The Woke Generation’s Problem

Jess Watts
6 min readJun 17, 2019

Queerbaiting, Blackfishing and the strategic identity

Photo by Jhonis Martins from Pexels

For over a year, I co-lead a massive national research project studying the identity of the generation after Millennials, Generation Z. Roughly ages 10–24 — and of a size around 65 million — they are an influential group that many of us are still trying to wrap our heads around. Like their Millennials siblings before them, this generation is also being swept up in broad, incomplete monikers; they are the most practical, accepting, empathetic, PC generation. They are woke.

Yeah, about that…

I started to notice a worrying trend. On headlines, Tweets and posts, accusations were flying about queerbaiting — pretending to be part of the LGBTQ community to curry favor — or blackfishing — projecting the identity of a member of a marginalized group when you aren’t, especially by someone of a more privileged European background. The strangest thing, however, was who were often at the center of these criticisms. A generation that is extolled as being the most alert to social injustice and prejudice, or, “woke,” was frequently the same group pretending to be other groups to profit off of their community. How could Gen Z take on cultural appropriation in the pages of Teen Vogue in one breath, and pretend to have #blackgirlmagic for social media likes in another?

The gut reaction might be to label them hypocrites, a generation demanding more respect and understanding of the plight of minority groups while they do the opposite. After studying 1,090 Gen Z, I don’t believe it’s that simple.

Earlier this year, Ariana Grande drew fire for lyrics in her song Monopoly, where she sang “I like women and men,” a sentiment that rang false for the singer that, until that point, had only ever been known as heterosexual. The allegations of queerbaiting centered on her faking an attraction to the same sex simply as a way to stoke the desire of her LGBTQ fan-base. It was Grande’s response, however, that gets at the nuance of this generation’s relationship to identity and interplay of community identities. While being grilled on gay Twitter for treating bisexuality as a joke, Grande responded that she “didn’t feel the need to label.” Grande’s perspective is shared by many, and is at the heart of the complicated relationship with Gen Z and identity…

Jess Watts

Where culture & consumerism meet. Strategy Director, culture, pay equity and travel pro. Stalk me here: