You know the cliche by now: young people are woke social justice warriors, while boomers and Gen X’ers are the Neanderthals dragging their heels on racial justice. In the UK, progressive politics of any kind is often synonymous with youth – mainly as a patronising stick to beat them with – and particularly with younger millennials and Gen Z.
According to YouGov, young people are statistically more likely to acknowledge that racism exists, and are more likely to think the British empire was a shameful thing. In fact, when I attended a Black Lives Matter march in London last year as a 27-year-old, I actually felt kind of old.
But footage that went viral in May, of a 24-year-old woman racially abusing a bouncer in Birmingham, prompts a more uncomfortable question: just how progressive are young white people when it comes to racism? And how far does their understanding or willingness for change actually go?
Speak to young people of colour and it rapidly becomes clear that the idea that everyone in their demographic is a card-carrying anti-racist is just a crude generalisation – and one that actually lulls us into a false sense of security.
Sekayi, a 20-year-old Black woman, spent most of her childhood in Doncaster, in the north of England. “There’s certain things young people know are wrong, but would still do, like calling a Chinese shop the ‘c-word’, or South Asian shops the ‘p-word’,” she says.
The over-sexualisation of Black men – a common racist trope – is often cloaked as harmless banter, she adds. “Some of my white friends are attracted to Black boys, and one of them posted a Snapchat story where they said Black boys have a BBC, which means ‘big black cock’. I asked them to remove it, but the girl didn’t understand why it was wrong, and thought it was funny.”
As the director of an organisation that engages and empowers young people in political and social issues, I’m obviously rooting for my age group. I’ve seen incredible efforts from young white people to challenge racism, in themselves and others. But multiple studies as far back as the infamous Doll Test of the 1940s – in which children expressed preferences for white dolls – have shown that children as young as five or six already internalise biases against people of colour.
A report from anti-extremism charity HOPE not Hate suggests that online extremist groups are taking advantage of these biases by grooming children as young as 12 to become “teenage far-right terrorists”, harassing minorities and spreading racist propaganda to radicalise others in their age group. Their actions are not confined to the internet – footage from the far-right demonstration in June of 2020, ostensibly aimed at “defending” the Cenotaph, showed a number of young male participants.
In the HOPE not Hate report, Cynthia Miller-Idriss, a researcher of far-right youth culture, argues that “expressing far-right ideas and taking on its imagery and language ‘may provide agency for youth who feel constrained or let down by the adult world’”.
Sumeiya, a 22-year-old teacher of Somali heritage, came to Brighton to study and was shocked at some of the racist attitudes in fellow students, even those who were younger than herself. “A white flatmate said that people of colour in her workplace only got the job because of their skin colour, and that this was unfair to the white people who deserved these jobs,” she says.
In reality, researchers at Oxford have found that people of colour have to send 80 percent more applications than their white peers before they are offered a job.
Age did play a part in Sumeiya’s experience, but not in the way you might think. When scoping out the subject of her dissertation, she says, “my older lecturers were more likely to encourage me to do my dissertation on racial disparities than my white peers were… The consensus from them was very much that we don’t talk about race.”
Black Gen Z’ers say that the Black Lives Matter movement of 2020 brought a shift in the conversation – but not always in a positive way. “[Last summer] was literally the first time I’d heard any of my white friends speak about racism,” says Sekayi. “I hadn’t even admitted to myself before that they weren’t invested in being anti-racist, but when I thought about it, I realised [that was the case].”
Sumeiya felt like some white people became overeager to prove their anti-racism credibility. “I got a huge wave of white fragility; of young white people contacting me trying to absolve their past sins.” Despite the clumsiness of these efforts, she remains optimistic about the overall situation: “One of my closest friends told me about a situation where she called someone up on their latent racism. They then called me ten minutes later apologising for unconsciously trying to prove to me they’re woke. So there is a learning process happening for some.”
Sekayi adds that she doesn’t know if her peers understand just how deeply racism is embedded in society, or how it intersects with other systems of oppression – and that snappy self-help anti-racist reading lists and Black Lives Matter infographics aren’t going to cut it.
“I learn about structural racism daily,” she says, “but it’s because I’m searching for it. Because many aren’t interested in racism beyond the overt or surface level it’s going to take a lot for them to develop a sophisticated understanding of structural racism on their own.”
Kwame Boateng from The Black Curriculum, a social enterprise that delivers educational programmes on Black history to young people, agrees that long-term education is key. “It is important to create an understanding that Britishness isn’t equated solely [or] necessarily with whiteness or Anglo history,” he says. “We’re hoping to show we have a history, irrespective of racial background, everyone can share and celebrate.”
Boateng praises the strides that some young people are making on their own, but emphasises that it needs to be backed up by change at schools. “We also need to complement their anti-racism with a history of anti-racism movements in the UK,” he says. “We have some incredible Black British individuals who have really shaped our society, such as Claudia Jones, or members of the Bristol bus boycott.
“I think it will help young people to understand our own positions as British citizens – how things have changed in the past and how they can change in future. The saying ‘if you know where you’ve been, you’ll know where you’re going’ definitely applies.”
Central to the Black Curriculum ethos is the teaching of Black British history, not as an anomaly, but part and parcel of a shared British story. The initial signs are promising. In 2020, Scottish education secretary John Swinney committed to improving the teaching of Black history in schools, and the Welsh government has made Black history lessons compulsory as part of a new curriculum to be introduced in 2022.
The timeworn platitude that every young person is ready to call out prejudice, especially without the proper tools or learning, isn’t just naive – it also doesn’t reflect the real-life experiences of many people of colour. Ultimately, our generation will inherit the same systems and processes that perpetuate racism today. Whether we can live up to our cultural stereotype is another story.