro-Latina with Dominican heritage. She pointed out how she noticed the grave lack of access for her generation when she relocated from an upper-middle class Black community in Maryland to New York.

In the move, glaring disparities popped up while commuting from home to NYU, which ranged from the upkeep of communities to transportation. She also saw inequities in race when acquiring capital for entrepreneurial pursuits. As a result, her experiences pushed her to form Afrotectopia in 2017, a new media, arts, culture and technology festival.

“When you look at the statistics, we are less funded and we are more likely to be in debt and in the system. We just need more spaces and opportunities,” Melenciano brings up.

For Lewis-McCoy and McCannon, NYU professors who are from Generation X—the age group preceding millennials—much of the discourse involving the topic was communicating how issues such as racism are still pervasive and often overlap other problems.

“A student told me that their parents talked about racism like they dealt with it during slavery,” Lewis-McCoy who focuses on suburban inequality jokingly mentions. “I often hear, ‘It’s different, now,’ but when I ask my students how have they created ways to beat racism and these structural barriers they face, they realize that they’ve only learned how to navigate through them. Now they are trying to deal with how it has mutated.”

McCannon finds that the most times she talks about millennial experiences outside of her classroom is at home during discussions with her daughter. “I often try to tell her about what she’ll face in the world with a level of cynicism. There is still so much that she will have to comb through, and she just looks at me and says, ‘mom.’”

However, McCannon a New Yorker says that she often gets into philosophical questions with people on the train about if we “fed a false reality” to millennials by withholding the bitter truth. “We still have so much work to do,” remarks McCannon who was the first Black Medievalist in the academy. Now she is part of the group, Medievalists of Color.

Entrepreneurs and education

To shift the way that we look at how millennials expanded the world of entrepreneurship in the gig-sharing economy culture, Adiatu, an author and business owner, says bootstrapping for Black millennials often has very different origins and trajectories.

“We often forget that there are a lot of [Black] entrepreneurs who did not or could not have gone to college for a plethora of reasons. They use entrepreneurship as a way to survive, to make a serious living. This is literally how they eat and they have no other way,” voices Adiatu.

When grappling with the benefits and costs of education in a country with skyrocketing tuition, for some panelists, education might not be the most economical route, but perhaps is the most successful.

Allen and Melenciano see education as one of the few avenues that Black people use effectively to gain entry into spaces where they traditionally have been disallowed.

Melenciano points out. “Even though we incur high amounts of debt and often bear the risk of being in debt for the rest of our lives, the opportunities afforded to us through education are still worth it.”

Allen adds, “It’s also about networks. We just don’t have the networks that whites have, and so education becomes a way to tap into them or expand the ones we have.”

An overarching agreement among panelists was that millennials see the importance of maintaining mental health.

“Millennials do a great job of openly talking about things like going to a therapist and paying attention to their mental health,” says Lewis-McCoy who also agreed that more open dialogue about sexuality has expanded with millennials.

“You’ll be in a conversation and people will mention how they identify in their sexuality and we’re like, ‘okay, let’s move on.’ It’s just part of who we are and we embrace it,” tells Melenciano.

Moving on out to move up

Another takeaway from the Black Millennial talk is that this generation disrupts Black respectability politics and uses social media as one way to activate dissent in today’s hostile climate.

Says Melenciano, “When people of color were included in using things like blockchain, to fund bail bonds so that the whole currency can be used in a positive way . . . even though I’ve been very cynical about how social media is used and the way that we use it, it also is used as a way to very publicly broadcast issues that are going on.”

While millennials move away from old notions of being tied to long-term, unfulfilling employment like generations before, old struggles of race-and-class still exist.

Allen notes that many millennials of northern cities have moved to the south for more opportunities and a better quality of living. “There’s a sense of home. There’s a sense of welcoming. There’s a sense of community that people are not finding in these so-called promised lands in the north … it’s about defining your dreams and how get them outside of mainstream, white millennial culture,” Allen notes.

Adiatu reminds, “We also must include millennials who grew up in rural areas or small towns who engage in technology and are part of shaping this dialogue. They don’t have a desire to move into big cities, but see how they can grow right where they are.”

Though the panel addressed some uncomfortable realities, Black millennials do seek happiness like their counterparts. Nonetheless, they understand that their daily engagement has stark contrasts in their respective journeys.

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