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When You're Black and in America, Even Victories Sometimes Feel Like Defeats

Illustration for article titled When Youre Black and in America, Even Victories Sometimes Feel Like Defeats
Photo: Julian Finney (Getty Images)

There was a moment — a few moments, actually — directly following Barack Obama’s win in 2008 when I think I felt how it feels to be a white American. I’ve never actually been white, so this thought is based on a generous presumption. But when I think of whiteness in a micro context and how whiteness must allow white people to feel, I think of a specific sort of freedom. A freedom to do and say and be without weight. No intersecting racial, political and historical contexts to be compelled to consider, and no consideration of how those intersections shift and construct your senses of morality and reality.

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And so, for a moment on November 4, 2008, after seeing my guy (our guy) beat their guy for the first time ever, I allowed myself to forget who and where I was. “The president — my president — is black,” I shouted to myself.And you can’t tell me nothin’.”

This feeling came crashing down later that evening while watching his acceptance speech. As he strode to the stage at Grant Park, I just hoped he made it through without getting assassinated — a thought that was a sudden and visceral and violent reminder of who both he and I were and where both he and I were. He made it through, of course. But that night was the last time I entertained any foolish notions of weightlessness.

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I was reminded of that night and that feeling Saturday afternoon, while watching Serena Williams and Naomi Osaka on stage after Osaka’s controversial victory. The racial and gendered contexts behind the controversy are clear. Serena Williams has been treated differently — by court judges, by commentators, by organizations and by opponents — since she’s been a professional. And she carries the weight of that in each serve, with each volley, and, on Saturday, during each admonishment of chair umpire Carlos Ramos and when imploring the jeering crowd to not allow the mess of the match to ruin Naomi Osaka’s moment. This weight makes her victories more meaningful; her legacy more impactful; her presence more powerful. But it also means she’s perpetually overcoming. And not just the tests of physicality and endurance and mettle that all other athletes must contend with, but always everything else too.

And while Serena’s status as an athlete is singular, this sort of weight finds its home on black shoulders; digging into necks and shoulder blades and skin like a squat bar. It robs us of stories. And it also has a way of making victories feel heavier than they’re supposed to. The tears Naomi Osaka shed Saturday afternoon weren’t the tears of joy. They were from the weight of the controversy. The weight of playing and outplaying her idol, and having racism and sexism join forces to cast clouds over her day. The weight of having to remind the people attempting to erase her heritage that she’s black too. With all of that weight to think about, to process, to shift, and to lift, even winning sometimes feels sour. Like it’s not even worth playing their game if this is what “victory” feels like.

Damon Young is the editor-in-chief of VSB, a contributing opinion writer for The New York Times, and the author of What Doesn't Kill You Makes You Blacker (Ecco/HarperCollins)

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The weight of having to remind the people attempting to erase her heritage that she’s black too.

I was going ask this. I don’t watch Tennis and so never heard of her before this but I’m watching every news story describe her as Japanese and I’m looking at her like “Japanese and...”