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young Nora sitting in a chair outside.

Coach: Do you feel bad that you hurt Heather*?

Me: Oh my gosh, yes. I’m so sorry. I didn’t mean t—

Coach: Don’t feel bad.

Coach was on a quest to get me to be more aggressive on the soccer field. She was a product of a National Championship collegiate team and a near-Olympian herself, and was baffled by my tentative approach to the game. I was fast and had decent ball handling skills, but generally shrank back from the tussling and shoving necessary to prevail. Earlier that day, during a moment of jubilant engagement in PE, I forgot myself and kicked Heather very hard in the ankle when I was attempting to dribble past her. She had crumpled like a can, clutching her ankle and moaning. I squeaked in alarm, a rapid series of apologies and obeisance tumbling from my lips. In rapid order she was escorted, hobbling, to the PE office and then picked up early from school for an urgent trip to sports medicine. Coach was trying to convince me that inadvertently hurting other girls on occasion was all part of the game and not a big deal. That the real problem was the 99% of the time when I was holding back from full engagement - my avoidant sports psychology.

In seventh grade I had tried out for JV volleyball, basketball and soccer and had made the teams. I loved volleyball. There was a net between me and the opposing team, and the primary objective was to communicate and coordinate with my own team in order to create conditions for a killer spike. Basketball was problematic. I had to have physical contact with the opposite team, and they were almost always all white. I did not think of it as an issue until a game against a prep school in Raleigh with notoriously nasty parent fans. These parents were all rich people who truly lost their marbles over middle school girls’ sports. Red-faced, screaming, unkind, possible unhinged – they all sat together and harangued the referees and opposing team relentlessly. I blocked the shot of one of their players, all ball, but the girl fell because she was off balance from the shot. There was no foul, but the parents from the other team shot to their feet in a tidal wave of indignation. I remember one white man screaming, “FOUL! That BLACK girl fouled her! FOUL! That BLACK girl!” I don’t think I could have been more stunned if he had slapped me. He spat the word “BLACK” like it was a curse that he was trying to push into the world – an evil spell. That black girl. I was that black girl. Me. The parents were extra-mad at ME because I was black. There were many more incidents of being called “that black girl”. As the other team talked about who was covering whom, everyone else would be called by their number and I would be called “that black girl”. I hated it so much, because it was never said with admiration or even a neutral tone. There was always the suggestion that it was no good to be that black girl. That black girl was aggressive, bad, and she shouldn’t be here…

After the screaming man in loafers, I held back a little. I did not want a repeat episode. If you are playing a contact sport and your primary objective is to avoid contact with the other team, your performance will be impaired. Soccer was just as bad as basketball, with the only saving grace being that the adult fans tended to be a bit farther away and thus more difficult to hear. In ninth grade, I decided that I would be a goalie. That way I could still play soccer, but I wouldn’t have to risk fat-necked bankers in polo shirts screaming at me and calling me “that black girl”. There is only one goalie, and so maybe they would call me “the goalie”, or better yet not notice me at all. The goalie is always in defensive mode, vulnerable, throwing herself at people’s feet or diving after balls. She blocks the attacks by forwards, guides the defense, and even if she is great, she is still barely there. This was the job for me, and I loved it. My new role went quite well until my JV coach broke my wrist, which is a story for another time. In tenth grade I made varsity soccer, and the varsity coach watched me sprint and dribble and yanked me out of the goal. She already had a goalie and she wanted me to be back right. So close, but so far. If I played all out I would end up knocking someone down and risk being called “that black girl” in a disgusted tone of voice, and if I held back, I would inevitably mess up and let my team down. And I needed to be on the team. Socially it felt like being on the sports teams was the only thing that protected me from relentless bullying – social norms didn’t allow people to bully their teammates, so that would mean that the boys were the only ones I really had to worry about. The girls I ran sprints with and high-fived after each successful play were allies, if uneasy ones. 

My coach could never have known all of this, and I certainly lacked the words to explain it to her. All I could do was stare at her blankly as she gave me her best pep talk. She told me that I was lucky to be tall, strong and fast, and that I should never hold back when playing soccer. That being stronger than other people meant that sometimes, in honest competition, they would get hurt. Not your fault. Don’t feel bad.

But there can be such sweet security in mediocrity – don’t be a threat and don’t make the white parents angry. Better safe than great - on the team but not of the team, holding things together in the background, safe and sound.

I recognize this tension with the last essay that I wrote, which was about wanting to be seen. And this is about wanting to be invisible. Altogether there is a tension that is about recognition – to be seen for who you really are. Not misperceived as a threat, not ignored or presumed to be unintelligent, just perceived accurately without the overlay of implicit racial bias. The stress of being misperceived for children and adolescents cannot be overstated, particularly when they are inaccurately perceived as threatening. It is terrifying to have an adult stranger scream at you or chastise you when you didn’t do anything wrong, and it happens to black kids with alarming regularity.

*Name changed

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