Trayvon Martin and Gen Y’s race problem

July 16, 2013, 3:41 PM UTC

FORTUNE — What a hard few days it’s been.

For some — the scores of people who thronged New York City’s Times Square, stopped traffic on a Los Angeles freeway, and more — Twitter’s #NoJustice hashtag says all that needs saying about the shooting death of Trayvon Martin.

For those who saw in George Zimmerman a man unfairly labeled “racist” and worse for trying, however imperfectly, to keep his community safe, it may seem Zimmerman’s been even more vilified in the wake of his acquittal than he ever was on trial.

And for the American justice system itself, well — no one will ever call this its finest hour.

But there’s one group that stands to gain something crucial from all this sadness: For young Americans watching this unfold, Martin’s death, Zimmerman’s trial, and the awful aftermath show just how much we need to talk about race.

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In the seven years I’ve been covering my generation — the teens, twentysomethings, and now early-thirtysomethings who make up Gen Y — I’m constantly told that our greatest asset is our “color blindness.” We may be entitled. We may be annoying. We may be the laziest, most self-obsessed, least financially responsible human beings in the history of the universe, but show us Barack Obama and we’ll notice everything down to his tie clip before it even occurs to us that he’s black. Gen Yers, the lore goes, just don’t see race, which is absurd.

All people judge, generalize, and draw conclusions that couldn’t possibly apply to every member of a given category. Babies do it. Children do it. With each new experience, they gather a tiny bit more data. Then they bring their accumulated knowledge, however broad or narrow, to bear on future decisions and interactions. They make snap judgments, the kind that may have meant the difference between life and death for our evolutionary forebears surviving in the savannah.

It’s a fact of life, and it’s silly and short-sighted to pretend that, for Gen Y, such thinking has gone away. It just takes a couple clicks around the homepage of Project Implicit — a collaboration between the University of Washington, Harvard University, and the University of Virginia that explores unconscious bias — to recognize how insidious these perceptions can be. On the site’s skin-tone implicit association test, for instance, more than 50% of web respondents show a moderate to strong “automatic preference for light skin compared to dark skin,” while only a combined 12% show any preference for dark skin. It makes one wonder what else might be “automatic.”

Most of us are not dodging leopards or rivals’ spears on a regular basis anymore, but that doesn’t mean we no longer perceive what we believe to be threats. And if we look at a particular person and judge him to be an enemy, based on whatever characteristics our subconscious has learned to suspect, we’re likely to act, immediately and decisively. As far as I can tell, there’s just one way to resist this response: We have to know this about ourselves.

We’re so committed to the notion that the majority of Gen Yers don’t see race, as though admitting that they do is a hop and skip away from being “racist.” Because we find overt racism so unequivocally revolting, we assume there’s no need to look for any covert racism lurking in our hearts. “I loved that biracial baby in the Cheerios ad,” we might think, never asking ourselves if we’d feel the same about her dad in a dark alley. Worse yet, it’s easy to unwittingly ignore or even advance pernicious race-related behavior with this attitude. We practice “hipster racism” — the art of showing how beyond racism you are by, basically, making a joke of your latent racism — as though it doesn’t hurt the people around us. And as Yers move into leadership roles, how can we be sure that hidden biases don’t play into our hiring or promotion choices when we won’t even face the possibility that those biases exist in the first place?

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It’s a lot to risk simply because we’re too insecure to talk about race. So let’s start. Let Trayvon Martin’s legacy be that his generation began probing this issue because of what happened to him. Let George Zimmerman be a symbol to his generation of how absolutely imperative it is for us to be mindful of our biases. And let this be something we continue to do together — at rallies, on Twitter, and later on, too, in slow, quiet moments of honest reflection.

Years ago, I had a friend — a beautiful, blonde, Southern girl — who’d laugh whenever I pointed out that I was the lone brown person in the room at some friend’s party or campus event. “You’re the only one who notices,” she’d tell me, as if the problem wasn’t so much a lack of diversity as it was my anxiety. Then one day, it occurred to me to pose a question: “Would you notice,” I asked her, “if you were the only you in a crowd full of me?”

She never answered. And it was because, I think, she felt ashamed of what she’d realized. But she shouldn’t have been; the only shame is in never realizing at all.