RaceSex & Gender

serena’s eternal grace and justified fury

September 10, 2018
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Don’t tell me that Serena Williams overreacted. Don’t close yourself off to a conversation whose time has come. Don’t turn a blind eye to the disparity in treatment faced by the Williams sisters throughout their careers and think that this moment is an isolated incident. It’s isn’t. Not in sport, or anywhere where a Black woman dares to not only step into a predominantly white field but also shine.

The rules of tennis are rewritten every time Serena Williams steps onto a court, either by the athlete herself, through her sheer will and staggering talent, or by officials who struggle to divorce themselves from the “isms” so deeply entrenched in the structural integrity of the sport. Carlos Ramos, chair umpire during Williams U.S. Open Women’s final match against Naomi Osaka, has been on the receiving end verbal abuse from multiple players, most notably Novak Djokovic, who on two occasions, went off on Ramos and received a verbal warning and code violations but no docked point. Nick Kyrgios went as far as calling Ramos’ umpiring “Fucking bullshit” without losing a point. Andy Murray, Rafael Nadal, Victoria Azarenka, all hurled insults at this umpire and none had points taken away.

Richard Williams, Serena and Venus’ father and coach, would often ask bystanders to hurl insults at the sisters during practice to prepare them for the oncoming “economic anxiety.” Yet Serena bypassed all this training to call out a man who saw it fit to rob both Williams and Osaka of a fair game of tennis, just so he could assert himself over Williams, using a standard he doesn’t apply to men or even white women. When you take into account how often Williams has to defend herself and her integrity, allowing Ramos’ decision to stand silently, flew in the face of all the work she’d been doing to legitimize her entire career. She was expected to simply take it — that she didn’t was her biggest “sin”.

White male anger is given deference over the experiences of minorities. This is true in society as well as tennis. In the face of blatant disrespect, Serena Williams has a shown the kind of grace that Black women everywhere have to adopt in order to survive; this is also true in society as well as tennis. Williams has fielded almost every racial epithet imaginable — about her body, her mannerisms, the way she plays — and she has yet to reveal the true bounds of her fury. Because it’s there, neatly packed away for fear that its release might forever taint Williams as an “Angry Black Women.” That label sticks. An “Angry Black Woman” is hysterical when merely expressing her emotions. She has nothing constructive to say. Her anger is an overreaction.

Serena was not overreacting. She was just reacting to a double standard she’s had to endure in order to play a sport she obviously loves. A double standard that could affect successors like Naomi Osaka, who was robbed of the pageantry of a first Grand Slam win by controversy rooted in unchecked bigotry. Osaka was raised in a Haitian household under a Haitian father and Japanese mother: she is the tennis diversity ushered in by the Williams sisters. She is also the first Japanese person to ever win the U.S. Open. Now she’s had a front row seat to a fight that she will likely have to take up if the current status quo goes unchallenged, a status quo that, late Sunday, fined Williams $17,000.00 as a reminder that she is not entitled to her feelings about the treatment she experienced.

We are slowly waking up to the fact that sport is not for the players, but for those that “own” the game, and Williams has to fight that reality as Black Woman. No matter how much money she makes, she will never transcend that identity – why would she want to if it wasn’t for all the ways she is disrespected because she is one.

Williams’ experience is a common occurrence on a much larger scale. Every time a Black woman is punished for having an honest reaction to a visibly unfair outcome, her expression of discontent is but one more nail in the coffin. It’s tiring, draining and deliberate. It diminishes spirit, and most of all, it is meant to do and be all those things. We could be basking in the fairytale that is Serena’s return to professional tennis just a year after almost losing her life, but instead, we are wading through the aftermath of an establishment that seems like it wants to frustrate Williams into retiring.

That’s the game. I hope that people will now open their eyes to the reality of the rules, because they do not assert them in the same way for everyone. Across the board. This may be because the game wasn’t created for everyone. That’s OK. That’s exactly what change and growth are for. That is why I’ll always bet on Serena because she respects the game of tennis more than anyone who accuses of her of the opposite. She loves it so much that she would still fight to make it better for players like Osaka.

Naomi Osaka and Serena Williams deserved a better umpire than Carlos Ramos. They deserve a better version of tennis to compete in. Most of all, Black Women are entitled to their fury. It should never be weaponized against us. We should never be penalized for what we feel. Yet we are, constantly. I’m just glad that I’m alive during the era of Serena Williams, who went above and beyond to prove herself in this sport just so she could show the world how she really felt. Perhaps it’s time to start listening.

“I don’t cheat to win. I’d rather lose…” – Serena Williams