Dear Race Manners:
In Team USA’s World Cup game against Ghana, I found myself cheering for Ghana. On Twitter I was accused of being unpatriotic, including by some people I respect. It’s hard to explain, but what can I say? I wanted the African team—or maybe the brown(est) team—to win (I’m black). Am I wrong? —World Cup Worries
If your friends are going to commit to tweeting accusations about patriotism at those who cheer for squads other than Team USA, they’ll be busy. I used the social network to ask, “Raise your hand if you cheer for World Cup teams playing against Team USA because of something to do with your racial/ethnic identity,” and received a chorus of affirmative responses, like this one:
Some responses, like “If by ‘racial/ethnic identity’ you mean a hatred of white supremacy, militarism, and hegemony, mine is raised” (the author of that tweet preferred to stay anonymous), had nothing to do with direct family ties.
Other fans apparently split the difference between rooting based on citizenship and rooting based on other interests—racially and culturally inspired interests—and cheered for both. Cherae Robinson, writing about “the complicated life of African-American World Cup fans,” observed that in the Brooklyn, N.Y., bar where she watched the Ghana game, “Almost every black person in the bar was up on their feet rooting for the Black Stars with the same fervor as they had cheered team USA an hour before.”
Given that we’re in an ethnically diverse country, talking about an international sport, there’s nothing strange or shocking about this choice. Just think of Irish fans in Boston cheering for Ireland, or Italian Americans in South Philadelphia or the North Side of Chicago rooting for Italy, says Gregory Carr, chair of Howard University’s Afro-American-studies department. After all, in his view, “Our experience is also an immigrant experience.”
Lineage, the Diaspora and an Affinity for the Underdog
But there’s another reason you and other African Americans who don’t think of themselves as immigrants and can’t trace their lineage to any particular place on the continent might have cheered for Ghana.
“For many, rooting interest is as wide as not only the African continent but African people, and our passion connects to people of Africa worldwide,” says Carr. Plus, he says, all sports allow people to give expression to greater passions, and for plenty of black people, those passions include concern for the plight of people we perceive as underdogs, or oppressed.
So I’m guessing your choice wasn’t just about nonwhite skin color. (It that were the case, you could choose just about any World Cup team, including Team USA, with its large handful of black players—many of them German—to root for.) Rather, it was born from a lived experience. “We’ve had a hard time in this country,” says Carr, “and in those moments when we can give expression to what’s in our heart, we do it.”
Patriotism Is Not at Issue
To be clear, there’s a difference between having cheering interests in an international competition that don’t line up with American nationalism and actually being unpatriotic. Tell your Twitter trolls to keep in mind that this wasn’t a war, it was a sporting event, otherwise known as a game. It’s a mistake to confuse affinity for a team in such a context to patriotism or loyalty to one’s country, and it’s safe for everyone to settle down in that area.
Plus, African Americans have always been plenty patriotic, even if many of them experience that sentiment in a way that’s more complicated—and, yes, even more painful—than some might understand.
“I love this country not because it’s perfect but because we’ve always been able to move it closer to perfection,” President Barack Obama once put it. In Carr’s words, African-American patriotism has largely been pragmatic. (“We have sacrificed blood in every war the U.S. has fought, but remember that in the Revolutionary War, more people fought against the Colonies than for them,” he says. “We didn’t care about the Colonies. We cared about being free!”)
This distinction may be unnerving to those who are shocked to learn that some African Americans see the country, as Carr puts it, as “less of a common project and more of a common context.”
“We have a black president; when will you be satisfied?” your Twitter friends will ask at this point. Answer: Given the way white supremacy and racism and their accompanying policies are playing out in this country right now and affecting people’s lives up until this very moment, with little sign of improvement, probably not for a while.
That’s heavy, but really, let’s keep your expression of support for the Ghana team in your local sports bar or on your Twitter timeline in perspective. Shouting “Goal!” when a non-American team scores “doesn’t mean we’re gonna set fire to cities; it doesn’t mean we’re gonna quit the military,” says Carr. “It’s just a statement that in this battle that doesn’t cost anybody any blood, I’m gonna root for the cats who represents what I identify with. ’Cause I feel like it.”
African-American Rooting Interests Are Often Tied Up With Larger Issues
Anyone surprised by your choice of teams should take a trip down memory lane to see how African Americans’ sense of connectivity to black people worldwide and of social justice without regard for borders has informed whom many of us have rooted for.
Carr can tick off examples: Teófilo Stevenson, the black Cuban boxer (“African Americans cheered for him! They loved him”); Olympic ice-skater Surya Bonaly (“We didn’t care that she was from France!); and even Serena Williams when she wore a uniform styled after Cameroon’s flag in a show of support for that country’s 2002 World Cup team (“Black Americans loved it! South Africans loved it. Remember, this is a young woman who goes to Florida and [racist] people curse at her”).
That rooting patterns are informed by larger issues was even evident in the 1974 battle between boxers Muhammad Ali, who had a “pan-African, anti-colonial approach,” and George Foreman, who was far less sensitive to race politics, says Carr. Both were black and from the U.S., but at the time of their fight, it was fresh in the collective African-American memory that in 1968, Foreman had “trotted around the ring with an American flag while [African-American Olympic track athletes] Tommie Smith and John Carlos had put everything on the line for black power … so we looked at him like, ‘This man is a clown,’ and many favored Ali,” says Carr.
Carr’s message to anyone who still can’t understand how you could shout anything but “Team USA!” is, “You don’t understand how blackness works.” My suggestion is, if you’re going to do the work of explaining that to your friends, you’ll have to start with the basics: It’s more than just fun and games.
Jenée Desmond-Harris, The Root’s associate editor of features, covers the intersection of race with news, politics and culture. She wants to talk about the complicated ways in which ethnicity, color and identity arise in your personal life—and provide perspective on the ethics and etiquette surrounding race in a changing America. Follow her on Twitter.
Need race-related advice? Send your questions to email@example.com.
Previously in Race Manners: “The San Antonio Spurs Play the ‘Right’ Way? Here’s What Race Has to Do With It”