The ongoing pandemic has both exacerbated and exposed the gross inequalities fundamental to capitalism putting #BlackLivesMatter back at the forefront of conversation. Amidst all of this, questions of social change and revolution have made their way to a young audience, thinking about what kind of future they want. In true Gen Z fashion, much of this development has occurred on social media – particularly their digital homeland, TikTok. #GenZRevolution boasts 11.8 million views on videos touting Gen Z as the poster children for social change. One video by user @revolutionz2020blm, with 49.7k views, claims that Gen Z is not like their parents nor their ancestors - they are done with police brutality, homophobia, racism and sexism. Scour the comments and you’ll see that hundreds of other young people are in agreement.
From Greta Thunberg to Malala Yousafzai, the past decade has seen young people boldly pushing for change. But it was one video with 36.1k views that signalled to me a growing romanticisation of revolution. User @prezi_plain_jane claimed that having been raised on young adult fiction - like Suzanne Collins’ Hunger Games and Veronica Roth’s Divergent series - led to Gen Z’s belief that they will start a revolution. Ironically, it is precisely this literature that seems to reflect revolution’s romanticisation.
A key motif of such fiction is the one true, typically white, teenage hero who is destined to save humanity. Often dystopia is used in such fiction to make good and evil as clear as day. The reader becomes entangled in a fictional world of environmental degradation, hierarchies of oppression and constant fear. The dystopic is different from ours in its dramatisation of real problems. The Hunger Games, for example, shows us a world in which people are separated into distinctly unequal districts and teenagers must fight to the death. However, in comparing our world and the dystopic, it becomes easier and easier to distance oneself from the reality of oppression. These dystopian worlds act as a look at how bad things could be when in reality our world is divided into distinctly unequal groups. Teenagers are recruited into the imperial military, environmental degradation is occurring rapidly, and many global south citizens are merely surviving rather than living. This dramatisation ends up providing Westerners comfort in believing their world is not as bad as the dystopic.
Fictional dystopian worlds simultaneously create distance between reality and fiction whilst still drawing on real world issues. It is no surprise that Gen Z might see some similarity between themselves, in increasingly turbulent times, and the heroes of these stories. It seems that in their fight against bigotry, Gen Z has made itself the world’s one true hero destined to be better than those that have come before them. In doing so, the hard work of so many before us is erased and the white Westerner is positioned as hero. Discussions of Gen Z as a group are often whitewashed already, with white middle class experiences of youth being designated as the common ‘Gen Z culture’. This TikTok revolution further exemplifies how whiteness comes to be centred and, in doing so, pushes oppressed peoples out of their own movements. In a sort of twisted way, @prezi_plane_jane was right; (white) Gen Z has learned from these books that revolutions are led by white Western heroes called upon by destiny. Just as the white saviour trope stipulates, it is these white heroes’ birth right (by virtue of the generation they were born into) to save us all.
Ultimately, the #GenZRevolution feeds into a white saviour narrative continuing to prioritise white Western virtue, signalling over Black people and people of colour’s long history of action against our own oppression. For these Gen Z TikTokers it seems the prospect of revolution is merely that which New York Times bestsellers are made of. Oppression remains as distant as the dystopia they’ve read about to a people who do not feel it and so these fantastical heroes and their gloriously aestheticised battles for freedom can be easily superimposed onto someone else’s reality. The multiple viral videos of white teens dressed up in their coolest revolution outfits, cosplaying as revolutionaries brutalised by the state only prove this. For young Black people like myself this so-called revolution is a disturbing display of how easily white people de-fang liberation movements, aestheticising it to make it more appealing and, thus, less threatening to the status quo that keeps them comfortable.
Written by Christiana Ajai