clock menu more-arrow no yes

5 ways white millennials view race today

What do white millennials think about race?
What do white millennials think about race?
Paul Bradbury via Getty Images

Millennials may be the most racially diverse generation in American history, and generally more tolerant of racial differences than their predecessors, but that doesn't make it any easier for them to grapple with race and racism today.

At least that's the takeaway from the latest installment of award-winning filmmaker Whitney Dow's the Whiteness Project.

Dow interviewed dozens of white millennials ages 15 to 27 in Dallas, Texas, in hopes of teasing out people's perceptions of racial differences without limiting the discussions to people of color.

"I believe our whiteness is so tangled up in our relationship to blackness," Dow told Vox last year. "You ask white people about whiteness, and they talk about black people." He added, "I'm trying to give voice to my own community so that they can listen to themselves."

Here are five takeaways from the project about what race looks like for white millennials.

1) Why don't white millennials see race? Many were taught not to see it.

The first step in addressing a problem is recognizing there is one. This is especially true with race in America, and why some have been critical of millennials who express that they prefer to be blind to others' racial differences.

In fact, some of those interviewed said they were raised not to see race, and that it was rarely part of family conversation.

"I think I don't think about race because I don't talk about it," said Leilani, 17, and an interviewee with a multiracial family who saw family members as "someone to be loved, not someone to be judged." In fact, her advice to fix racism was to "just stop" talking about race and racism.

According to 2014 MTV poll, 37 percent of millennials discussed race at home, but the percentage was slightly lower for white millennials (30 percent).

2) White millennials are more likely than their peers to oppose race-based affirmative action

Trying to confront the historical effects of institutional racism gets a bit tricky for white millennials because of their attitudes about historical inequalities.

Millennials overwhelmingly believe in equality. While this means they don't believe race should impact how people are treated, 88 percent in the MTV poll said favoring one race over another is unfair. This influences how they see programs like affirmative action, which were created to rectify historical inequalities.

"I wouldn't say that we owe other races reparations for the past, because I'm not that person," Chaney, 18, said. "I didn't do that to you and I can't help what others have done to your ancestors."

Seventy percent of millennials polled by MTV believe that preferential treatment for anyone based on race is never fair. But more white millennials (74 percent) believe this than people of color (65 percent).

3) Multiracial millennials showed identifying as white can still be skin deep

The project included several millennials who identify as multiracial. These interviewees prove how being white, like other racial categories, still has a lot to do with perception.

"If I said I was black, people would believe me," Amanda, 21, said. "If I said I'm Hispanic, people would believe me. If I said I'm white, nobody would believe me because I don't look white."

Lena, 21, whose parents are white and Arab American respectively, said that her ability to pass as white helped her escape experiencing Islamophobia in her town. Nick, 18, said he feels like he is disrespecting his mother when he hides his Mexican heritage.

4) Some could identify racial disparities in the criminal justice system through their own experiences

Even if some white millennials tend to shy away from talking about race, a few did say they understood how their race influences their experiences with the law.

Hadley, a 15-year-old non-binary pansexual interviewee, recounted an appearance at truancy court after missing too much school. The only white student in court that day, Hadley said the judge immediately took a less antagonistic tone compared to the students of color whose cases were heard prior.

"It was one of the most obvious examples I have of how I benefit from white privilege," Hadley said. "But I know that there are a lot of little things where people have assumptions about me based on looking at me, and my skin tone definitely goes into that."

Data on topics ranging from police shootings to sentencing repeatedly reveals racial disparities in the criminal justice system that favor people if they're white — even if not all of the white millennials interviewed believed this to be true.

As Connor, 24, put it bluntly: "I would be in jail if I weren't white."

5) Some white millennials felt conflicted about white guilt

Race is difficult to talk about, hence the emphasis on colorblindness. That difficult feeling, for some at least, can manifest as guilt. For others, it's inspiration to do better.

"I don't feel guilty about the fact that I've been given these advantages," Nicholas, 17, said. "I just feel the need to use these advantages subtly, or whichever way I can to try to make sure that other people of other races can have the same advantages that I have."

Some insisted they shouldn't have to feel guilt. Others recognized the guilt, but were unsure about how to transform it into action.

At the very least, by bringing these ideas into public conversation, the Whiteness Project is making sure a conversation is growing.

Sign up for the newsletter The Weeds

Understand how policy impacts people. Delivered Fridays.