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Beyond A+: Navigating Success for the First Generation Millennial

The United States is undergoing a massive demographic shift, one that will truly reflect our long-held descriptor as “global melting pot.” Based on Census projections, in just twenty-eight years, the United States population is projected to shift to people of color making up the majority of citizens, with white Americans in the minority. In 2044, our cultural and economic landscape will be vastly different. We have already begun to see this change occur, with a recent spike in media created by and for people from multicultural backgrounds. In order to respond to this rapidly growing generation of young Americans, it is vital for content creators to understand our values, motivations, and interests—all of which stem from our unique multicultural backgrounds and upbringing.

Humble Beginnings

My mother immigrated to the United States from Jamaica in 1972, allured by its images of prosperity and opportunities for higher education, even as its black population continued to buckle under the weight of oppression. She arrived in the South Bronx and struggled to make ends meet while evading the constant threat of deportation. Her journey to economic stability was a long and rocky one, and despite the extenuating circumstances that limited her own freedom, she was overwhelmingly generous in helping me gain my own.

My father immigrated to the United States from Guyana three years prior to my mother’s arrival, similarly enticed by the affluent lifestyle the majority of Americans seemed to enjoy. He held many titles ­– a constant dabbler in entrepreneurial pursuits­ ­– but made his living in education. He taught high school for over thirty years, a calling that I attempted to adopt for myself when I wasn’t sure what career I wanted to pursue. He expressed no disappointment when I decided to leave it behind, refusing to lend legitimacy to my unspoken fear that I had let him down in some way.

The author with her parents. "My mother immigrated to the United States from Jamaica in 1972, allured by its images of prosperity and opportunities for higher education."

The author with her parents. “My mother immigrated to the United States from Jamaica in 1972, allured by its images of prosperity and opportunities for higher education.”

My existence was the result of two hardworking immigrant Americans choosing to build a life and a future together—and now, as a first-generation kid, I feel a distinct sense of responsibility to them and the sacrifices they made that made my life possible. Viacom’s Marketing and Partner Insights (MPI) recognizes that stories like mine are rapidly becoming the norm—their research shows that a whopping 44 percent of millennials today come from multicultural backgrounds. In a changing American landscape, it is crucial that marketers and advertisers recognize who their audience is: young, driven, hardworking, and made up of people of color whose parents paved the way for their children’s success.

Academic Excellence was a Strict Mandate

The key to that success? Education. My parents had a no-nonsense approach to work—not just homework, they made sure I was engaged in preparatory tasks as well. The summer between third and fourth grade was largely spent memorizing my times tables with my father and a chalkboard, repeating the numbers over and over and over until the rhythm took hold and the calculations made sense. Early on, my mother helped me understand the connections between roots, prefixes, and suffixes; the often tenuous bridges between phonics and spelling; and the maddening, circuitous routes of grammar, steadily building a foundation that gave me the confidence to tackle any book that caught my eye.

The key to that success? Education. My parents had a no-nonsense approach to work.

The key to that success? Education. My parents had a no-nonsense approach to work.

This groundwork made excelling in school an almost perfunctory effort: pay attention in class, turn in homework on time, study for tests, ask for extra credit, and gain the respect and admiration of the adults in charge. I thrived in the transactional surety of academic success: do the work, get the grades; if A then B. Ironically, math was consistently the only subject that eluded me, particularly in high school—despite years of expensive tutors, hours of lunchtime and after-school help, sleepless nights spent re-calculating, re-graphing. Eventually, my parents turned a blind eye to the occasional C on my report cards, pardoning my obvious deficiency with a quiet mercy that I knew I didn’t deserve.

Tia Cox, whose parents emigrated from Jamaica in 1981, did not have that much leeway. For herself and her older sister, education was “non-negotiable,” as it was instilled in them very early how crucial their education would be in determining their future. “Cs were not allowed in our house,” she remembers. “Everyone knows when you aren’t being responsible and it brings you shame. You don’t want to bring yourself or the family shame.” This went beyond grades, however; being educated was a mark of pride, one of the many manifestations of the American dream their parents realized: “It was the one thing nobody could take from us.”

Like Tia, what I felt innately in high school—but would have struggled to articulate if pressed—was a bone-deep desire to make my parents proud. Being a child of West Indian parents meant enduring, on a daily basis, an exhaustive list of life’s creature comforts that I took for granted. The room I thanklessly called my own was even larger than the one my mother shared with her grandparents and cousins as a child in Jamaica. The entitlement that allowed me to throw snacks into our shopping cart at the grocery store wasn’t even dreamed of when my father was my age in Guyana. I ate very few mangoes in my childhood, as the concept of paying for one, as opposed to plucking one for free from a tree in the front yard, was more than either of my parents could bear. I appreciated their struggle, but I could not understand it.

What I could understand, though, was the constant compulsion to make their sacrifice worth it. I knew, despite how annoyed or angry they made me, despite how tragically old-fashioned or out of touch they seemed, that I wanted to make their enormous gamble a net gain.

According to MPI, as of 2016, 78 percent of multicultural millennials believe they owe it to their parents to be successful because of the sacrifices they’ve made. While the methods of achieving that success may vary widely from generation to generation, the underlying messaging in these households is the same: Nothing will be handed to you on a silver platter; you have to work, reach out, and take it.

The pressure to succeed is then twofold: achieve our dreams, but make sure our parents’ dreams are realized as well. How a first-generation kid negotiates this tension has much to do with the intersection of these aspirations: Are they in opposition to each other, or more or less parallel?

I was fortunate to experience the latter. My parents were always my cheerleaders, making it clear that I would have to work hard to reach my goals, but never placing limits on what those goals should be. I believed, for years, that I would grow up to become a doctor. They encouraged this line of thinking throughout my elementary school years, and into middle and high school, despite my clear lack of advanced mathematical aptitude (and utter contempt for chemistry). It wasn’t until my first year of college that I realized that I needed to let that dream die, and I had their full support in my resulting lack of direction. They allowed me my uncertainty, precisely because they understood it, even if they hadn’t had the opportunity to wallow in it the way I could.

The Fruits of Our Labor

Their understanding gave me the confidence to pursue my path at a pace that felt right for me—an incredibly freeing and motivating gift. Based on the MPI research, 2 in 3 multicultural millennials believe that they will be more successful than their parents. This is not borne of arrogance, but rather, is an effect of the baton having been passed—believing in the inevitability of our success is the first essential step in paying homage to the dreams our parents were holding onto when they first stepped foot on American soil.

As a result of this kind of pressure, we seek encouragement from our entertainment and popular culture. There is significant validation and inspiration to be found in movements that both center on people of color—demographics that typically aren’t highlighted in pop culture—and celebrate our hard work and accomplishments. An example of this kind of dynamic initiative is Black Girls Rock, which describes itself as “a multifaceted movement and award show dedicated to elevating the narratives of Black women and shining a light on the nexus of achievement of women of color whose contributions often go under the radar in mainstream media.”

This is a vibrant, joyful, and highly accessible public expression of love for black girls and women, who for too long have received little recognition for the hard work we do day in and day out—work that we take pride in. It’s the kind of programming that communicates directly to people like me to say, “Your hard work matters. Your struggles matter. You matter.” Creating more engaging and relatable content in this vein is paramount for appealing to multicultural millennials who seek encouraging, meaningful content in our media.

The pressure to justify my unlikely experience hasn’t abated: If anything, that desire is greatly amplified now that I am a mother to a daughter myself, and am becoming rapidly aware of the many missteps I’ve unwittingly taken; my desire for her to see and experience what I haven’t. I am my parents’ legacy, the culmination of their wild hopes when they were 19 and 22 years old, forging brand new lives for themselves in a brand new country. I am the legacy of their union and eventual culmination of their desire for something better, of their heartfelt belief in the American dream. And it’s this wild hope that endures in kids like me, whose parents dared to imagine something better, and relentlessly sought it, despite the many odds working against them. It’s the hope that reminds me not to accept complacency or mediocrity. My parents deserve better than that—and so do I.

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PERSONAL PHOTOS COURTESY OF CARLA BRUCE-EDDINGS.
BLACK GIRLS ROCK: GETTY IMAGES.

Published: Feb 17, 2017