Generation Z Tackles Racial Injustice Online — And It's Not Just For The Likes
Although racism and police brutality are ongoing issues in America, social media has exposed these realities like never before. Generation Z in particular is growing up learning about the unjust deaths of Black individuals by scrolling through social networks.
One story in particular stands out to this generation — the killing of Trayvon Martin. Many of the Gen Zers we spoke with said his death was their first vivid memory of racial injustice. They were in middle school.
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Now, reaching adulthood, they are demanding change.
“I hope to have kids one day. Obviously, my kids are going to look like me,” Jamal Noel said. “So I definitely wouldn’t want my kids growing up in a world like this. I have a little brother who I got to think about. I got to think about his future.”
Noel is the president of the Black Student Union at Nova Southeastern University. He first watched the video of George Floyd’s death on Instagram.
“Honestly I thought it was just going to be some outrage and then one or two weeks later it was going to be over,” he said. “But this time it seems different.”
Activism efforts have historically consisted of peaceful protests, picket signs, petitions, and riots. Protesters have used these tactics in several cities following Floyd’s death, but an overwhelming majority are also using social media to amplify their message beyond the streets.
“Back then, someone could easily say, ‘Well I’m not aware because I don’t like to read,’" Noel said. "Maybe that’s where you got your information from, the paper, and people could dismiss it. But who doesn’t have Instagram, right? Who doesn’t have YouTube? Who doesn’t have Facebook? Who doesn’t have Twitter?”
Sebastian Gonzales, a senior at Palm Beach Atlantic University (PBAU), also highlights social media’s influence.
“While it can very much divide us at times, it can also unite us,” Sebastian said. “Look at how many people of all ages you see coming out to these protests.”
Sebastian, like other Gen Zers, understands the risks of protesting during a global pandemic, but he said that doesn’t mean people should stay silent.
“We shouldn’t have to hide behind [COVID-19] thinking that we’re not going to be able to be heard because I’m pretty sure that they’re hearing us now,” Sebastian said.
His sister, Nathalia Gonzales, is a sophomore at PBAU. She lives with someone who has a compromised immune system. Because of this, she doesn’t feel comfortable going to protests.
“I think Gen Z specifically has decided that we want to make a change, and now we’re given … the platform to do it that our parents weren’t given,” Nathalia said. “That’s the way we’re trying to make our voices heard.”
She’s also posting petitions and email templates that can connect others with local government officials in hopes of creating change for their communities.
“I may only be speaking to a couple hundred people that I have on my Instagram and maybe all of them aren’t even reading or listening,” Nathalia said. “I feel like when I’m doing what I can, there’s nothing else I can do. So, in my way, I’m making a difference.”
Racquel Lewis, a senior at Florida International University, also moved her protesting online out of precaution. Early in June, she developed COVID-19 symptoms. She had to figure out how to reach others while keeping everyone safe.
Since she started posting about Black Lives Matter, Racquel has noticed more retweets and views on her stories. However, speaking out online has also brought her backlash.
“People thought I was bullying white people and that’s really not the case,” she said. “It would just be posts, simple, like ‘Hey, what you can do as an ally’ and then it's like … delete it! Get rid of it! Report!”
Racquel said her account has been reported.
Her parents taught her at a young age to agree with people to stay safe. However, she isn’t letting hateful messages stop her from speaking out about her concerns as a young Black woman.
“When it came down to Toyin Salau, she was 19 years old and I’m 20 years old and this happened in Florida, so it felt even closer to home that this Black woman was killed for fighting for Black lives and speaking out about sexual assault.”
Racquel found out about the recent killing of protester Oluwatoyin “Toyin” Salau through social media. She thinks Generation Z trusts social media more as a news source, since it often provides more raw coverage than traditional media outlets.
Nathalia also uses social media as her primary source of news. She said people’s passion and knowledge online have given her a better perspective on the broader impact of Floyd’s death.
Conversations about racial injustice have made Nathalia more aware of her words and actions. Now she confidently addresses her family and friends whenever they say something that could sound offensive to others.
“I feel like I have the knowledge now to be able to tell them, ‘Hey, this is what should be said and this is how it should be said.’”
Nathalia, along with the others in this piece, don’t want their generation’s call for change to fade once media coverage stops and social feeds return to normal.
“Let’s not let it just be social media posts and petitions and protests but let it be conversations we have,” Nathalia said. “Let it change the way that we do our everyday lives.”