RaceSex & Gender

for serena, love means more than zero

September 12, 2018
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By Rhinold Ponder*, AFROPUNK contributor


Excited and fresh from her U.S. Open semifinal win, 20-year old Naomi Osaka had a simple message for Serena Williams, her idol and career model, before they would meet in the final: “I Love You.”

Two days later, after losing the final in Twilight Zone fashion, Williams sublimated her anger and frustration to lovingly embrace and console Osaka, then a teary and distraught first-time Grand Slam champion. With dignity, a sense of history and genuine concern for her virtual protégé, Williams gathered herself after being the target of what she and many others perceived to be disrespectful and unfair treatment by tennis umpire Carlos Ramos.

The boos after the match were directed towards the disruptive umpire and the final outcome, but they also diminished Osaka and her phenomenal achievement. Williams would not let it continue. During the awards ceremony, she told the crowd, “Naomi played well. This is her first Grand Slam. I know you guys were here rooting but let’s make this the best moment we can. Let’s give everyone credit where credit is due. Let’s not boo anymore. Congratulations Naomi.”

At that moment, Williams reminded us that her legacy as a professional, proud Black woman and role model was more important than personal accolades and trophies from a single game. Ramos’ in-game slights were the culmination of years of micro- and macro-aggressions against Williams. Her ability to refocus to a place of love and compassion reflects the strategy people of color have employed for years to thrive in hostile spaces.

Earlier this summer, Williams learned that she had been targeted for random anti-doping testing significantly more than any other tennis player. Williams did not complain about the testing per se, but she voiced concern about the unfair distribution of the testing and the clear inference it made against her character.

Later this summer, the French Open took direct and specific aim at Williams’s body by banning the figure-hugging catsuit which highlighted her intimidating and muscularly curvaceous Black female body. In his comments about the new Serena-influenced dress code, the French Tennis Federation president made it clear that the Black on Black display of Williams’ Blackness was disrespectful to the game.

A little less than a year ago, Williams faced a situation common to Black women when she almost died from childbirth complications as doctors ignored her complaints. She resisted their ignorance and demanded proper treatment. After less than a year of dedicated work, she was in elite almost-Serena form; good enough to get the 23-Grand Slam champ into the Finals of the 2018 U.S. Open and Wimbledon.

As has happened too often throughout Williams’ career, the racism and sexism spilled onto the court when umpire Ramos assessed her a series of penalties. The assessments were within his discretion, according to the written rules, but had never been enforced in such a draconian way against any other player, let alone a player of her stature. Some critics, most of whom have never been subjected to the type of animus Williams has faced, claimed she should not have been upset; she should not have immediately and directly challenged Ramos’ authority as abusive.

In a New York Times Op-Ed entitled “What Williams Got Wrong,” tennis great Martina Navratilova suggested that Williams deserved the initial coaching violation. She argued that Williams should have ignored the reality that umpires commonly don’t give “warnings” before addressing initial violations. Her argument is that regardless of how unjustly the rule is applied, it is a rule and a decision based on it should be honored because it reflects the high ideas of the sport.

However, Ms. Navratilova and many critics miss that this is the exact same rationale used to excuse disparate treatment in incarcerating Black men and women; in disciplining students of color and disabled children; in denying voting privileges to people of color; and in unjust sentencing based on race. Why should people of color accept that a rule is more important than how it is applied in a society that promotes the disparate application of rules to police and manage their behavior and bodies?

Navratilova claimed that Williams was not under attack; her coach was. She and others ignore that Ramos’ abuse of discretion was just one more of a series of attacks upon Williams’ legacy of excellence and character. This time it happened in front of millions of viewers and her colleagues, and one day would be revealed to her daughter.

Much of the press is also a culprit, having failed to focus on Ramos’ abuse of discretion. The press rarely noted that a stadium full of boos was directed towards the behavior of the umpire and the sordid outcome it caused. Many fans inside the stadium noted that Ramos was not only wrong, but that he tried to bait Ms. Williams, not de-escalate the matter.

Other signs of media bias were more subtle. When white men or men in authority commit a wrong against people of color—often, women—the press automatically attempts to contextualize male behavior as anomalous or justifiable. Many articles attempt to rehabilitate Ramos’ character by recounting times when he enforced rules selectively and harshly against men. Articles also imply Ramos good character and intentions by emphasizing his longevity as an umpire. Conversely, the press de-emphasizes Ms. Williams’ championship stature and career, by rehashing old confrontations. The suggestion is clear: it is unbecoming for a woman to publicly challenge authority or to exhibit anger at unfairness.

The narrative favoring authority over people of color is pervasive. It refuses to challenge how racism harms lives in the biased creases of discretion. Williams is special, but her experience resembles that of most Black people in America. It is the experience of little Black girls in school, who dare to question a teacher; of the Black women on social media, chastised for the disagreeable tone of their disagreements; and of every female employee who surrenders authorship of her ideas to men, in order to keep her job.

Williams’ display of affection and compassion to Osaka, who lost a moment of joy in victory, is outstanding. It has been suggested that her reaction reflected recent motherhood. But any fan that has watched Williams grow recognizes the same love in the embraces from her sister Venus, the watchful eye of her mother, the intensity of her father and the support of her family and friends. This is the same type and exchange of love that allows Black folks to modulate their frustration and anger to thrive and love in an oppressive environment.

Williams persisted. She resisted. Not just for women of color like Osaka, Madison Keys, and Sloane Stephens, who will certainly grow as winners, but for all of us who face some measure of injustice from an abuse of authority. So, let the haters hate. They are irrelevant, except as motivation. Williams exemplifies what Colin Kaepernick has been preaching all along: “Love is at the root of our resistance.”


Rhinold Lamar Ponder is an artist, writer, and lawyer who often spits fire on race, culture, and politics. His most recent art project “The Rise and Fail of the N-Word” recently debuted to critical acclaim in New Haven, Conn. He also curates “Beyond Black and White,” a Facebook Discussion page with 2500 diverse members who dig in on racial issues daily. @Ponderartist