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Serena Williams: A Case Study in Misogynoir

Gorilla comparisons, extra and unnecessary drug tests, policing of outfits. That's just a handful of the crap Serena Williams has to put up with as one of the most notable sports icons in the world, and arguably the only reason tennis as a sport has become part of our pop culture conversation. Let's be frank, tennis has struggled to enter the mainstream in a way that soccer and basketball have dominated. Thanks to Serena, tennis (like all industries when introduced to Black people + culture) has now become something to tweet and talk about. But the fact that she is one of the greatest sports phenomena does not make up for the fact that at the end of the day Serena Williams is a Black woman who must reckon with that. She's not the only one who must though, as the young Black girls who aspire to be like her do as well.

Julio Cortez/AP

Julio Cortez/AP

Women from varying life paths and levels of success face sexism, but Black women in particular face hatred that robs them of humanity and feminity while demonizing them. The words "Serena" and "gorilla" have been used in the same sentences to attack her. Claims that Williams is secretly a male, having an animalistic physique, that she's hideous and unattractive run rampant, forcing Black women to deal with who white supremacy serves, and not what Serena does (ya see what I did there? You're welcome). The continuous showcase of de-feminizing of Black women continued throughout the professional career of Serena Williams when the head of the Russian Tennis Federation, Shamil Tarpischev, referred to Serena and her sister, Venus, as "the Williams brothers." He later apologized, calling it a joke. Rightfully, he later earned a suspension in 2014. One of the most disgusting comments came from Sid Rosenberg said in the early 2000s that Serena and her talented sister Venus hey had a better shot at posing for National Geographic than for Playboy. He was finally booted from a nationally syndicated show after calling Venus and animal, and the sisters were actually "boys".

The insults against Serena deny her of womanhood, dehumanize her, and rely on tropes that originate from slavery. However, they also deny her greatness. She truly is one the greatest athletes of all time, so when people insist that she is a man, what they are really saying is "no actual woman can play that well."

Of course, this piece on the intersection of race and gender without acknowledging that Donald Trump has given his thoughts, stating in 2004 that Serena Williams was intimidated by Maria Sharapova's "supermodel good looks." Ugh. Ew. Serena Williams has beaten Maria Sharapova in 18 straight matches, yet in the eyes of the dominant culture, she will never be as good for tennis as her. The invoking of the white woman to be the angelic, feminine, inherently good and innocent parallel to Serena's angry, ugly, vile Black woman is an all familiar scenario and one that makes itself present throughout life for many Black women. This is the reason many Black women don't speak up for themselves, be it in the hospital when they are in pain (hence why more Black women die in childbirth more than white women do) or in the office and the workplace, where Black women are paid less than their white counterparts.

This is why Serena's statements recently at the U.S. Open to an umpire really resonated. Though Serena lost (to a powerful WoC who you should totally check out. Serena likes her and you should too) she was awarded a prize for second place, a whopping $1.85 million dollar. However, the tennis star will be docked $10,000 for “verbal abuse” (“a statement about an official, opponent, sponsor, spectator or other person that implies dishonesty or is derogatory, insulting or otherwise abusive,” as defined under Article III, Section P), $4,000 for coaching she allegedly received from the stands by Patrick Mouratoglou, and for breaking her racket, an additional $3,000.

Serena did not take that. “I didn’t get coaching,” she responded. “I don’t cheat! I didn’t get coaching. How can you say that? You owe me an apology. I have never cheated in my life!”

"You owe me an apology."  

That sentence is something so casual to most dealing with stressful situations, but for Black women everywhere that was a power move. In many instances, Black women are seen as aggressive when they demand even a moniker of respect or understanding. Many Black women in all instances choose to just tough it out and stay quiet because the alternative would be to be addressed condescend with microaggressions. "Just calm down" or "stop being hysterical" or the classic "why are you so angry?" This gaslighting weaves its way into the daily interactions Black women have, and unfortunately, the US Open is no exception. The fact that Serena demanded an apology, as sad as it sounds, is revolutionary. It shouldn't be, but it is.

Julio Cortez/AP

Julio Cortez/AP

If you're feeling hopeless and even discouraged right now, that's totally understandable. Now, there are the collective things we as consumers do. Serena doesn't have a uniform/jersey (maybe the tutu??? because heck yea.) but she does have social media that unfortunately is bombarded by sexists and racists and people who are both. Comment/tweet how much you love her! Drown out the bigots with love and admiration. On the micro level, be an ally to the Black women in your life. Notice the language you and others may use surrounding they way you speak about Black women. Understand that the fight against misogynoir starts with our collective vocabulary. And most importantly, include Black women in your activism. Whenever we hold progressive conversations we often hear the phrase "women and minorities" or "women and people of colour". These phrases write out (intentionally or not) the experiences of Black women and the ugliest versions of hatred they have to face because they cross the intersection of sex and race. We need to put an intentional spotlight on this hatred in order to fully combat it. Anything less than this deliberate focus will not only fail Black women like Serena Williams but Black women everywhere.