(RNS) — “Do we really need to bring race into this?”
It’s a common phrase used by those who bemoan race as a focal point of social issues in the U.S. today. This doesn’t necessarily mean they’re racist — most of them are dissatisfied with the way minority racial groups are treated in America — but they are torn about whether an increased focus on race can truly make a positive difference.
For those on the fence, a new study from Springtide Research Institute sheds light on the benefits of emphasizing race for America’s most diverse generation to date — Gen Z. The study, called “Navigating Injustice: A Closer Look at Race, Faith & Mental Health,” found that young Americans ages 13-25 want to talk about race and their racial identities. In fact, acknowledging one’s racial identities is critical to young Black, Indigenous, people of color (BIPOC) thriving in their mental health, faith lives and beyond.
Identifying protective factors (like open and positive conversations about race) is paramount for a generation facing a mental health crisis of epidemic proportions. According to Springtide, majorities within this generation tell us they are depressed (64% white, 61% BIPOC) or anxious (77% white, 74% BIPOC), while six in 10 young people told us, “The adults in my life don’t truly know how much I am struggling with my mental health.”
At the same time, Gen Z is finding relief through spirituality. Despite the popular narrative that Gen Z is the “least religious generation yet,” majorities of Gen Z tell us they’re flourishing in their faith lives (57% white, 65% BIPOC) and that their faith matters for their mental health (52% white, 58% BIPOC).
For young people of color, the realization of a mentally and spiritually healthy life depends in part on whether their identities are acknowledged and celebrated, rather than dismissed or downplayed, within America’s 350,000+ faith communities. “I am the person who can’t leave (race) outside of a space. Being Black shapes the way I think about things in a lot of ways and what I tend to think about. Religious or spiritual places are no exception,” May, age 20, told researchers.
Living in a way that is aligned with one’s racial and spiritual identity imbues young BIPOC’s lives with meaning, purpose and direction, all things that positively contribute to flourishing and mental health. Studies show that young BIPOC who take pride in their racial identity are more likely to report peer acceptance, interpersonal functioning and belonging within their communities. Further, many young BIPOC experience their racial identity as a spiritual gift, helping to illuminate and direct the divine’s purpose for their lives. Caleb, age 22, shared, “I could’ve been born a White man. I could have been born a Hispanic girl. But I am African, I am a Black man. There’s a reason for that. God can use me in this way. He has designed me to go to certain spaces where other people can’t go.”
In short, for young BIPOC, race and religion are not separate but intertwined.
Accordingly, young BIPOC told researchers how difficult it can be to belong to organizations or communities that do not celebrate, let alone acknowledge, their racial identity. Lauren, age 15 and Asian-American, explained, “Race is what makes you, you. So, if your religion wants to separate race, if they’re not making you want to embrace your ethnicity, I feel like they haven’t really seen you for who you are.”
By contrast, young BIPOC claim to flourish when they are part of organizations that honor their racial and ethnic identities. Isabella, age 23, said, “My faith community brought me a lot of confidence and less anxiety (regarding) who I am and where I come from. So, they influenced me in a positive way by honoring my culture, my identity. Understanding my identity just takes all of the pressure off, you know? I was more proud to be Latino. I didn’t feel inferior. So, yeah, I just love who I am, and I love where I come from. My faith community has given me the confidence that I belong in this community and with Christ.”
Talking about race in the U.S. today can be fraught, no doubt. But these stories from members of Gen Z suggest having these difficult conversations is worth it. When we as a community express curiosity about racial identity, we acknowledge and celebrate young BIPOC’s spiritual identity as well. We help young BIPOC, who report record levels of loneliness, feel valued and seen.
The stakes for leaning into topics that concern Gen Z have never been higher. Let’s bring race into the conversation by asking young people of all races and ethnicities to reflect on how their identities create meaning and purpose in their lives. These conversations should seek to empower young people to claim their identities with dignity and pride — and to see them as one part of the wholeness of their personhood.
Young people don’t leave their racial identity at the door when they walk into places of worship — and they don’t want to. If you ask young people to leave race at home, you might as well tell them to stay home, too.
(Nabil Tueme, Ph.D., is a Latina sociologist and educator. She is currently senior research associate at Springtide Research Institute where she directs research studies on the religious and spiritual lives of emerging young adults.)