Are millennials perpetuating racism?

People at Washington University in St. Louis protest last December to draw attention to police abuse.

Story highlights

  • Taylor Swaak: Despite millennials' tolerance, we still do not have a firm grip on racism
  • Dr. Eduardo Bonilla-Silva: We need to bring race to the forefront, and be "battling the monster straight up"

Editor's Note: Taylor Swaak is a journalism major at the University of Maryland and an assistant news editor at The Diamondback. She interned this summer at CNN. The opinions expressed in this commentary are hers.

(CNN)Have you ever thought something to be true, and then one day realized it might not be? That happened to me when I began to question my generation's stance on racism.

When a fraternity member's racist email circulated around the University of Maryland community in March -- only days after the University of Oklahoma fraternity members' racist bus chant was captured on video -- my fellow students were livid.
They demanded answers and punishments. My university dove into an investigation; our university's chapter sought diversity training; the Student Government Association president called for more mixed social activities on campus; and the SGA passed a resolution shortly after requesting a name change for Byrd Stadium, which is named after a former (racist) university president.
    Despite the cloud of disappointment and embarrassment, it seemed there was a silver lining in knowing that aside from isolated individuals, millennials wouldn't tolerate that behavior. We weren't racist.
    So I was genuinely surprised to come across articles with headlines such as, "White Millennials are Perpetuating Racism," and, "Millennials are more racist than they think."
    I've described millennials in many ways -- tech-savvy and phone-obsessed, individualistic and avid believers in progress -- but racist was never a word that came to mind.
    As a whole, the millennial generation I know is loving and tolerant. We poured out support for Caitlyn Jenner on social media after she came out as a transgender woman, and the vast majority of us -- 73% -- stood proudly behind the Supreme Court's ruling to legalize same-sex marriage in June.
    Not to mention, we are the most diverse generation of Americans ever. About 43% of us are non-white -- nearly double that of the 1980 census -- creating a melting pot of ideas and cultures.
    "One of the biggest strengths of the millennial generation is their tolerance, their sense of equality," Jean Twenge, the author of Generation Me, told me. "They're much less prejudiced than previous generations on race and gender and sexual orientation and transgender issues, and much more aware of these issues and much more willing to treat people as individuals other than members of groups."
    Make way for the millennials
    Make way for the millennials

      JUST WATCHED

      Make way for the millennials

    MUST WATCH

    Make way for the millennials 01:42
    But more tolerance and less prejudice, it seems, does not necessarily eradicate racism. And my definition of racism -- which centered around those who have deliberate, malign intent to discriminate, hate and judge -- was not entirely accurate, as Dr. Eduardo Bonilla-Silva pointed out to me.
    "The problem is that we assume racism is about 'those people,' the prejudiced people -- the Klan, the fellow in South Carolina, etc. -- in truth, historically, racism has been about a system of racial domination," the Duke sociology professor said. "Prejudice is about attitudes -- 'I don't like you because you are black, I don't like you because you are white.' That is different from having a society partially structured along the lines of race where some people get systematic benefits."
    In addition to overlooking subtle forms of racism, we millennials also have a tendency to pat ourselves on the back for inclusivity far more than we probably should, said Patrick Ronk, the University of Maryland's SGA president.
    "A lot of student groups, especially minority students, felt [the email] was an example of something they face every single day, which I think was a wake-up call," Ronk said. "I don't think we talk to students who are actually experiencing racism enough."
    The former president of the university's Black Student Union, Jazmyn White, said while she doesn't often experience racism in her personal life, there have been incidents, such as when an employee followed her in a shopping mall store.
    "The reason racism's still around is because it's been passed down from generation to generation, and history repeats itself," White said. "As far as combating it ... it's trying to change the ideas that others have, changing perceptions that others have."
    A 2014 Slate article touting millennials' tolerance suggests that racism's continuation lies in the millennial generation's confusion as to what racism fully entails, and its fear of discussing race and discrimination openly.
    In an effort to be colorblind, most millennials are uncomfortable discussing race (only 20% say they're comfortable), and -- as a 2015 POLITICO article states -- "simply ignore structural racism rather than try to fix it."
    Bonilla-Silva says moving past racism is impossible if we adopt a stance of not "battling the monster straight up."
    "What some policymakers and some analysts suggest is that basically, 'Let's ignore race, let's try to put it behind us and move forward,' " he said. "And I think as long as we follow that, and not deal with racial inequality, we will never get beyond."
    To confront racial inequality, it is vital to talk -- especially to children -- openly about race and racism. I live in a society that has made someone's race so sensitive a topic that I'm still wary, even at 20, to use "black" or "Asian" as an adjective to physically describe someone to someone else.
    That has to change. We should be able to be upfront, and not be afraid to discuss and ask the tough questions:
    In what ways are we still seeing racial inequality in society today, and what can we actually do to make a difference?
    The more effort we make to understand one another, and the more questions that are asked and answered -- no matter how "cringe-worthy" they may seem at face value -- the fewer concepts will be ignored and continually misunderstood. There is no doubt my generation and the generation we raise can become an unstoppable force in combating racism once and for all.