The Danish tennis player Caroline Wozniacki has been accused of racism after she stuffed her bra and skirt, to give the appearance of ample breasts and butt, on the court yesterday, apparently mimicking her fellow women’s tennis player Serena Williams. Wozniacki was playing a game in Sao Paolo, Brazil, against Anna Kournikova when, with a big grin on her face, she stuffed small towels down her frontside and backside to give herself cariacturishly large proportions. She played for a minute or two dressed like that, as the audience chuckled, before pulling the towels out. You can watch a video of the incident after the jump.
Some people see this as just a goofy joke, especially since Wozniacki and Williams are supposedly friends. Wrote columnist Jay Busbee at Yahoo Sports, “This is an era where no joke goes unscrutinized, and no humor apparently exists without sinister subtext. … An apology may be forthcoming, but it shouldn’t be.” Others are saying it was a racist imitation because it was highlighting the extreme sexualization of women of color’s bodies. The Root, a blog about African-American issues, called the mimicry “inappropriate.” And blogger Katie Halper wrote on Feministing:
[G]iven the history and current-day context of racialized standards of beauty, and the hypersexualization of people of color, when a white woman makes fun of a black women’s body, especially in a way that hypersexualizes her and draws on the stereotype of black women’s big butts, it’s racist.
Critics are saying that Wozniacki’s mimicry is the Hottentot Venus stereotype. Simply put, the “Hottentot Venus” was an African woman named Sarah Baartman, who was enslaved during the early 180ss and traipsed around Europe as a freak show, showing off her huge butt and breasts. She was displayed in a cage dressed in silk and told to behave sexily. Not only was it dehumanizing for Baartman to be both enslaved and treated as a sideshow, but her “popularity,” if you could even call it that, was seen as a catalyst for fetishizing the sexuality of exotic non-white women. These days, the phrase “Hottentot Venus” is used in more general terms to describe that racist stereotype of a desirable and objectified black woman, especially if she’s got a booty.
Explained that way, certainly I can understand why people are calling Wozniacki racist. There’s more to Serena Williams than just her tits and ass (i.e. the objectified parts of her body). Something can be racist regardless of the person’s intent — this chick may be friends with Williams and may not have intended to do something racist. But that doesn’t mean what she did was not racist.
On the other hand, my initial reaction to Caroline Wozniacki’s behavior was that it was first and foremost unprofessional. She’s in the middle of playing a tennis match, for Chrissakes. Then, when I read she was imitating Serena Williams, my next thought was that mocking the size of her boobs and butt was sexual harassment. I mean, even in a goodnatured rivalry among friends, making fun of someone’s sexualized body parts during a televised match is a bit much.
And then when I read up on the controversy, I realized that her sexual harassment incidentally also happened to be racialized. However, the racial aspect — the “sinister subtext” that Busbee referred to — was not obvious to me at first glance. I would imagine that people who are defending Caroline Wozniacki and saying it’s “not a big deal” probably had a similar line of thinking; that’s why it’s crucial to read up on what the Hottentot Venus stereotype means.
Ultimately, however, I feel it’s not my final call as a white woman to decide whether or not this is racist. (Or “racist enough” — if you fall down the rabbit hole of HuffPost commenters, there are people saying things like “it would have been racist if she was eating watermelon and fried chicken!” as if that’s the only thing you can do to be racist.) It’s a time to listen to what people who are directly affected are saying: if people of color are saying this mimicry was racist and problematic, then we should listen.
Contact the author of this post at Jessica@TheFrisky.com. Follow me on Twitter.