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 …”
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.
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.
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.