Shakira King views herself as someone who is self-aware. She is a regular user of such social media websites as Twitter, Facebook and Instagram. She is a member of the Black Lives Matter Philadelphia chapter. And, at the age of 25, King is also a Black millennial.
“The most important thing to me, when I think about millennials, is the fact that we are not our parents,” she said in a recent interview. “I think of the way that we move, the way that we express ourselves, the way that we organize, we are not the same people.”
Millennials are characterized as the population of people born between 1980 and the early 2000s. The generation remembers President George W. Bush and Sept. 11th. Its members face economic struggles less familiar to their parents and grandparents — such as rising student debt, global warming and the post-recession job market. Social media and portable technology is part of everyday life for millennials, who dominate its usage.
Still, University of Chicago Professor Cathy Cohen noted the phrase “millennial generation” doesn’t fully account for the experiences of Black millennials, who make up 14 percent of the total millennial population. This portion of the group has its own unique experiences as a generation.
“Millennials of color — and Black Millennials in particular — often chart a different path,” said Cohen, who has spent the past 13 years as the lead investigator of the Black Youth Project, a national research project that studies millennials like King. The project uses data to explore what Black youth think about their community and their own lives.
“It’s important to have young people speak on themselves about the issues most important to them,” Cohen said.
A Black Youth Project report published in October 2015 found 16.6 percent of Black youth were unemployed compared to 8.5 percent of white youth. In a survey, 41.2 percent of Black youth said they were “very” or ‘somewhat’ afraid of gun violence. More than half of Black youth surveyed said either they or someone they knew experienced harassment or violence from the police.
“Black millennials are often confronted with systemic issues, not individual issues,” Cohen offered.
For King, these systemic issues have contributed to feelings of fatigue and anger. The issues also drove her to civic and political activism.
“We are tired, it’s as simple as that,” she said of oppression and discrimination. “We have watched generations of our people go through this. Where does it end? When will it end? How can I help it to end?”
Cohen said Black millennials “are nuanced and knowledgeable about politics in this country, about the challenges Black people face and the opportunities to mobilize collectively.”
Social media activism
Social media has played a key role in Black millennials’ ability to mobilize. Black Lives Matter started as a hashtag on Twitter in 2012, after George Zimmerman was acquitted in 17-year-old Trayvon Martin’s death. The hashtag has since spread into a worldwide movement.
“I think social media heightens the work that we do,” King said. “It makes us hot on our feet. It doesn’t take a week to organize something, we can be where we need to be in a night.”
“Social media is not only just a tool, but a very effective tool,” said Dr. Gooyong Kim, assistant professor at Cheyney University. Kim has experience studying the relationship between social media and collective action.
Black millennials have carved out their own spaces within social media, such as Black Twitter, where they can connect as a community. These spaces are like a digital barbershop, where conversations about pop culture blend with conversations about politics. “I think for us, the culture lives on social media,” King said.
Through social media, Black millennials and other users can see how Black experiences are universal, according to King. “All our mommas are the same, everybody’s grandmother is the same, we experience the same thing on holidays,” she said. “It’s a way for us to really bridge these gaps.”
As a queer Black woman, social media has also helped King become a visible part of the community.
“It’s helped us take control over who we are and how we define ourselves,” she said. “Through Twitter and Facebook, the LGBT community can challenge established stereotypes and have their voices heard.
“People say social media makes us less social, but I would argue that Black Twitter has made me more social,” King added. “It’s a beautiful sense of community.”
Overall, Cohen described Black millennials as thoughtful, nuanced and knowledgeable about politics. Issues that were once marginalized, such as Black feminism, queer issues and Black nationalism, are now taking center stage. Black millennials are aware of the challenges within the Black community and how those challenges can be addressed through social media.
“The importance of this generation can not be underscored,” Cohen said.
For the future, King is looking forward to more community engagement and growth as a member of the Black community. Her message is clear, “Black millennials do not come to play.”