Serena the supreme athlete has to rise above stereotypes whether she’s right or wrong
Throughout an extraordinary career she has been treated differently, writes Nosheen Iqbal
Asa junior tennis player, Naomi Osaka was taught to look away if her opponent got angry or fought with the umpire. She was trained to block out distractions, to ignore the noise and focus on her game. Still, the 20- year- old went on The Ellen DeGeneres Show this week unable to avoid the fury that erupted off court following her stunning US Open victory over Serena Williams. Who could?
“In my mind, I wanted to know what was going on,” she said, of the moment Williams demanded an apology from the umpire Carlos Ramos. “I couldn’t hear and I was looking away, I really wanted to turn around but I didn’t.”
If you strip away the technicalities of the situation – the actual tennis, say – the discussion of what happened at the final of the US Open has ignited the tennis hardcore, the fair- weather fans and those merrily ignorant of the sport altogether. Whether Williams was right or wrong in being upset at what she considered unfair calls has almost – almost – become by the by.
Whether she was penalised differently or more harshly because she is a woman, a dark- skinned black woman, has polarised the coverage further.
It is faintly ridiculous to pretend that Serena Williams hasn’t suffered prejudice both on and off court throughout her career; it is well established that the number of bad and erroneous calls made against her was one of the primary reasons Hawk- Eye cameras were introduced to the game. The crudely racist depiction of her by an Australian an cartoonist this past week – and d it is racist, let us count the many ways ays in a moment – has been a standard ndard she has endured since she turned ned professional at 16.
Williams is the best and worst rst example there is of the concept t of “misogynoir”. This is the term, coined by the academic Moya Bailey, used to define the way in which the double blow of racism and sexism intersect and damage. As a portmanteau, it may have the
Williams’s story exemplifi es ‘ misogynoir’, where racism and sexism intersect
whiff of a terribly named cabaret show, but misogynoir is a deeply bleak reality . It exists both within black and brown communities as well as outside them and is a specific and unique form of prejudice experienced by black women and dark- skinned black women especially.
Think of the way black women are represented, for one, in popular culture. The stereotypes, the crass and embarrassing gifs and memes shared online: the angry black woman, the sassy best friend, the hypersexualised booty. Look at that cartoon of Serena Williams again and consider how her rows on court are characterised as epic, aggressive meltdowns and how John McEnroe’s have become cute. It is an uncomfortable truth, but it is simply unacceptable to turn away, to block it out and ignore it.
At 36, Serena Williams is the greatest athlete of all time, which isn’t even an opinion any more rather than a statement of fact. Her magnificence isn’t simply witnessed in the 23 grand slam wins ( including one while pregnant ) but in the way she often makes it look easy. In grace, strength and beauty with a racket, she’s peerless. But this comes in spite of the way she is treated and perceived, not because it’s a fair game.
Williams may be preternaturally gifted but she has put in relentless hours to become the pinnacle of black excellence. Anecdotes about hers and Venus’s childhood in Compton are well documented – the sisters were raised to never take anything for granted. Famously, their father, Richard, would bring in “bus- bus loads of kids” from different scho schools to surround the courts his daughters d practised on and cuss them out, do their worst, use the N-N word, simply to build their resi resilience. This may be at the ext extreme end of classic brown par parenting but it did mean the Wi Williams sisters knew they had tow to work much harder than their wh white, blonde peers in the game to survive.
And so the cartoon proves. Defenders of this peculiar form of so- called satire have been vitriolic about the response to the Herald Sun. Why can’t you stop making a thing of everything, comes the outrage to the outrage. Does everything have to be about identity politics, comes the eye- roll. Well, one would love to not have to point it out all the time, except an actual newspaper deemed it fi t to publish a drawing of a grotesquely offensive Sambo caricature lifted from Jim Crow and have the nerve to call it Serena Williams. To hammer home the point, your average nice white blonde lady was drawn in as her opponent slash victim. This despite the fact, of course, that Naomi Osaka is a Haitian- Japanese woman of colour and Serena Williams is her hero.
“What did she say to you?” Ellen DeGeneres asked Osaka, of her moment with Williams after the match. “What do you think she said?” quipped Osaka. Male players losing in similar situations – McEnroe, Andre Agassi – have often been presented to us as passionate, determined, outspoken. The narrative online has shaped Williams as an aggressive, hysterical, ranting nightmare. The truth, Osaka told DeGeneres, was : “She said that she was proud of me and that I should know the crowd wasn’t booing at me .”
Williams may have lost it, she may have endured far more criticism and racism and sexism than most in her career, but her grace and dignity win.
After her defeat b by Naomi Osaka in i the US Open Ope fi nal, Serena Williams told the HaitianJapanes Japanese victor that sh she was proud of o her. William Williams had clashed with the ump umpire and ( below) the referee