The Woke Generation’s Problem

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For over a year, I co-led a national research project studying the identity of the generation after Millennials, Gen Z. Roughly ages 10–24 — and of a size around 65 million — they are an influential group that many of us are still trying to wrap our heads around. Like their Millennial siblings before them, this generation is also being swept up in broad, incomplete monikers; they are the most practical, accepting, empathetic, PC generation. They are woke.

Yeah, about that…

I started to notice a troubling trend. On headlines, Tweets and posts, accusations were flying about queerbaiting — pretending to be part of the LGBTQ community to curry favor — or blackfishing — projecting the identity of a member of a marginalized group when you aren’t, especially by someone of a more privileged European background. The strangest thing, however, was who were often at the center of these criticisms. A generation that is extolled as being the most alert to social injustice and prejudice, or, “woke,” was frequently the same group pretending to be other groups to profit off of their community. How could Gen Z take on cultural appropriation in the pages of Teen Vogue in one breath, and pretend to have #blackgirlmagic for social media likes in another?

The gut reaction might be to label them hypocrites, a generation demanding more respect and understanding of the plight of minority groups while they do the opposite. After studying 1,090 Gen Z, I don’t believe it’s that simple.

Earlier this year, Ariana Grande drew fire for lyrics in her song “Monopoly,” where she sang “I like women and men,” a sentiment that rang false for the singer who, until that point, had only been known as heterosexual. The allegations of queerbaiting centered on her faking an attraction to the same sex simply as a way to stoke the desire of her LGBTQ fan-base. It was Grande’s response, however, that gets at the nuance of this generation’s relationship to identity and the interplay of community identities. While being grilled on gay Twitter for treating bisexuality as a joke, Grande responded that she “didn’t feel the need to label.” Grande’s perspective is shared by many, and is at the heart of the complicated relationship with Gen Z and identity performance. This generation is doing a sort of identity math: Labeling means limitations, and limitations mean a more singular identity, and a more singular identity means not being personalized to your audience, which is synonymous with success.

“If there’s anything this generation has learned, it’s how to present different identities to different audiences. This generation has no problem with contradictory performance in different spaces. It’s a level of savvy of who is looking, hyper-awareness,” remarked Dr. Alex Cho, a Digital Media Anthropologist who works with low-income and Latinx LGBTQ youth in Long Beach. “They’re expert curators in how they present identity for where and who their audience is, and what they see.”

This generation doesn’t see identity as a fixed state capable of labeling, but something that responds to outside factors. Gen Z portrays themselves with wildly different identities as a way to create connection and empathy with those not like them, to “play the game” and get ahead, and earn validation with their peers. And why wouldn’t they? Their entire formative years, we have told them to play-up their identity on their college essays (or, we lie about their identity on their behalf, as in the cases of the recent college bribery scandal, and T.M. Landry). We have instructed them to tailor their identities on resumés, to brand themselves. They strive to craft the perfect, platform-appropriate social media profiles, and encourage them to try to see things from the other side — making the experiences, perspectives and emotions of others a priority. In essence, we have made them a consequence of their context.

This elastic conditioning towards identity has brought the rise of phenomena like finstagrams, or fake Instagram accounts. Of participants in our national ethnography, almost half said they had a “fake” account, and nearly all of them knew what it was. A high-school respondent in Oklahoma told us, “There are two versions of myself, the balance of social media self and my “real” self butt heads.” And if that negotiating of real and pseudo-real identity weren’t enough, this generation has also ushered in the rise of virtual influencers, where the real self is quite literally a fabrication. Lil Miquela is a computer-generated 19-year-old with 1.6 million instagram followers. Her not being a real human hasn’t stopped Gen Z from having a very real relationship with her. In fact, she recently “appeared” in a Calvin Klein ad with Gen Z poster-child Bella Hadid, where the two shared a steamy kiss. The ad was roundly accused of queerbaiting (no need to be sentient to have sexuality, apparently). The brand defended itself with a retort straight from Gen Z’s playbook: “The concept for our latest #MYCALVINS campaign is to promote freedom of expression for a wide range of identities, including a spectrum of gender and sexual identities…In this particular video, we explored the blurred lines between reality and imagination.” When it comes to trying to please their audience by blurring the lines of who or what they are, brands and Gen Z apparently have much in common.

Gen Z is the most diverse generation to date, which has surely contributed to the generational tendency towards multiple identities. Code-switching is part of navigating this world; being from a diverse cultural and/or ethnic identity means being aware of your audience, and your place among others. And as identity becomes even more layered, say, for a second generation Afro-Latinx pansexual, it means exploring your identity in an ever-growing number of contexts. “In communities where there’s like less Latino people, I feel like I have to downplay that,” Sabrina, a 20-year-old from Los Angeles reflected. “But when I go back to my community, I have to pretend like I’m more Latina, even though I don’t speak Spanish and stuff.” Multicultural Gen Z have grown-up with the lesson that one’s identity is something that depends on others, not the self, and should be shifted and negotiated. In a world where identity is situational, labels become an unnecessary hindrance.

Negotiating identity based on what they think others want is not without complications; Instagram model Emma Hallberg and Jaiden Gumbayan are but two of many influencers accused of blackfishing in a bid to get more followers and brand deals, despite their claims they never said they were black — they just altered their appearance and let their audience decide who they wanted them to be. Celebrities like the Kardashians, Miley Cyrus, Iggy Azalea and others have similarly fallen under claims of appropriating their way to fame by drafting off of cultural identity not their own. Isn’t that what we wanted of them, they wonder, if we were the ones who made those assumptions?

When a generation preoccupied with pleasing their audience changes their identity to the situation — shirking labels in favor of results — it’s no wonder we see a rise in seemingly identity-baiting trends. The intention isn’t always malicious because of the complicated way Gen Z is choosing to express their group-influenced personal identity. If you’re gay, I won’t be totally straight so you don’t feel at-odds; if you’re black, I’ll try to meet you where you are by being less typically white. Misguided or not, these trends are a larger symptom of a generation whose identity is situational living in a world of endless situations. Gone are the days of identity as a fixed state, or a slow-changing process of growth. To Gen Z, identity is not a state, but rather constant change. “I like to portray myself differently with different people, in different situations,” Bryan T., 20, explained. “Maybe if I’m completely alone in a box, then I can be myself.”

Every generation brings with them redefinition: what’s considered cool, the prevailing values and attitudes, the ever-changing lexicon. Gen Z is in the process of redefining the concept of identity — the very notion of what it is to be you. As Millennials grew to be known as Politically Correct, Gen Z may very well go down in history as the Situationally Correct generation.

It appears for Gen Z, simply being yourself is no simple task.

Jess Watts is Associate Strategic Planner Director at RPA, an advertising agency in Santa Monica. She co-authored “Identity Shifters: A Gen Z Exploration,” a report that reflects the thoughts of more than 1,090 Gen Z researchers and research participants, yielding insight into virtually every aspect of their lives.

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