or most of my childhood, I never had more than four pairs of shoes at a time. There were shiny school shoes and church shoes that met the requirements of countless morning masses and school days at my black and brown Catholic school. There were dirty sneakers and winter boots caked with salt. Plastic summer sandals that I’d wear on weekends and days when I’d racked up enough points on my “N.U.T: No Uniform Today” card to shed my itchy nylon jumper for the freedom of oversized outfits from The Gap.
When I inevitably left for a bigger, whiter public school, the way I dressed didn’t just indicate that my family was lower-middle class or that there were limits to our shopping budget. My glasses, my sneakers, my skin color, the way I wore my hair and collected keychains on the zippers of my JanSport, like jingling mementos of a former life, took on a collective connotation that I didn’t understand at the time. I wasn’t sure why I was being judged, but the loneliness I felt that first year was evidence to me that I didn’t fit in.
During my first parent-teacher conference, shocked by the chasm she perceived between my light skin and the shade of my philosophies, my sixth grade humanities teacher asked my mother why she was raising me to be “so black.” There, concealed beneath her bubbly voice, was the question that would determine how I fit into the classroom culture. Was I the “acceptable,” amiable sort of black girl or not?
When, a few years later, I began buying Jordans on Saturdays, plastic-wrapped Air Max 95s from shops on 125th street, Air Force 1s I could only afford after weeks of eating crushed Ritz crackers and cheese for lunch, I saw it as a form of self-expression — but I see now that it was a rejection of the people who did not accept me, the logical, actionable response to my teacher’s concern. I answered her, through the way I dressed, in the same tone of voice my mother had used years before: “…Because she is black.”
Over the past few weeks, Nike has addressed conflicts that affect its black customers with images that have invoked discussions about race and that notion of acceptability. Last week, in reply to the blacklisting that resulted from Colin Kaepernick’s extensive protest of police brutality, the company released an image of the athlete, captioned, “Believe in something, even if it means sacrificing everything.” It was paired with a television commercial that ran during the first NFL game of the season.
— Colin Kaepernick (@Kaepernick7) September 3, 2018
In August, when Serena Williams’s medically beneficial catsuit was banned at the French Open, Nike responded with an image of her competing in the spandex outfit, captioned, “You can take a superhero out of her costume, but you can never take away her superpowers.”
— Nike (@Nike) August 25, 2018
That statement could almost serve as a description of Williams’s U.S. Open experience, as well. In the recent title match between her and Naomi Osaka, Williams was accused of cheating and, after she angrily responded to the accusation, was doubly penalized. Both women were in tears when they took the stage and Osaka accepted her trophy.
On each of these occasions, social media cracked in two. There were those who agreed with Nike’s support of Kaepernick and those who didn’t, literally ripping check marks out of apparel or setting clothes ablaze. A leaked memo went viral detailing the Nike ban a Louisiana mayor put in place for his city’s recreation centers. Days later, it was a caricature of Williams throwing a tantrum on the court in a match against a white, blond, straight-haired Osaka that was being shared and re-shared. (Osaka is Haitian and Japanese and has a head full of dark, highlighted curls.) According to both the tournament officials and people boycotting Nike, it was Williams’s and Kaepernick’s blatant rule-breaking that inspired their uproars.
The problem with that explanation is that until they were “broken,” no rules existed governing catsuits or protesting during sporting events. And the rules against coaching and arguing during tennis matches are rarely enforced with such stringency. Institutional discrimination and segregation may technically be outlawed in this country, but when the invisible racial boundaries that separate the privileged and marginalized are crossed, black and brown Americans are slingshotted back into place, implicitly discredited by the way their very existence breaks rules of acceptability.
It is easier to categorize certain people as too loud, too opinionated, too reckless, too offensive, too kinky, too dark or “too black,” than to admit that those people are right about the way the comfort and success of the privileged are reinforced through oppressive systems that categorically diminish others.
When men and women are sprayed with bullets by a racist man invited to pray with them, it is easier to hear, “We forgive you,” than “This was unforgivable.” When protesters are barrelled down by an enraged driver or beaten bloody by white supremacists, it is easier to believe that, “Those violent people aren’t real Americans,” than “This is part of America’s tradition.” It becomes easier to accept the black and brown people who sometimes sugarcoat bitter truths than the ones who smash stereotypes and draw awareness to oppression.
So, is a catsuit truly such an offensive garment that is must be banned? Is black, female anger so indecent that it needs to be contained even as it is being expressed rationally and articulately? Or is the woman wearing the ensemble and asking for the apology such an unstoppable force that she must be reigned in in order to maintain the image associated with a sport?
Is the national anthem a tune that inspires such reverence that even quiet gestures of dissent must be regulated? Or is the issue that the dissenter is publically pointing out fissures in our national edifice, a structure that has historically been bolstered by false images of untouchable whiteness?
The kind of powerful emotions Williams displayed on the court should never be enough to incite the personal and pointed attacks she received. But when we consider the way her presence alone challenges definitions of strength and decorum that so many privileged men rely on to gain traction in the world, it makes perfect sense. Similarly, the inflamed responses to Kaepernick’s quiet protest may seem irrational until we consider how he is revealing the hypocrisy in our country’s ethos. For some, acknowledging the reality of the police brutality Kaepernick is demonstrating against means also acknowledging that their lives do not continue because of the quality of their values or life choices, but because of an unspoken and unfair birthright.
I suppose these realities highlight the monumental challenge at the center of true allyship: Allies must be willing to tear down oppressive institutions that may simultaneously make their own lives easier.
Perhaps that’s also why Nike’s series of ads struck me — not simply because the brand that chose to run them once represented my own youthful, awkward way of finding my style and my tribe when I was being tragically misunderstood, but because they are a gesture of allyship, however small. And Nike’s choice is an example of what we ask of privileged friends all the time: Please use your voice to speak about me, no matter the cost.
Collage by Emily Zirimis.