‘Who does she think she is?’

Ten­nis star Ser­ena Wil­liams’ treat­ment dur­ing U.S. Open fi­nal res­onates among frus­trated work­ing women

The Recorder & Times (Brockville) - - LIFE - Deepti Hajela

NEW YORK — When Ser­ena Wil­liams told the um­pire at the U.S. Open ten­nis fi­nal that he owed her an apol­ogy, that he had stolen some­thing from her, and then she got pe­nal­ized for her words, Breea Willing­ham could re­late to her frus­tra­tion and anger.

Willing­ham isn’t a ten­nis star, but she is a black wo­man. She and oth­ers like her say Wil­liams’s ex­pe­ri­ence res­onates with them be­cause they are of­ten forced to watch their tone and words in the work­place in ways that men and other women are not.

And if they’re not care­ful, they say, they risk be­ing branded “An­gry Black Wo­man.”

“So much of what she ex­pe­ri­ences we ex­pe­ri­ence in the work­place, too,” said Willing­ham, a pro­fes­sor of crim­i­nal jus­tice at the State Univer­sity of New York at Platts­burgh. “As black women ... we’re ex­pected to stay in our lane, that lane that has been cre­ated for us. Any time we step out of that lane, then we be­come a prob­lem.”

The stereo­type of the “An­gry Black Wo­man” is alive and well, said Feli­cia Martin, 36, a U.S. fed­eral em­ployee. She re­calls once see­ing a white fe­male co-worker curs­ing and throw­ing things and not fac­ing reper­cus­sions, while she’s been told to calm down for ex­press­ing her own up­set in a nor­mal tone of voice.

“If I’m up­set about some­thing, I should get to ex­press that to you,” Martin said.

Dur­ing the cham­pi­onship loss to Naomi Osaka, Wil­liams got a warn­ing from the chair um­pire for vi­o­lat­ing a rarely en­forced rule against re­ceiv­ing coach­ing from the side­lines. An in­dig­nant Wil­liams em­phat­i­cally de­fended her­self, deny­ing she had cheated. A short time later, she smashed her racket in frus­tra­tion and was docked a point. She protested that and de­manded an apol­ogy from the um­pire, who pe­nal­ized her a game.

Many peo­ple, black women among them, echoed Wil­liams’s con­tention that she was pun­ished while men on the ten­nis cir­cuit have got­ten away with even harsher lan­guage.

“A lot of things started go­ing through my head in that par­tic­u­lar sit­u­a­tion. You know, first and fore­most, what was go­ing to be said about her the next day? The typ­i­cal an­gry black wo­man, you know ... when she re­ally was just stand­ing up for her­self and she was stand­ing up for women’s rights,” said for­mer ten­nis cham­pion Zina Gar­ri­son, who is black. “A wo­man, pe­riod, is al­ways, when we speak up for our­selves, then you have the sit­u­a­tion where peo­ple are say­ing, you know, they’re too out­spo­ken. They’re act­ing like a man, all of that. But then a black wo­man on top of that, the an­gry black wo­man, who does she think she is?”

Martin and oth­ers pointed to a cartoon by an Aus­tralian artist as the clear­est ex­am­ple of the stereo­type fac­ing black women. Mark Knight of Mel­bourne’s Her­ald Sun de­picted Wil­liams as an irate, hulk­ing, big-mouthed black wo­man jump­ing up and down on a bro­ken racket. The um­pire was shown telling a blond, slen­der wo­man — meant to be Osaka, who is ac­tu­ally Ja­panese and Haitian — “Can you just let her win?”

“The car­toon­ist com­pletely missed the point of why she was up­set,” said Vanessa K. De Luca, for­mer ed­i­tor-in-chief of Essence magazine, who wrote a col­umn about the U.S. Open furor. “It was about her in­tegrity, and any­body who doesn’t get that is per­pet­u­at­ing the era­sure that so many black women feel when they are try­ing to speak up for them­selves. It’s like our opin­ions don’t mat­ter.”

Some black women say they have to worry per­pet­u­ally about how they ’re com­ing across to make sure they ’re not dis­missed as an­gry or emo­tional.

Willing­ham thinks that it was also about a ca­reer’s worth of frus­tra­tions that Wil­liams has had to en­dure, such as when the French Open banned the type of cat­suit she wore.

“I felt it for her. I felt she was fed up, she was tired of this,” Willing­ham said.

ADaM HunGer/AP

Ser­ena Wil­liams, right, talks with ref­eree Brian Ear­ley dur­ing the women’s fi­nal of the U.S. Open ten­nis tour­na­ment against Naomi Osaka, of Ja­pan, in New York. Some black women say Ser­ena Wil­liams ex­pe­ri­ence at the U.S. Open fi­nal res­onates with them. They say they are of­ten forced to watch their tone and words in the work­place in ways that men and other women are not. Oth­er­wise, they say, they risk be­ing branded an “An­gry Black Wo­man.”

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