On Serena Williams & The Racism Experienced By Black Women Athletes

Articles chronicling the story of Serena’s 3rd consecutive U.S. Open win were accompanied with pictures of a smiling trophy-displaying Serena Williams standing in front of American flags as they wavered carelessly behind. For many, this photo represents the modern America we all want to believe in: One free of yesteryear’s discrimination and racism that would’ve disallowed Black access to the sport. Where a little Black girl from Compton, California, among America’s most impoverished neighborhoods, can ascend to the ranks of “the best in the world” worth over $50 million — all earned from hard work and dedication. And this is the America we display to the world.

However, a stark reality exists that Black people in this country are far too well-aware of. One where all Black accomplishment is met with condemnation and ugly racist remarks.

Buried within the comments section of such stories of American victory, tells the reality that a Black woman does not represent America to White Americans. Nor is she worthy of support or even much deserved congratulations. The general consensus by such White people? Serena Williams, like President Obama, should be dehumanized and ridiculed merely because of her skin color. Here are some examples that represent the general consensus reached by many White commenters:

This paints a more clear picture of a modern White America that is not only racially intolerant but openly hateful. Through that lens, Serena’s strength cannot be appreciated as the strength of a woman because she is a Black woman — an animal at best and Obama’s son at worst. A vile, disgusting monkey with an attitude problem. The racial stereotypes invoked within those comment threads are attached to names and faces of individuals who are real. People whose profile pictures are sweet images of little, innocent children and babies, soldiers, both young and middle-aged White men and women smiling at the world in simple head shots. White people who obviously do not view Black people as people.

To Serena Williams and her family, this racism would come as no surprise. Reports during the 2001 Tennis Masters Series tournament in Indian Wells, California, detailed the racial controversy that erupted after Venus Williams pulled out of a match against her sister only four minutes before it was set to start. The following day, the crowd booed the Williams family incessantly, and according to Richard Williams– the sisters’ manager and father– screamed racial epithets and slurs at them. In an excerpt from Serena William’s 2009 autobiography, On the Line, she recounts this experience:

“What got me most of all was that it wasn’t just a scattered bunch of boos. It wasn’t coming from just one section. It was like the whole crowd got together and decided to boo all at once. The ugliness was just raining down on me, hard. I didn’t know what to do. Nothing like this had ever happened to me. What was most surprising about this uproar was the fact that tennis fans are typically a well-mannered bunch. They’re respectful. They sit still. And in Palm Springs, especially, they tended to be pretty well-heeled, too. But I looked up and all I could see was a sea of rich people—mostly older, mostly white—standing and booing lustily, like some kind of genteel lynch mob. I don’t mean to use such inflammatory language to describe the scene, but that’s really how it seemed from where I was down on the court. Like these people were gonna come looking for me after the match. … There was no mistaking that all of this was meant for me. I heard the word nigger a couple times, and I knew. I couldn’t believe it. That’s just not something you hear in polite society on that stadium court. … Just before the start of play, my dad and Venus started walking down the aisle to the players’ box by the side of the court, and everybody turned and started to point and boo at them. … It was mostly just a chorus of boos, but I could still hear shouts of ‘Nigger!’ here and there. I even heard one angry voice telling us to go back to Compton. It was unbelievable. … We refused to return to Indian Wells. Even now, all these years later, we continue to boycott the event. It’s become a mandatory tournament on the tour, meaning that the WTA can fine a player if she doesn’t attend. But I don’t care if they fine me a million dollars, I will not play there again.”

Racism towards Williams is displayed both overtly and covertly in the media and during the game. A 2009 story published by ESPN detailed a match between Serena and Kim Clijsters, where a lines woman called Williams for a foot fault on her second game, even though replays did not conclusively support the call — costing her the match point. Serena marched over to the lines judge and allegedly angrily confronted her screaming expletives. When told by reporters that the lines woman complained that she felt threatened to the chair umpire, Williams responded, “She says she felt threatened? She said this to you? I’ve never been in a fight my whole life, so I don’t know why she should have felt threatened.” Ultimately, Serena lost that game because she lost her temper. In the ESPN piece, the author claimed that Clijsters “seemed destined to win the match anyways,” saying that the player powerfully returned “Serena’s savage strokes.”

This image of the angry, Black fierce Serena with “savage” strokes is widely popular, despite the fact that her outbursts are usually in response to poor line judging and bad calls. In the 2011 US Open, chair umpire Eva Asderaki penalized Williams with a point for violating the hindrance rule — a rule that is seldom enforced — for shouting “Come on!” before her challenger, Samantha Stosur, had a chance to return the shot, regardless of the fact that Stosur’s racket barely touched the ball when she attempted the return. Most tennis players yell, grunt or scream on every shot, so such rules are often neglected. In this instance, the penalty cost Serena the match point, prompting the athlete to express hostility towards the umpire. She was fined $2000.

Such are the realities of being Black in White America, especially while participating in spaces that had long been off limits to people of color. Constant battles with stereotypes and racism are a norm. The picture of Serena Williams, courageously displaying her trophy while Black, strong and woman is a symbol of how far African-Americans are willing to go to reclaim their humanity and dignity: To achieve and be successful against all odds. In spite of every racist jeer, taunt, or attempt at unfairness, Black success persists. However, that success should never be confused with equality and fairness for all. America is still struggling down that path.