Dempsey: The African-Americanesque Reflection

Dempsey, wild heights for Americans and Cottager faithful.

Dempsey, wild heights for Americans and Cottager faithful.

This terrific piece by Miriti Murungi. Mirungi’s day job is allegedly to make people laugh their way through Arsenal games on Twitter.

It’s no secret that so many incidents that happen to individuals in the African-American community are often magnified and reflected as emblematic of blackness. Specific criminal acts are always tied into half-assed, out-of-context statistical analyses of crime in the black community. Educational struggles often reflexively become an indictment of “broken” black homes and families. For so long, rap music, despite other art forms also having sub-genres glorifying violence, misogyny, drugs, and material acquisitions, has been inextricably tied to irresponsibility and destructiveness endemic in “black culture.” Within this web of reflexive, lazy association, it’s hard to find the time and space to be an individual without black being attached as the primary identifier associated with behavior.

And a conundrum awaits those fortunate enough to escape the nebulous, systemic, failure narrative attributed to blackness. “Making it” suddenly makes you a de facto spokesperson for “your people,” an example of how the “good ones” behave. And that’s true whether you want the job or not.

As it turns out, regardless of your standing in life, so often, blackness still trumps humanness; it becomes inescapable, even when you turn off the lights and are left with a subconscious pre-programmed with skeptical, undercutting voices from outside that seem to have been played on heavy rotation on every device capable of making noise, as far back as the mind remembers.

This reality frequently sparks reactions that, by now, are all too familiar to those with even a remedial understanding of the burden of blackness in America:

“Why does what I do have to reflect on all my people?”

“Why does what they do automatically implicate me?”

“Why does everything I do have to involve a discussion about the greater good?”

“Why can’t I be an individual?

“Why do I …”

“Why can’t you …”

“Why?”

These themes, which are a very real part of African-American life, echoed in my head, hitting a series of familiar notes, as I was monitoring Clint Dempsey’s return to Major League Soccer.

Yes, I know. My brain making the connection was initially uncomfortable for me, too. But bear with me for a moment.

SpaceDeuce.

SpaceDeuce.

Without question, Dempsey’s acquisition by the Seattle Sounders is the highest-profile acquisition (or re-acquisition) of an American in MLS history. The deal, reported to be approximately $32 million over four years, which doesn’t include an MLS-record breaking $9 million transfer fee to Tottenham, makes that point crystal clear, even if you want to adjust for inflation … twice. Dempsey has made it in America. And now, every conversation that follows him inevitably involves a comment, if not a full-fledged debate, about the merits of his decision. It’s a conversation that American soccer fans know too well.

Of course, the same is true, albeit not always to the same extent, of all high-profile American soccer players. It was true of Landon Donovan, Eddie Johnson, Brek Shea, Edson Buddle, and countless others when they decided to test themselves in Europe. But these discussions are about more than just their decisions. In some form or another, what we always seem to be asking is: “What does their movement, or even their existence, say about America?”

Somehow, without fail, the American soccer community always seems to find a way to bring conversations back to its value and self-esteem. Sure, that’s not an incredibly unique phenomenon; many countries that frequently send stars abroad face similar existential questions. But there’s a difference in America. We don’t have the history of producing world-class superstars that other nations with top leagues (e.g., Germany, England, Spain, Italy, Brazil, Mexico, France, the Netherlands, Argentina) can boast. Thus, America’s pronounced need for regular shots of self-esteem.

What is clear is that American soccer fans have been uniquely socialized in a way, and in an environment, that has created a population perpetually trying to define itself against the standards of others, a reality all too familiar to the African-American community. It’s a phenomenon seemingly born out of a an entrenched feeling of inadequacy, both on the international stage, after years of feeling disrespected, and domestically, where defending soccer to fans of other sports is a universally experienced, infuriating pastime. We’re always equivocating, explaining, making “for” arguments against the “con” (and vice-versa when needed), and raising distinctions, all in the name of feeling adequate, not even whole. At times it feels like it’s never going to be enough.

When explained in this way, the similarities between American soccer and the African-American experience aren’t difficult to uncover. Both have been socialized in a culture laced with reminders of inferiority narratives; both have built up strong defense mechanisms, with good historical reason; and both have stewed in a culture where every significant action on a larger stage somehow becomes a reflection of the community’s self-esteem, value, and worth.

The exercise of constantly engaging in a conversation about one’s own value is a degrading one, but, awkwardly, also necessary and unavoidable when you live in an environment that has been systematically reluctant to embrace you. But while the space between degrading and necessary can ultimately become meaningful and progressive, navigating it is always a struggle. People with much weaker resumes talk down to you, raising an eyebrow in suspicion as if you don’t belong, as if whatever you have accomplished is an anomaly at best, or the effect of a rigged system at worst. Expressing an interest in something you love yet aren’t supposed to know about (if we adhere to stereotypes), often results in being spoken to as if you’ve lived your entire life under a remote bridge. “I didn’t know you’d be into that?!” (Translation: People like you aren’t supposed to be interested in that.) Ultimately, to prove yourself worthy, you are required to go above and beyond the call of duty, and then go above and beyond that call twice over.

The default reaction becomes one of suspicious paranoia, where you’re so used to everyone questioning your worth that every move you make comes paired with a legal brief and statistical analysis about why you should be taken very, very, very, very seriously, and a fun pop culture reference, just in case you need to diffuse the situation with a touch of comedy. Every move requires calculations and justification, as does every misstep.

But thankfully, you have a spokesman, a member of your community who supposedly represents your community’s value to outsiders. Remember, he’s your adequacy barometer, the one who made it, the de facto representative of the community appointed simply by virtue of success.

Clint Dempsey probably has a sense of what’s it’s like to live in this world, to be the de facto representative. He knows what it is like to live with the pressure of others wanting him to perform for the greater good, in spite of the fact that everyone seems to have different definitions of the greater good. He understands that people want justifications for his decision to forego the prospect of achieving greater things on behalf of the community (arguably, UEFA Champions League football) for a move that he likely believes to the best decision for himself and his family, and maybe even his game. He knows what it feels like to sit in the uncomfortable space between personal needs and what is often presented as community need, but in reality is only the needs of a subset of the community.

Confed Cup sobs...

Confed Cup sobs…

For some, unfortunately, Clint Dempsey needs to be American first, and Clint Dempsey second. His Americanness is his watered-down version of inescapable blackness. It’s the burden he carries for being a wildly successful member of a community that is always being told that it needs to do more to be adequate. And that deep feeling of inadequacy may be why the American soccer community condescendingly raged on for days about whether his move back to MLS was the right thing, as if he’s not capable of deciding that for himself, or as if the needs of what is, in reality, a sub-community, should not only supersede his needs, but define them.

But Clint Dempsey was never going to satisfy everyone’s needs; it’s an impossible ask of an individual, especially one who comes from a strange, at-times ego-deflating ecosystem saturated in insecurity and relentlessly reinforced inferiority narratives. But that reality won’t stop the conversation. Sadly, as many African-Americans can attest, escaping the constant conversations about communal responsibility and the quest for individuality and agency are difficult to run from, even for a moment, and especially when the strange ecosystem is also your home. Rarely is there a place to hide.

But while the conversation continues, perhaps there are several lessons to be gleaned from the African-American experience:

Don’t let your insecurity define you.

Don’t be afraid to fight for your legitimacy, as you define it.

Be weary of letting outside narratives erode your sanity.

Remember your mission, whether that’s to elevate your game, take care of your family, support a community, balance some combination of all of these things, or simply be proud of your existence without always having to compare yourself to others.

And with that, Godspeed, Clint Dempsey. And Godspeed, American soccer fans.

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24 responses to this post.

  1. Posted by CJ on 2013/08/08 at 4:48 PM

    I’ll raise a glass to that.

    Reply

  2. Posted by Taylor on 2013/08/08 at 5:28 PM

    Bra. Vo.

    Reply

  3. Posted by john mosby on 2013/08/08 at 5:46 PM

    knowledge reigns supreme over nearly everybody!!!

    Reply

  4. Posted by well done on 2013/08/08 at 9:46 PM

    This article is painfully and exceptionally well-written.

    Reply

  5. Posted by Jeff on 2013/08/08 at 9:53 PM

    Really refreshing reading this article. You put into words so many feelings I’ve had since becoming a soccer fan in America.

    Reply

  6. Posted by Hensley on 2013/08/09 at 6:49 AM

    Thank you

    Reply

  7. Posted by jellenp on 2013/08/09 at 7:04 AM

    Best Shin Guardian post I have ever read (and I don’t say that lightly, even though I can’t swear to have read them all). Thank you.

    Reply

  8. Posted by a little uncomfortable on 2013/08/09 at 7:26 AM

    Ok, I see the angle on ‘you don’t have to be an individual that lives within the pre-defined definitions’, but does anyone else feel a little antsy comparing the plight of a white guy making $6M+ a year to the historical and present-day persecution of African Americans? I feel like to say Americans are to the worldwide soccer community as African Americans are to the USA does an injustice not only to African Americans, but also to black players in soccer who continue to face terrible, ignorant, hurtful situations in stadiums across the world… Clint Dempsey, you do you, do what’s best for you and your family, don’t live according to other’s expectations, but come on….

    Reply

    • Posted by a little uncomfortable on 2013/08/09 at 7:29 AM

      and just to clarify, I’m not hating on this article, just taking a side of the discussion that hasn’t been voiced here. Your point is interesting, and has apparently got me thinking, but my instinct is to be careful when trying to make associations like this.

      Reply

      • Posted by Miriti M. on 2013/08/09 at 9:44 AM

        I think I ackowledged the uncomfortableness of the association, but I never make a connection equating levels of oppression, that would be silly. I think that’s an important distinction. I certainly mentioned that I was initially uncomfortable with the association, but felt like if I pulled it off responsibly, there wouldn’t be an issue on my end. But ultimately whether it was pulled off responsibly isn’t my call, which is why I appreciate your feedback, even though I disagree with it. :)

        My response to your point (and I did think about it while writing, and it is a fair critique) is that I’m tired of playing to the lowest common denominator with African-American narratives. People are welcome to assume that I’m saying that the plight of Clint Dempsey is on par with the long, complicated history of African-Americans, but I think you know that that’s not my point, and I attemted to avoid making any such statements — although it’s a fine line to walk.

        Also, I’m not sure what the connection is you’re making to black players being discriminated against around the world. Of course, that’s a huge issue. But are you saying that I have to restrict my African-American associations to deplorable behavior elsewhere, otherwise I’m doing an injustice to the community? My hope is that people are sophisticated enough to frame the metaphor properly without concluding that I’m saying Clint Dempsey is some sort of Jay-Z/Martin Luther King figure who marched for our humanity.

        Reply

        • Posted by a little uncomfortable on 2013/08/09 at 10:49 AM

          Miriti (assuming you’re also cosmosredux) – Thanks for the reply. I also really like the reply from CJ (below). I guess my question, and this is as a self-aware privileged white male, is that while I totally agree ‘that that’s not [your] point’ (and yes I did know that), isn’t drawing this parallel exactly the kind of racialism that CJ is talking about? Couldn’t you have said the exact same thing in the end without invoking a racial history that is so different in scale that it’s absurd? I have to say though, I agree with your conclusions – define legitimacy for yourself, don’t let other’s narratives play at your insecurities, etc.

          Great writing, thought provoking clearly, hope to see more stuff from you on here soon!

          Reply

          • Posted by Miriti M. on 2013/08/09 at 11:21 AM

            I’m not cosmosredux, although maybe I should be!

            You’re right, I could have used a different comparison. But that would have been slightly disingenuous to my acutal thought process. I just tried to be true to a series of parallels that popped into my head without having to apologize to myself for the thought. After thinking about it, I felt that there were some legitimate points to be made, and I didn’t feel like running from the chance to attempt the comparison, in many ways because these are two worlds that I know pretty intimately. And ultimately, you never know if it will resonate or blow up until you put it out there.

            Thanks for reading and the comments.

            Reply

            • Posted by a little uncomfortable on 2013/08/09 at 11:46 AM

              I just scrolled up to the top to find the author again. Clearly got it wrong. Sorry, Miriti.

  9. Racial intolerance, abuse, and injustice are like hurricanes: big, devastating, somewhat predictable and relatively rare. In the past couple decades, the black experience has been defined by racialism more than racism. You know how when you’re talking about someone that’s a different race than you and you mention their race even though it’s not relevant to the conversation, that’s racialism. It’s the kind of thing that’s certainly irritating and sometimes rude but, it doesn’t rise high enough on most people’s scales to qualify as racism.

    That’s the part of the experience that the author is talking about. And in that regard, the comparison is apt even though it differs in scale (which the author mentions). Some comparisons:

    “I didn’t think Americans like’d soccer?” = “I didn’t think black people liked rock music?”
    “What you play soccer? Why not football?” = “What you play lacrosse? Why not basketball?”
    “He’s american, he can’t be good at soccer.” = “He’s black, he can’t be a good tipper.”

    Reply

  10. Posted by fellainisfro on 2013/08/09 at 9:45 AM

    Thought the author did an exceptional job using the African-American experience as a metaphor to describe (I might be on thin ice with this) the plight of the American soccer aficionado. Despite 4 years of intensive immersion into the world game via watching soccer games, going to soccer games, playing in soccer games, coaching soccer games, refereeing soccer games, having a daughter in club soccer, talking to friends about soccer, having long discussions with professional coaches about the intricacies of soccer. It never seems enough to make acquaintances from countries with a long history of soccer accept that I may know just as much as they do about the beautiful game.

    Reply

  11. Posted by Bob on 2013/08/10 at 12:07 PM

    Good article!

    I remember when Spike Lee opened a store in Brooklyn in the 1990s. One of the first questions asked him at the grand opening was how the store would benefit the “community.” He responded that it won’t and then he wondered aloud why Robert DeNiro was not asked the same question when DeNiro opened his store.

    It is the same point with Clint. All that should matter is that his move is good for Clint and his family, and not whether it is good for the perception of American soccer players around the world.

    Reply

    • Posted by GeorgeCross on 2013/08/10 at 10:46 PM

      I just wish Dempsey and his team just cut the out crap. Citing “an itch to come home” is bullshit and we all know it. He saw he was slipping down the pecking order at Spurs and thought fuck that. I respect that he didn’t want to sit on the bench and collect a fantastic salary, but wanted to play. I also respect that he has nothing to prove. But “wanting to help grow MLS in his prime”, fuck right off – he got a great contract (which is fair play, BTW) – just cut out the charades.

      I was right (again) in my prediction regarding him not being a Spurs player come the start of the season.

      Reply

      • Posted by john mosby on 2013/08/11 at 1:18 PM

        get real Jorge. deuce can have any number of reasons for playing in any number of different leagues, or on any teams he likes. what, are you going to say seattle does not offer a special atmosphere? no, we all know what you say, which is that seattles atmosphere is typical in England.

        Reply

        • Posted by KickinNames.... on 2013/08/12 at 6:07 AM

          Earnestness? Check. Writing chops? Check. Someone (maybe an African-American?) to bounce this column idea by before writing it…..hmmmm…..I do appreciate the attempt to put yourself out there but really did you just write “Jay Z/MLK”? Really?

          There are dozens of completely rational and not too far reaching comparisons to be made in this case (ie NASCAR, fans vs major sports,etc) but to make a case for sympathy for a highly paid athlete whose biggest challenge has been WHERE to play using a people group who for a majority of their existence in America has been told where they COULD NOT play is just not very well thought out.

          And I for one have heard enough about the poor suffering US soccer fan. that seems to be a johnny come lately and website fanboy problem. I’ve been a player and fan of the greatest game for 35 yrs in this country and abroad and have never once needed to justify or argue for the supremacy of MY game.

          It stands on it own. Put on your big boy pants and lift a pint and smile at them. It is the greatest game for a reason.

          Reply

    • Posted by matthewsf on 2013/08/12 at 8:16 AM

      Great comment Bob.

      Reply

    • Posted by Paul on 2013/08/12 at 8:32 AM

      George: how do you know that wanting to come home, helping the MLS grow, and raising his kids in the US was pure BS? Playing time and continuing his sizable salary (or roughly there about) were important features for Dempsey to play somewhere in Europe as well. But he could’ve gotten both at a decent club in Europe. The fact is that all the reasons to “come home” explain his actions best; they are also the reasons that explain why he didn’t try another club in Europe, and these were also the reasons he provided when asked about why he was transferring now during the brief time the press had a chance to interview him.

      His chances of getting the same amount of time at Spurs this season looked to be in jeopardy. But, again, this is a player who has thrived on such demands and competition, and it would’ve taken serious reasons for him to not fight for his roster spot, reasons such as those related to “coming home.” Until we get a one-on-one interview, this seems to be the best explanation available.

      Reply

  12. Posted by Crow on 2013/08/10 at 12:28 PM

    Sorry to go off subject but Eric Lichaj with another strong 90 at RB in another win by Forest.

    JOHN ANTHONY FREAKING BROOKS with a goal and a goal line clearance in a full 90 in a 6-1. Welcome to the Bundesliga John, Josh Gatt, John will take the conductor’s seat from you on the Hype Train.

    Fabian Johnson and Tim Chandler were both on the bench??

    Reply

  13. Posted by Shchors on 2013/09/02 at 7:45 AM

    Simply awesome. I wish I could write like that. As a Ukrainian-Argentinian-American with similar battles of self versus community synthesis, I take heart and absorb lessons learned. Thank you!

    Reply

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