The way that men in tennis treat Serena Williams is a phenomenon that can never be separated from her gender or from her Blackness.
“My response to racism is anger. I have lived with that anger, on that anger, beneath that anger, on top of that anger, ignoring that anger, feeding upon that anger, learning to use that anger before it laid my visions to waste, for most of my life. Once I did it in silence, afraid of the weight of that anger. My fear of that anger taught me nothing. Your fear of that anger will teach you nothing also.”
– Audre Lorde, The Uses of Anger (1981)
Serena Williams is owed an apology, but it would be centuries too late. The one she is owed is the same apology that is overdue for all Black women living and dying, or having lived and died, under the boot of white supremacy.
On Saturday night, Williams was penalized three times during the U.S. Open final, and it may have cost her the game. Chair Umpire Carlos Ramos began by issuing a penalty for suspected illegal coaching, insisting that Patrick Mouratoglou had signaled her from the stands. This incensed Williams, and rightfully so. It was more than an accusation in that singular moment. It was a questioning of her character, and the suggestion that she would ever cheat amounts to an insinuation that she has no right to be at the top—that her position as an indomitable force in the sport that continuously tries to extinguish or at least diminish her glory was anything but fairly and painstakingly earned. She calmly, but firmly let Ramos know that she did not receive coaching and that she is not and has never been a cheater.
"I don't cheat to win. I'd rather lose."
—Serena to the chair umpire after receiving a coaching violation pic.twitter.com/v6Q2GWYYOn
— espnW (@espnW) September 8, 2018
Williams received her second violation from Ramos when she broke her racket out of frustration, and this time he docked her a point. In response, Williams called him a “thief” and for that, Ramos issued a game penalty. What had escalated the situation was that Ramos gave the impression that the initial warning had been rescinded after they first spoke—his response to her saying “I don’t cheat” was “I know that”—but because he let the cheating ruling stand, a point was taken away. She demanded an apology and never received one, and has now been fined $17,000 by the tournament referee. Ramos angered Williams during an emotional game, with what felt very much like intentionality and spitefulness, and then punished her for expressing the anger that he had caused, a punishment that was compounded by the monetary fine.
The way that men in tennis treat Serena Williams is a phenomenon that can never be separated from her gender or from her Blackness, and that becomes apparent again and again when compared with how her white and male counterparts are treated. Williams was astute in her observation that men have done and said far worse things on the court, to the umpires, to the referees and have not been reprimanded the way she was. Officials absolutely have a history of affording more leniency to men who display anger during the game, in much more explosive and violent ways. But men have the benefit of having their displays of anger wrapped up in warped notions of masculinity and virility. Black women’s anger, comes at a heavy price and this imbalance is as apparent to Serena on the court as it is to us in the audience.
Her composure was always fully intact, even as her passion shown through, but because Black women are always already read as not just angry, but irrationally angry, reports about what transpired Saturday night have been couched in the Angry Black Woman stereotype, framing Williams as having been more aggressive than she really was. Gaslighting headlines call it a “meltdown” or a “furious rant.” They accuse her of being a “sore loser” and rely upon hundreds of years of stereotypes about Black women to sell their point, doing absolutely no work to properly contextualize the situation and the responsibility that Ramos has for the role he played. This is nothing less than misogynoir.
As white anxiety continues to build and boil over, burning everything in its path, Serena’s excellence, her humanity, her perseverance, happiness, family, and life represent too much to a white supremacist society. It would seem that with her increased greatness, visibility, and support, white people have doubled their efforts to dismantle what Serena represents and Serena herself.
Serena is not only exceptional, but she is also human. One of the most long-standing facets of white supremacy is the denial that Black people are human and that we are capable of being exceptional despite the ravages of colonialism and systemic racism—even so, affirming Serena’s humanity should not be contingent on her athletic prowess. On top of the anti-Black narratives so dominant in our societies, white people frequently deny and dismiss both Serena’s humanity and exceptionalism, and ultimately view her consistent success and humanity as threatening or counter to all the narratives they build about Black people across the board, especially Black women.
Serena is the greatest, and they know it. Her stats speak for themselves. She even won the 2017 Australian Open and set a record with her 23rd Grand Slam title while pregnant, though she didn’t reveal this to us until weeks after the fact. Yet, there is still debate on whether she can be grown the greatest player. “If I were a man, then it wouldn’t be any sort of question,” Williams told Vanity Fair.
Serena has consistently given us strength, vulnerability, and honesty and there is no athlete like her. There is no one who has been treated with as much disdain, disrespect, or disgust for over 20 years as much as Serena has in her profession. Not only has she continued to play tennis, but she dominates the sport in a way that makes even non-tennis fans care about the sport. And yet fragile men and white people continue to belittle, gaslight, and dismiss her, in part because they despise Black womanhood, in part because she made spaces for herself and other women, and most definitely because Serena is fully aware of her greatness and doesn’t shy away from advocating for herself in the moments when no one else will. Serena’s anger at the U.S. Open final was justified the moment she expressed it. Millions of other Black women felt that. We felt it in a way that no one else could. But Black women aren’t allowed to be angry because it threatens the pillars of white supremacy and misogyny.
"You owe me an apology!"
Serena was fired up with the official in the final set of the US Open final. pic.twitter.com/r6RSbrirnV
— ESPN (@espn) September 8, 2018
Serena Williams is owed an apology from a lot of people, like the Black men who have consistently brought her femininity and womanhood into question, mocking her with transphobic comments about her body because she is strong, but not in the way that they want Black women to be strong. She is strong in a way that challenges their masculinity and the cult of Black patriarchy, but not in the way that allows them to lay their abuses on Black women without us caving under the weight of it all so we can continue to mule for them. She endured all of this only to be ostracized by them for loving, marrying, and creating life with a white man, because not only do these men not love Black women, but they don’t want us to be loved by anyone else either.
She is owed an apology from Maria Sharapova for writing her as a monstrosity in her memoir, an exemplary display of white woman victimhood and dog whistle aggression, and their reliance upon revisionist history. Likewise, Serena is owed an apology from the reporter who asked her about being intimidated by Sharapova’s “Supermodel good looks”—a question that was based on an assertion made by Donald fucking Trump. And from the reporter who congratulated Andy Murray on being the first person to win two Olympic gold medals for tennis, as if Serena and her sister didn’t even exist. And she most certainly is owed an apology from anyone who suggested that playing while pregnant when she won the 2017 Australian Open gave her an unfair advantage.
An apology is due to Serena for the fact that she is drug tested three to five times more than any other player, and for the fact that she had to save her own life after giving birth to her daughter by pressing the physicians to address her valid health concerns after they were initially downplayed, and for having her full-body Black suit banned from the French Open even though it was worn for medical reasons after two blood clotting incidents. French Open president Bernard Giudicelli singled out Serena’s suit, saying, “It will no longer be accepted. One must respect the game and the place,” and he should absolutely be contrite for even suggesting that she doesn’t respect the game or the court, especially given that this community continually disrespects her, on and off the court.
Serena is owed many an apology, and she also deserves to hear many a “Thank you.” The stadium erupted with boos after the game’s end on Saturday night and, even though Osaka had won, she was in tears. Williams comforted her competitor as she received her trophy to the sounds of a jeering crowd. And she said, “I just want to tell you guys she played well and this is her first Grand Slam. Let’s not boo anymore. We will get through this. No more booing. Congratulations, Naomi.” They owe Naomi Osaka an apology, too.
Serena comforted an emotional Naomi Osaka after losing in the US Open ? pic.twitter.com/oCLTRn66cW
— espnW (@espnW) September 8, 2018
We should thank both Serena and Venus for founding the Yetunde Price Resource Center, an organization named after their eldest sister who was murdered in 2003 and supports communities affected by gun violence. Serena learned only moments before entering into a match with Johanna Konta in July that the man who shot her sister was granted parole, and she still played a strong game under the emotional weight of the upsetting news.
She has taken a role on the board for Survey Monkey in a pointed attempt to get more women and people of color active in Silicon Valley. She has been a UNICEF Goodwill Ambassador since 2011, through which she has helped to build schools in Africa. She has also recently become an ambassador for Purple Purse, an Allstate foundation which provides support for domestic abuse victims who have been financially restricted by their partners in what Williams acknowledges as an “invisible form of abuse.” Purple Purse helps people leave abusive situations and provides avenues for them to become self-sustained.
We should thank her for all of this work, and also because after her near-death experience following her emergency C-section, she used it as an opportunity to write about the racial disparity in mortality rates during childbirth and lack of attentive care for Black mothers. And because when she wore her self-described “superhero” suit to the French Open, she elected to pay tribute to working moms—“For all the moms out there who had a tough pregnancy and had to come back and try to be fierce. If I can do it, so can you.” And because who she is and how she plays continues to be an inspiration to Black children who get to watch her dominate, again and again, while playing with such grace, fortitude, and confidence.
The ordeal she experienced at the U.S. Open is one that Black women are unfortunately intimately familiar with. Our reasonable displays of anger and frustration must be quelled because they are never read as being justified, even when our anger is in response to others abusing or misusing their power. We are automatically read as threatening, aggressive, and overly emotional, especially when we challenge systems that uphold racism and sexism.
Ramos accusing Serena of cheating and the situation that precipitated afterwards may be what lost her the game, or she may not have won against Osaka anyway. It ultimately doesn’t matter, because the issue is how her anger was treated. Whether she was set to win or lose, her anger was justified and she deserves to be validated for expressing that anger when she found herself in yet another unfair situation in an industry that repeatedly targets her with misogynoir. This world owes Serena Williams, and Black women everywhere, a fucking apology.
Written with contributions by Lara Witt
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