Reclaiming My Gen Z Identity

I always wanted to be a millennial. Despite my 1997 birthday making me the earliest of Gen Zers, I had convinced myself that generational divide should instead be determined by “those who had Instagram in middle school,” a distinction I conflated with superficiality and image-based self-importance. As a slow adopter and minimal user of social media, I found it easy to frame it as a conversation-ending, narcissism-feeding mechanism. 

In many ways, I am a millennial. I remember the thrill of falling asleep to a VHS from Blockbuster and the horror of waking up to the news of the 9/11 terrorist attacks. I’m older than Google and Billie Eilish, and am a sucker for millennial pink

But as Gen Z is taking form beyond petulant middle schoolers — and who isn’t horrible in middle school? — I find myself hoping to embrace that Gen Z identity I once avoided. Gen Z is a generation not letting itself be defined by events — from school shootings to leaders with authoritarian tendencies to our current catastrophic cocktail of global pandemic, economic recession and racial strife — but instead by their response to those events.

The answer isn’t more selfies, but instead to be more inspired to speak up.

From the high schoolers in Parkland and beyond, this generation has been the most outspoken about the need for gun control. Teens across the country have been at the forefront of today’s civil rights movement, organizing and demanding change. OZY has reported that 70 percent of Gen Zers believe their lives need to make a difference in the world and 65 percent say it’s important for companies to take a stand on social issues. This is a generation that won’t settle for the status quo and is willing to fight for what they believe — that’s a generation I want to be identified with. 

Now I can see those Gen Z qualities shining through: my optimism that we can change the problems of our societal status quo to work for a better future. My millennial-defining qualities won’t disappear, so perhaps in ultimate young-person fashion, I reject the notion of one definitive label. I realize the answer isn’t more selfies, but instead to be more inspired to speak up.

Recent data from Pew Research Center shows Gen Z to be the most diverse, educated and forward-thinking generation, as well as the most tech-savvy. Social media has made our generation informed and connected. It’s a tool, not only to bring people together but also to highlight inequities in our system. While I was busy scoffing at duck-faced selfies, my peers were busy figuring out how to change the world. 

The Teenagers Who Organized a 10,000-Person Protest

The six teenage girls first connected on Twitter, responding to a call to action in the aftermath of the police killing of George Floyd. They didn’t know one another, but each knew she wanted to be a part of the movement. Soon the group chat led the Nashville, Tennessee, high schoolers — ages 14 to 16 — to decide to organize a protest. They started asking around for support and donations.

The local chapter of Black Lives Matter asked which organization they were a part of. “We were like, ‘Organization? We don’t have one of those.’ So we just made one up,” says Emma Rose Smith, explaining the creation of Teens4Equality, the organization and Instagram page that she launched with Kennedy Green, Jade Fuller, Nya Collins, Zee Thomas and Mikayla Smith.

The protest turned out to be one of the biggest in the country since the death of Floyd, with at least 10,000 people filling the streets of Nashville — far beyond the teens’ wildest expectations.

Just as the Parkland, Florida, high school shooting led to the emergence of young gun control activists, teenagers across the country have been taking the reins at the mass protests against police brutality and racism, from Nashville to O’Fallon, Missouri, to Washington, D.C., where 19-year-old Parkland survivor Aalayah Eastmond is bringing her organizing experience to the fight. After the shooting, she says, “I recognized the imbalance between Black voices and white voices of my classmates, so it felt like my duty to speak out … for all the Black youth who look like me.” Today, that focus is essential as she works to organize activists and push legislation centered around the voices of young Black people.

“Although [youth activists] may not always have the resources to do certain things, we find a way to make it happen,” Eastmond says.

The Nashville teenagers took that improvisational spirit to heart. Even with the help of Black Lives Matter and other organizations getting the word out, they expected a smaller turnout, roughly 800 to 1,000 people, Fuller says. But as the June 4 protest got underway, “more people were just winding down the street. It was crazy,” she says. Fortunately, the teens were prepared with volunteers, legal help and medics. 

Among the masses was Elizabeth Dossett, a Boston-based immigration activist. “It was super well-organized,” Dossett says. “Communication was very clear, people [were] giving out water.” She felt the community spirit and was struck by how many kids and families were there. “Nashville is a really segregated city, and it was powerful to see communities coming together in this moment,” she adds. 

We need to fix the system right now so that [our kids] don’t have to protest for this.

Jade Fuller

While the teens don’t condemn violence at certain demonstrations, the community feel of the protest they organized meant they were careful to avoid skirmishes with officers. So, again, they adapted smartly to what was happening on the ground. “Anytime we would see the riot police, we just rerouted,” Green explains. “We think it’s kind of funny they called the National Guard on 14- and 15-year-olds,” Smith says with a laugh, noting that several police officers kneeled, but “only when the news showed up.”

With this insight and humor, the teens also brought energy. In a Zoom call, they project commitment and outrage, often interrupting one another with historical information and pertinent statistics. They debate their schedule as they jump from “podcast to TV spot, interview to photo shoot — not to sound cocky,” Fuller says. “Not to sound cocky,” the others chime in.

At times, the girls reminisce about simpler days. “I like a quiet life.… It’s been two weeks since I’ve played Fortnite!” laments Green. But the desire for a better future outweighs the time lost scrolling through TikTok curled up in bed. 

They each brought a different perspective to the table, but they all have a personal connection with the fight for racial justice. “I have a [younger] brother and it really worries me that next year I’m gonna have to talk to him about what to do when you encounter a police officer,” Green says. “I don’t want to think about that. I don’t want to think about losing him to some people that say they’re supposed to protect and serve all people of America.”

“We’re all fed up,” says Smith. Adds Fuller, “We need to fix the system right now so that [our kids] don’t have to protest for this.” Eastmond agrees: “We hold no tolerance for BS and we’re just really tired of the foolishness that’s happening in the world. If nobody else is going to do it, it’s our turn to take the baton and have these uncomfortable conversations and hold people accountable and vote people out. That’s what this generation is really about.”

The members of Teens4Equality have taken the baton and are running. On their Instagram page, which has more than 25,000 followers, they share resources and information, calling attention to local, national and international issues. And their next event is already in the works: a red, black and blue protest on July 4, complete with Black-owned barbecue vendors and a voter registration drive.

The 30-Day Justice Plan

Eight minutes and 46 seconds: That’s how long it took an officer of the Minneapolis Police Department to take the life of George Floyd, a cheerful father of two who was a great athlete and loved to dance. What can you do with that amount of time?

As the reset of America is underway, understanding the role you can play in a system of change can be difficult, but we encourage you to listen, learn and be active — as we are also trying to.

While this is not a comprehensive list, we encourage our readers, especially non-Black ones, to use the time you have to take steps toward justice. To start, spend more than eight minutes and 46 seconds a day to be part of this change.

Day 1

Day 2

Day 3

  • Watch Megan Ming Francis’ “Let’s Get to the Root of Racial Injustice” TEDx Talk.

Day 4 

Day 5

Day 6

  • Dinner and a movie: Order food from a local Black-owned restaurant and watch Ava DuVernay’s 13th on Netflix.

Day 7

  • Watch Alfre Woodard performing Sojourner Truth’s “Ain’t I a Woman?” speech.

Day 8

Day 9

Days 10–16

  • Read The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness, by Michelle Alexander, after buying it from a Black-owned bookstore.

Day 17

  • Give your copy of The New Jim Crow to a friend and spend a day reflecting on what you’ve learned.

Day 18 

Day 19

  • Donate to the Movement for Black Lives.
  • Call your local elected leaders and police chief to advocate for police de-escalation training, if they don’t require it already.

Day 20

Day 21 

Day 22

Days 23–26 

Day 27

Day 28

Day 29

Day 30

Compiled with inspiration from Justice in June, by Bryanna Wallace and Autumn Gupta, and Anti-Racism Resources, by Sarah Sophie Flicker and Alyssa Klein.

5 Voices Who Are Resetting America

Audre Lorde’s 1984 essay “The Master’s Tools Will Never Dismantle the Master’s House” examines how those benefiting from an existing system may not have the will or the capacity to deconstruct it. In recent days, as the need for a reconstruction — or at least significant renovation — to the “house” of American society is becoming ever more apparent, the architects chosen will be vital. Here are five voices of the moment we think you should know.

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Samuel Sinyangwe

An activist and data scientist, Sinyangwe, 30, is one of the founders of Campaign Zero, a national organization focused on ending police violence. While you’ll see him in the media less often than co-founders Deray McKesson and Brittany Packnett Cunningham, who made their names in the Black Lives Matter movement during the Ferguson, Missouri, protests, Sinyangwe is bringing the stats to this fight. He has helped create the most comprehensive database of police violence in the country, to pave the way to comprehensive solutions. The group recently released its #8CantWait campaign to spotlight eight policy fixes that research shows correlate with a drop in police killings.

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Brittney Cooper

Cooper, 39, is an author, educator, activist and cultural critic whose research spans from Black feminist theory to hip-hop. In the Rutgers University professor’s eye-opening TED Talk, she discusses the racial politics of time and how it has been stolen from people of color in this country, delaying progress. The Louisiana native’s most recent book is the aptly titled Eloquent Rage.

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Ibram X. Kendi

Kendi, 37, is a historian and the New York Times best-selling author of How to Be an Antiracist. Through memoir-based writing, Kendi makes antiracism accessible, forcing readers to reexamine their own deeply held biases. A New York native, he is the founding director of the Antiracist Research & Policy Center at American University. Kendi is a vegan and a cancer survivor.

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Elle Hearns

The fights for justice for the LGBTQ community and Black community have been intertwined from the beginning. Rates of violence are even higher against transgender Black people, including the recent killing of Tony McDade. Hearns is the founder and executive director of the Marsha P Johnson Institute, which fights for the rights of transgender Black folks. A native of Columbus, Ohio, she splits her time between Washington, D.C., and Harlem.

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Thea Monyeé

Healing is an essential part of the fight for justice, and artist and therapist Monyeé focuses on healing through the decolonization of joy and pleasure in much of her work, including her podcast, Shaping the Shift. The Los Angeles resident is the author of Murmurs of a MadWoman: An Unconventional Memoir and is working on becoming a licensed sex therapist.

This Non-Binary Comedian Is Finding Humanity in the Pandemic

  • Jes Tom is a fast-rising New York comedian who is breaking ground as a non-binary person on stage who uses the pronouns ‘they/them.’
  • Tom’s uplifting brand of comedy stands out — particularly during the pandemic.
  • They are part of a movement of non-white LGBT comedians gaining popularity on the scene.

Amid feeds filled with feuds and outrage on everything from pandemic-defying spring breakers to actress Gal Gadot’s take on the song “Imagine,” the comedian stands for a selfie in front of a budding cherry blossom. “Fighting racism by being Asian and hot,” declares Jes Tom, a joke that garnered an unexpected response.

In came hundreds of replies from Asian-presenting people with their own selfies, dutifully retweeted by Tom, in a strike against soaring anti-Asian racism that represented a rare uplifting moment — both for comedy and for Twitter.

But unexpectedly uplifting is not new for the 29-year-old comedian. A non-binary, transgender Asian American who uses the “they/them” pronouns, Tom also practices a kind of comedy that doesn’t slash and burn in the manner of Dave Chappelle or Louis C.K., and one that might be finding a new voice in 2020. “To me, humor is very algebraic,” says Tom. “You’re solving for X. … Things right now are so bad, and getting worse, and I want everyone to be able to laugh about it.” During the pandemic, along with virtual shows on Zoom and Instagram Live, Tom is working on a new hour about searching for the humor and humanity. “What does it mean to have a crush in the face of a global pandemic?” they ask.

Tom grew up in San Francisco surrounded by extended family and close friends. An early performance memory was a Christmastime puppet show of dinosaurs singing to the soundtrack of The Sound of Music. “I remember my aunt just absolutely losing it, and I was like ‘Yes, I’m crushing it. I’m crushing it.’” It led to a theater major at Smith College, then to the New York stand-up comedy scene. “I figured I could try acting, improv or stand-up, and stand-up was the one I could go do immediately, so I did.” They advanced to performing three to four shows a night on both coasts alongside names like Awkwafina and Rosie O’Donnell. But lately Tom’s repertoire has expanded and includes shoots for upcoming HBO series, audiobook recordings and several short films.

I like when people call me ‘they.’ It makes me feel less lonely.

Jes Tom

Whether sharing recommendations for Filipino restaurants in Queens or delving into topics of intersectional inequity, Tom carries a magnetic energy. “Even just a walk with Jes [becomes entertaining] … because they will notice and observe things in a way I never would have,” says Lauren Zelaya, curator at the Brooklyn Museum and a longtime friend. 

Tom’s observational style and identity is core to their comedy: “I do go by the gender-neutral pronoun they/them. I like when people call me ‘they.’ It makes me feel less lonely,” Tom joked during a recent set. “I do find people have a hard time reading me. People tend to think I’m this hot, cool dyke, and I think I’m a little twink. Like, people think I’m an Ellen Page when really I’m a Michael Cera,” Tom said at another. With this wit, they make often-difficult themes of identity approachable. “There’s a level of trust and care and self-awareness Jes has,” Zelaya says. “They’re able to invite audience members in, in a funny and caring way.” 

But this comedic education doesn’t come without difficulty. They have given up on correcting people about their pronouns in certain parts of their life. “Because of that, I have the energy to go on stage and explain this over and over and over again,” Tom says. “My dream is to get past the point in my career where I have to use my comedy educationally.”

Rosa Escandón, a fellow New York stand-up and comedy writer, says the work of Tom and others will change the future of identity-based comedy, so it “doesn’t have to teach you, but pushes new narratives and makes you think.”

Tom is part of a growing movement of non-white queer comics like Bowen Yang, Jaboukie Young-White, Julio Torres, Sydnee Washington, Ana Fabrega, Joel Kim Booster and Dewayne Perkins. In the past several years we’ve seen white LGBTQ comedians such as Tig Notaro, Hannah Gadsby and John Early become stars, and Escandón notes the “trickle-down hierarchy” of who society allows to tell jokes. She sees this as a societal shift rather than one specific to the comedy scene: “We’ve opened the doors of culture for people to say it on stage.” Yet she warns not to overplay this surge: “There are people who want that ‘good old boy’ comedy. I don’t think that’s going away … there are now just also newer and more interesting things going on.”

Tom adds that the power of humor as a coping mechanism draws in people with traditionally oppressed identities. “Something really bad will happen to me and I have to be like, ‘This is so funny.’”

Lately, Tom has discussed on stage how they’re taking testosterone. It’s been commended as brave, but Tom says it’s no more so than other comedians opening up about taking antidepressants or getting an abortion. “Everyone has their shit,” Tom says. “I just take a shot every week and now I’m really strong and hungry all the time. That’s what’s going on in my life, so I talk about it.” 

OZY’s Five Questions with Jes Tom

  • What is the most recent book you’ve finished? Well, I didn’t exactly finish, but Stone Butch Blues. It’s such a sad book with so much trauma, and I got to a happy part and put it down because I didn’t want to see what happens next.
  • What do you worry about? Well, it’s a highly worrying time right now. … I’m worried about our slowing morale. I’m worried about all the people whose lives are going to get worse. I’m worried about when we’re going to lose hope. 
  • What is one thing you can’t live without? Bubble tea. That’s my vice.
  • Who is your hero? I don’t have heroes. Heroes disappoint you. My heroes are my peers, are my friends.
  • What is an item on your bucket list? I want to go to Tokyo Disneyland. … And I want to do an HBO special. 

This Weekend: Find That Perfect Summer Wine

The Weekender is a special collaboration between OZY Tribe members near and far to provide delicious recommendations for your weekend inside. This week, we’re excited to bring you special recommendations from our partners at monthly wine club Bright Cellars.

What to Drink on a Virtual Museum Tour

Notes, Pinot Grigio, 2019 — Fruits and Flowers. This California pinot brings forward strong notes of citrus, stone fruit and flowers, perfect while virtually visiting the home and museum of Georgia O’Keeffe — an artist known for her sexy, modernist approach to fruit and flora. Get this wine and others delivered to your door for $50 off when you get started with Bright Cellars.

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Wellfleet, Chenin Blanc, 2019 — High Society. Enjoy the best of Degas, Gauguin, Monet and more on the digital tour of Parisian-train-station-turned-art-palace the Musee D’Orsay while sipping this classy, vibrant wine with hints of white peach, yellow apple and perfumed honey. Just don’t let on that you’re drinking a non-French wine to any Parisians. Get it here.

Havelock, Sauvignon Blanc, 2018 — Fresh and Funky. If you’re up for something new and funky, this lively, New Zealand sauvignon blanc is packed with a myriad of flavors, from citrus and stone fruits to fresh herbs and white pepper. Try it now while browsing experimental works of contemporary art at new York’s MoMA.

What to Drink With Your Backyard Picnic

4 Cellars, Grenache Rosé, 2017 — Classic. The intense flavors of watermelon and fresh strawberries in this California rosé will bring you back to childhood picnics — but not the sad paper plate affairs you actually had, rather the fake dream of plaid woolen blankets atop a grassy lawn on a sunny day. Get it now and pair it with a fresh tomato sandwich sprinkled with flaky salt.

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Source Bright Cellars

Mulderbosch, Rosé of Cabernet Sauvignon, 2018 — Coastal Flair. This wine is South African, but its zippy notes of lemon and raspberry will take you straight to the beaches of Sorrento, Italy. Pair it with some prosciutto and melon to transform your yard into the Italian coast. Get this wine and others delivered to your door for $50 off when you get started with Bright Cellars.

What to Drink While Your Bread Rises

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Wandering Giants, Barbera, 2018 — Cozy Nights In. This grape is traditionally Italian, but this wine is made from a Northern Californian crop, softened with warm notes of cinnamon, clove and ripe berries. When there’s a springy chill in the air, you can soothe your irritation that it should already be summer by trying your hand at a new bread recipe (like this one!) and then curl up under a blanket with a glass of this while the sourdough proves. Get it here.

And whatever you do, don’t…

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Eat dinner with creepy dolls. Faced with having to leave tables empty to allow diners to social distance, the Michelin-starred Virginia eatery Inn at Little Washington will fill the dining room with well-dressed mannequins. Because that will definitely make everyone less uncomfortable. (Washingtonian)

SLIDE INTO OUR DMS

Do you have a killer potato salad recipe that you’d like to share? Think you discovered the next great jam band? Share your suggestions with us here at OZY! Email us: Weekender@ozy.com.