the destruction of defensiveness: generation bruh

My oldest son is a teenager, and he calls himself part of Generation Bruh. When asked to expound on what this label means, he responds with hilarious memes of people dramatically being “done.” Mildly annoyed, sarcastically dismissive, mocking the obvious, hilariously put-out…all of his examples are basically combinations of 3 sentiments: Adults are dumb; Not my problem; Boy Bye.  Nevertheless, I have reason to believe Generation Bruh knows very well that America is their “problem”, and that they only dismiss those of us who live in isolated, defensive denial about what America represents.

Last week he was reading about the violence that tragically helped bring about the legislative victories of the Civil Rights Movement.  Specifically, he was immersed in the details of Emmett Till’s death and its aftermath.  When he looked up I caught his eye and asked him how it made him feel to read this part of our history.  He looked me straight in the eye and said, “It is terrible. I hate it. And I hate reading about how, once again, white men are the worst. I’m sick of it.”  

I was stunned for a couple of reasons. His honesty shocked me.  I was also dumbfounded that his response to the senseless and vicious murder of another human was somehow defensively about himself.  Generation Bruh is done with drama. They are done hearing about all the inequities and hypocrisies of America.  But they know it is there. The challenge facing all of us is how to face the good, bad and ugly of American history and culture without getting defensive or checking out.  

We, collectively, are raising kids who understand our country was founded on an idea of equality and dignity that we have yet to realize. 

Pity for white men is not an appropriate response to our racist history.  And yet, as I talked with him about his fatigue, I realized he is growing up exposed to realities of abuse in law enforcement, churches, medical offices, work spaces, churches, schools and homes.  He is growing up during the era of church sexual abuse, Black Lives Matter, and #metoo.  He is growing up in a world where the most powerful men in our country openly belittle and discriminate against women of every race, the foreign born and people of color. He is constantly bombarded with evidence that our world is unjust, and he only has to look around to see that white males possess most of the power and wealth in our country.

As a white male himself, how is he to navigate this world?  He observes abuse everywhere, and now he contextualizes that abuse with an honest historical examination of colonialism, patriarchy and a racially stratified America.  Perhaps my son is “done” with talking about the need to face historical abuse or to pursue diverse perspectives because he already does this on a daily basis (#sorrynotsorry).  I was not taught to recognize the deep tensions or hypocrisies in American history.  I was taught Columbus discovered America and the intercultural celebration of Thanksgiving was indicative of the dignifying partnerships between new settlers and Natives.  My son, on the other hand, knows that Columbus didn’t discover anything, and that the pilgrims’ approach to Natives was one of theft and displacement. 

The challenge facing all of us is how to face the good, bad and ugly of American history and culture without getting defensive or checking out.  

I was taught Christianity was always a force for good, and that every person who worked hard could improve their prospects. My son knows that Christianity largely legitimized the abusive global power of Empire, and that our laws created generational poverty that hard work cannot overcome.  I was taught that education is the great equalizer, and that if kids would only stay in school they would leave poverty behind. My son knows that many communities fail kids, and that majority minority schools in our city regularly graduate kids who do not read on grade level and will flunk out of college.  I was taught that democracy is fair and that voting gives us a voice.  My son knows that voting rights are not universal to American citizens, and that gerrymandered districts have corrupted our ability to ensure effective representation.  Generation Bruh can act oblivious, but they know things, yall.

We, collectively, are raising kids who understand our country was founded on an idea of equality and dignity that we have yet to realize.  As the Grammys opened Sunday night, Kendrick Lamar rapped while black men in hoodies were systematically picked off, all in front of an American flag.  U2’s Bono and the Edge walked through the men, reminding us, “It’s not a place, this country is to me a thought, that offers grace, for every welcome that is sought.” As if they knew we Americans are not so great at hearing the truth uttered by voices different than our own, Dave Chappelle stepped forward as a translator of sorts: “I just wanted to remind the audience that the only thing more frightening than watching a black man be honest in America is being an honest black man in America.”  Generation Bruh are growing into American adulthood as the idea of America is deconstructed and resignified.  Their entire nation seems to ask: Are we, as Lincoln said in Gettysburg, “A new nation, conceived in liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal”?

Can we blame Generation Bruh for doubting, with all their eye rolling and sighing and “lookatthisdude”-ing, that we in America are “dedicated” to that incredibly obvious proposition?  A simple look at our jails, schools, tax code, neighborhoods, payroll, or welfare programs clearly reveal that we are dedicated to no such thing.  We need only listen to comments collected at random from elected officials to know that we spend a great deal of energy governing on the proposition that all people fit nicely into a society stratified by economics, race and gender.  Our kids must grapple with what America is and what their places might be in it.  My study of Generation Bruh encourages me that their attitude of “done” stems not from apathy, but from a deep security that they understand inherent equality, and the open attacks to that equality, better than we do. 

We all need to struggle with our cultural legacies, and with the particularized setting history has given us. I am intimidated and profoundly grateful to have the privilege of helping my kids position themselves as subjects with agency, even as they are contextualized by a history of often failing to embody stated ideals.  Sadly, the wide range of defensiveness I hear from adults reveals the fact that many of us have not moved beyond feeling attacked by any reference to our unjust world.  My hope is that a diverse Generation Bruh can move through feelings of defensiveness or victimization into full agency as they reconcile the America that can be with the America that is.

In the coming weeks I’ll try to help us recognize and ultimately reject defensiveness as a response to the pain of others. In the meantime, adults who interact with Generation Bruh might do well to pay attention to what they see and hear, and join them in wrestling with how to be an American adult.