What a hard few days it’s been.
For some—the scores of people who thronged New York City’s Times Square, stopped traffic on a Los Angeles freeway, and more—Twitter’s #NoJustice hashtag says all that needs saying about the shooting death of Trayvon Martin on a rainy night in a gated Florida community more than a year ago. For those who saw in George Zimmerman a man unfairly labeled “racist” and worse for trying, however imperfectly, to keep his community safe, it may seem Zimmerman’s been even more vilified in the wake of his acquittal than he ever was on trial. And for the American justice system itself, well—no one will ever call this its finest hour.
But there’s one group that stands to gain something crucial from all this sadness: For young Americans watching this unfold, I hope Martin’s death, Zimmerman’s trial, and their awful aftermath prove once and for all that we need to talk about race.
In the seven years I’ve been covering my generation—the teens, twentysomethings, and now early-thirtysomethings who make up Gen Y—I’m constantly told by town and country that our greatest asset is being “colorblind.” We may be entitled. We may be annoying. We may the laziest, most self-obsessed, least financially responsible human beings in the whole long history of the universe. But show us Barack Obama and we’ll notice everything down to his tie clip before it even occurs to us he’s black. Gen Yers, the popular lore goes, just don’t see race.
It’s absurd. And here’s why: All people judge, and generalize, and draw conclusions that couldn’t possibly apply to every member of a given category. Babies do it. Children do it. With each new experience, they gather a tiny bit more data. Then they bring their accumulated knowledge, however broad or narrow, to bear on future decisions and interactions. They make snap judgments—and why wouldn’t they? If prehistoric man had stopped to consider the essence and intentions of every wild animal or passing tribesman when he was out roaming the savannah, the species wouldn’t have survived.
This is a fact of life. Which is why it seems so silly and incredibly short-sighted to pretend that, for Gen Y, it’s suddenly ceased to be true. What’s more, it’s not only ridiculous—it’s dangerous. Common sense tells us that we see everything, including race, whether we realize it or not. And it just takes a couple clicks around the homepage of Project Implicit—a research collaboration between the University of Washington, Harvard University, and the University of Virginia that explores unconscious bias—to recognize how insidious that can be. On the site’s skin-tone implicit association test, for instance, more than 50% of web respondents show a moderate to strong “automatic preference for light skin compared to dark skin,” while only a combined 12% show any preference for dark skin. (I, for one, was embarrassed if not completely shocked to discover that I exhibit a preference for light skin over dark skin, but the skin-tone test “often reveals an automatic preference for light-skin relative to dark-skin,” according to the site.) Just imagine what else might be “automatic.”
It’s scary, and the only antidote is self-awareness. Most of us may not be dodging leopards or rivals’ spears on a regular basis anymore, but that doesn’t mean we no longer perceive enemies. And if we look at a particular person and judge him or her to be such a threat, based on whatever characteristics our subconscious has learned to suspect, it is perhaps in our nature to act, immediately and decisively. As far as I can tell, there’s just one real way to resist this instinct and behave better than our less enlightened ancestors might have: We have to know this about ourselves.
We’re so committed now to this notion that the vast majority of Gen Yers don’t see race—because admitting we see it is a hop and skip away from being “racist,” apparently—that we end up missing critical nuance. Because we find overt racism so unequivocally revolting, we assume there’s no need to look for any covert racism lurking in our hearts. “We loved that biracial baby in the Cheerios ad,” we might think, never asking ourselves if we’d feel the same about her dad in a dark alley. Worse yet, it’s easy to unwittingly ignore or even advance pernicious race-related behavior with this attitude. We practice “hipster racism”—the very current art of showing how beyond racism you are by, basically, making a joke of your latent racism—as though it doesn’t actively, if not willfully, hurt the people around us. And as Yers move into leadership roles, how can we be sure that hidden biases don’t play into our hiring or promotion choices when we won’t even face the possibility that those biases exist in the first place?
It’s a lot to risk simply because we’re too insecure to talk about race. So let’s start. Let Trayvon Martin’s legacy be that his generation began probing this impossible issue because of what happened to him. Let George Zimmerman be a symbol to his generation of how absolutely imperative it is for us to interrogate ourselves, all the time, so we’ll have the insight we need when the stakes are highest. And let this be something we continue to do together—at rallies, on Twitter, and later on, too, in slow, quiet moments of honest reflection. We have a chance now to connect with each other, perhaps more deeply than ever before, and we should take it.
Years ago, I had a friend—a beautiful, blonde, Southern girl—who’d laugh whenever I pointed out that I was the lone brown person in the room at some friend’s party or campus event. “You’re the only one who notices,” she’d tell me, as if the problem wasn’t so much a lack of diversity as my obsessive demographic chronicling. Then one day, it occurred to me to pose a question: “Would you notice,” I asked her, “if you were the only you in a crowd full of me?”
She never answered. And it was because, I think, she felt suddenly ashamed of what she’d realized. But she shouldn’t have been; the only shame is never realizing at all.
A version of this article appeared on Fortune.com with the headline, "Trayvon Martin and Gen Y's race problem." Today's photo—of protests in New York City following George Zimmerman's acquittal—is by Michael Fleshman.