This story is the first of several from Earth Fed Athletes who have elected to share their experiences with race in America at our request. The first is from Noah Kennedy White, 2017 Ivy League Discus Champ, B.S. in Behavioral Neuroscience, and mean hash browns and gravy chef. This article was originally written in June of 2020.
My experience as a Black athlete--and, by extension, a Black individual in America--has often been one of isolation. I didn’t feel this inescapable sense of isolation until my family moved to suburban Long Island when I was 12 years old. Until then, I hadn’t yet been forced to see my experience through the separating screen of race. Until then, I had gone about my life as just another person, a luxury certain people are afforded and every single person deserves. But, while existing as a Black person in predominantly white spaces, it’s inevitable that you’re drawn out from the crowd and isolated for nothing other than the color of your skin. Most people have a conception of experiencing racism as the big, shocking moments that immediately shatter any notion of equality in this country. And those happen early and frequently. The first time I was called a nigger to my face happened when I was 13, sitting in chorus class in a middle school that I had only enrolled in a few months prior.
Beyond these moments, however, are the smaller, more consistent acts of injustice and isolation that continue to steal innocence and positivity. The moments when your presence at a National Honors Society meeting is questioned by a school administrator, or when your classmates are openly discussing the ways Trayvon Martin may have deserved to die. The times when you’re forced to become an ambassador for an entire diverse group of people, and defend the ability of Black parents to name their children whatever they please in front of a class full of your peers. And I wish I could tell you I had some awesome comebacks full of statistics and data, or that I ran up on the kid who thought it was cool to whisper slurs at me in class, but that wouldn’t be true. I simply took it, and tried my best to become invisible. All I’ve ever wanted to do was live my life, yet so often I (and so many others like me) was forced to be an expert on race and race relations in debates with disinterested white children who had no skin in the game other than proving that Black people have some physiological advantage that makes them better at sports. And so I tried my best to live while being as inoffensive as possible--all the better to avoid arousing the attention of those around me. I very purposefully deconstructed myself and tried to be what I thought the people around me would want. Which, obviously, achieves nothing because not only could I no longer be comfortable within myself, but I’d never truly be “one of them”. So I spent years simply existing in a lot of ways.
Now, I’m not writing any of this for any personal catharsis or notoriety. I rarely touch on my own experiences primarily because there are so many who have gone through so much worse, or were never even given the chance to write their own story. I simply want to confer this because this story is not unique to me. There are millions of people of color who could transpose themselves into this same story and recognize it immediately. And that’s the point I want to communicate with this post, if I can. Racism and prejudice aren’t simply burning crosses and dark-skinned bodies swinging from trees 100 years ago. They are pervasive and insidious, and they are America right now. They have been instilled and preserved so firmly into every section of our society that they are often invisible to those who aren’t targets. They are the forces that require Black and brown children everywhere to sacrifice their world views so much earlier than their peers, simply as a matter of survival. Systemic racism precludes people of color from gaining education, employment, and simple enjoyment of life. Systemic racism does this to people, and then blames them for their situations. And systemic racism makes sure that even if you do somehow succeed in the face of overwhelming statistical odds, you’ll still be left with the trauma of your experiences as a constant reminder that your environment believes you’re not good enough.
So, to those who don’t recognize the components of my story: listen and learn. It’s impossible to communicate the great danger that living in America represents to so many Black, brown, gay and trans people if no one understands what we’re saying. And, more importantly, to all of those people who do see themselves in this, I hope you know that you’re not alone. The past four years (and, realistically, the entire history of this country) have made it very clear that the forces of white supremacy are strong and willing, but the forces fighting that false supremacy are strong as well, and they are with you. They know that you’ve been unjustly weighted down with too much responsibility at far too young an age, and they will defend you with everything they have. I’d like this current moment to be more than a “moment”. There is so much good that can come from our efforts to fight structural injustice if we can maintain these efforts. These problems often seem insurmountable. But donating to anti-racism organizations today and protesting tomorrow are small wins that slowly add up to larger wins in the form of legislation and structural and ideological reform. Just like in training, discipline and consistency will be the keys.