Sometimes you gotta wonder. It really does seem like there are forces at work to find fault or flaw with Serena Williams, one of the greatest athletes of our time, who happens to be both a woman and black.
In the past year since returning to the court after giving birth to her daughter, Williams has faced exacting scrutiny from the gatekeepers of the sport: her sleek black cat suit (designed to prevent blood clots that nearly took her life post baby) was banned by the French Tennis Federation. Most significantly, it has come to light that Williams has endured more drug tests than any other player at her level. And this past weekend, in the final match of the US Open, she was penalized and humiliated for advocating for herself and her integrity to the sport.
The calls placed the problems of sexism and unwittingly, racism, in plain view. Williams’ swift response to sexism in that moment was recognizable to any woman who’s reckoned with the social and professional costs of expressing righteous anger. Women often face backlash to our rightful indignation. Rage is no virtue for women; it is the provenance of men. Instead, we must be graceful.
“I don’t cheat to win, I’d rather lose,” Williams said sharply to umpire Carlos Ramos. “There are a lot of men out here who have said a lot of things and do not get that punishment. Because I am a woman you are going to take this away from me? That is not right.”
Ramos’ move made it clear that Williams wasn’t simply being penalized; she was being humiliated. And that humiliation was meant to serve as an example to all women who express their anger.
“You are a thief too,” Williams said to Ramos.
That theft was doubled as Ramos’ penalizing of Williams would taint the sweetness of victory for 20-year-old Naomi Osaka. (After all, it was the Williams sisters who inspired Osaka, who is Haitian and Japanese, to pursue the sport in the first place.) A tearful Osaka hid her face momentarily while the crowd booed Ramos. Osaka was denied the joyful ebullience of victory that we’ve so often witnessed from Williams herself, as well as the adoration of grateful fans delighted by a hard-fought match.
It was infuriating to watch. And in the days since, it remains infuriating to accept.
On Sunday, the US Tennis Association slapped Williams with a R250 000 fine, seemingly doubling down on those controversial calls. Rules are strictly enforced in the cases of black people and athletes. And they are most routinely enforced if the player is a woman, and especially if the player is a black woman. While known for his sternness, Ramos has inconsistently doled out enforcement of the rules. In a statement released Sunday, chairman of the Women’s Tennis Association acknowledged, “Yesterday brought to the forefront the question of whether different standards are applied to men and women in the officiating of matches. The WTA believes that there should be no difference in the standards of tolerance provided to the emotions expressed by men or women and is committed to working with the sport to ensure that all players are treated the same. We do not believe that this was done.”
I will never forgive Ramos for his treatment of Williams, who has demonstrated such fierce grace and professionalism in a sport that seems to contort its rules to fault her at every turn. It was a theft on levels seen and unseen. It was a theft familiar to black women, skilled at negotiating fragile feelings of nonblack people who are discomfited by the competency, wit and professionalism of their coworkers of color. What so many of us saw with acute clarity Saturday, not only as fans of the sport but as women working and living in the world, was the embodiment of the microaggressions we’ve long endured. We’re used to holding our tongues, to swallowing filth to stymie the image of an “angry black woman.”
For all women, it was a display of how our righteous anger and challenge to injustices is summarily dismissed as “hysterical” or deemed a “meltdown.” Male rage is so readily lauded as uncompromising, indicative of strength or integrity. Instead, women are expected to embody “grace” which too often means to be demure and diminutive.
Nevertheless, Williams persisted. “I’m here to fight for women’s rights and women’s equality,” Williams said Saturday at the press conference following the match. “The fact that I have to go through this is an example. Maybe it didn’t work out for me, but it’s going to work out for the next person.”
Grace is a term that is often thrown around in the realm of sports. Where gender and race connect, grace implies acquiescence or deferential obedience to some male definition of order. Williams is “ungracious” in her own defense of a bad call to others, but grace is evident in knowing that you are worthy of fair treatment, even if you have to demand it yourself.
“But of course, once recognized, black excellence is then supposed to perform with good manners and forgiveness in the face of any racist slights or attacks,” Claudia Rankine told us back in her 2015 piece about Williams. “Black excellence is not supposed to be emotional as it pulls itself together to win after questionable calls.” Williams, mother and mentor, swallowed her loss with dignity, and encouraged the young Osaka to raise her head and embrace her moment, chiding the crowd to recognize that this young star was worthy of the Grand Slam title. Williams, doing what so many black women do in times of simultaneous triumph and sorrow, shouldered the burden so others, in the future, won’t have to.