At an event a few weeks ago about cross-generational workplaces, I learned that most members of any given generation are between the ages of about 10 and 15 when a national or world event that has a major impact on an entire generation hits. The event facilitators started the panel/audience discussion by listing some of the major national and world events that affected Gen X, The Millennials and the Baby Boomers, each generation represented in the room. The list for the Boomers is too long for a blog post, so just think about the 1960s. Columbine and 9/11 changed The Millennials. My crew, Gen X, should remember the fall of the Berlin Wall, the start of the first Gulf War, Nelson Mandela’s release from prison, the end of apartheid inSouth Africa, the O.J. Simpson verdict and Princess Diana’s death.
The facilitators didn’t mention Rodney King. Perhaps putting him or the police acquittal or the resultingL.A.riots on the same list with O.J. Simpson would have been too much for the majority-white, professional and Millennial crowd. It could have upset the balance of the list a bit: The fall of fascism, followed by war, followed by the end of legal segregation and colorism and the freedom of a great leader and racial unifier, followed by a “not guilty” (or maybe just “reasonable doubt”) judgment on a retired pro athlete that had black folks celebrating and white people dumbfounded and angry, followed by the untimely death of possibly the most adored white woman on earth. Adding to that list four white police officers found not guilty for beating a black man when the beating was caught on tape probably wouldn’t inspire happy feelings.
I didn’t miss the Rodney King omission at the discussion—hey, I was surprised the facilitators mentioned O.J.—but on this 20th anniversary of the police officers’ acquittal, I’m pondering: What does it mean for Gen X to have such racially charged events sealed in our collective memory?
Ironically, I can’t begin to imagine answering that question for white Gen Xers (or Korean-American Gen Xers, or Chicano members of my generation for that matter). I was 11 years old and in the sixth grade in April 1992. I remember seeing Los Angeles burn on the news at home and the acquittal reaffirming what the people around me, who ranged in date of birth from 1919 to 1973, had learned long ago about race relations in this country. But I don’t remember any teachers, even the social studies teacher, contextualizing this for us.
I guess I can’t fault the school system too much for that; April in most schools means spring break, state testing and, especially in hormone-raging middle school, trying not to snap before the end of the year, so to jump from the test to the L.A. riots is almost impossible. But given that blacks and whites don’t live in the same neighborhoods in my city, the classroom would have been the best place for the students to get a perspective from someone of another race.
And we needed it. Yes, we sixth-graders needed to talk about race, because it would come up again that fall in 7th grade as Bill Clinton was elected and his impoverished roots and saxophone solo on Arsenio Hall would help cast him as The Black President. And again in 8th grade when white boys in my social studies class mocked the discussion a smart, vocal black girl in our class tried to lead about the TV mini-series Queen. And again that same year when all—and I do mean all—black boys at school decided they would only “go with” white girls. And again in 9th grade when apartheid ended. And in 10th grade when O.J. Simpson was found not guilty. And in 11th grade when 15-20 black boys were suspended or expelled from school for waiting in line in a school bathroom for a white girl to perform oral sex on each of them. And in 12th grade when an advanced student presented statistics she fully believed were factual that showed that neighborhoods deteriorate and become crime-ridden when blacks move into them. And later that year when our senior class voted to have, “It’s The End of the World As We Know It,” as our senior prom theme, while the county’s predominantly black school went out with “Black Magic.”
And that’s just my experience.
So what does it mean for Gen X to have such racially charged events sealed in our collective memory? I look at the context of the (short) list. While the U.S. was cheering on unifying world events, we had Rodnkey King and O.J. Simpson. I think that means we’ve got some issues we need to work out.