Why Serena Williams Is So Important


On Saturday morning when I dragged myself out of bed to watch Serena Williams compete for her 21st Grand Slam title at Wimbledon, I sent my mother a simple text: “Tennis?” More than a thousand miles away and one time zone behind, Mama texted back, “Yes!”

This has been our ritual since I left home nearly half a lifetime ago, just around the time it became clear that Williams Sisters were a force that would not go away quietly. My mother and I spent many lazy summer weekends watching greats like Steffi Graf, Monica Seles, Andre Agassi, Pete Sampras, Jimmy Connors and John McEnroe. I vaguely remember watching Arthur Ashe play, and my mother always took care to point out Black players like Zina Garrison and Malivai Washington. Unlike basketball, which I also loved back then, in the heyday of Michael Jordan, tennis was an overwhelmingly white sport.

Then came the Black girls—sisters from Compton with beads and braids, playing “power tennis.” That is how sportscasters like Mary Carillo, Pam Shriver and Chris Evert derisively referred to the Sisters’ monster serves and walloping forehand winners down the line way back then. A few months younger than Venus, and a few older than Serena, I was instantly protective and proud of these young sisters the same age as me, who had entered an all-white world and dominated white women with such consistency and force, and so unapologetically, that white women’s heads spun on a regular basis.

It is never a thing Black people would admit in polite company (which is to say, in front of white people), but watching these beautiful, powerful Black girls square up against white girls and win is catharsis. Despite sportscaster commentary which focused heavily on the athleticism of their bodies while giving them no credit for being thoughtful or strategic on the court, the sisters won, and kept on winning.

I’m sure many hoped we would not be here in the middle of the second decade of the 20th century still watching the Williams sisters compete against each other in grand slams. But we are. And while Venus — long my favorite of the two (loyalty to the sister born the same year as me if nothing else) — no longer enjoys the same success and visibility as her sister, the two are still seen as some of the most formidable players in the game.

Some things have changed since we began to call the names of Venus and Serena. Their games have improved. Serena has figured out how to corral all that power into a gorgeous, focused finesse on the court. Watching Venus play at Wimbledon is like watching a Black girl ballet on grass. Because of Venus’ active campaign with Billie Jean King, women now earn equal pay with men at Grand Slam tournaments. And Chris Evert, one of the Williams Sisters’ most ardent critics a decade ago, can now regularly be heard calling Serena the “greatest” to ever play the game. What has not changed, however, is the ugly and virulent racist commentary to which Serena is subjected each and every time she wins.

Media personalities suggest that she’s doping. And racists emboldened by the mouthpiece and anonymity of twitter misgender her, calling her a man and deriding the strength of her body. In a piece at the New York Times, Ben Rothenberg interviews several current women’s tennis players who evince varying levels of anxiety about how playing the sport makes them look “unfeminine.” In the midst of this, Serena says, “I’m really happy with my body type, and I’m really proud of it. Obviously it works out for me. I talk about it all the time, how it was uncomfortable for someone like me to be in my body.”

That kind of body confidence from a dark-skinned, “thick” Black woman, with a round posterior that all my homegirls and I, straight and gay alike, admire, is hard won. This world does not love Black girls or women, and it takes every opportunity to project its own ugliness onto our bodies. We spend a lifetime trying to resurrect our self-esteem from these hastily dug mass graves.

To advance to the Wimbledon championship, Serena beat (for the 17th straight time) Maria Sharapova — a tall, blonde, traditionally pretty player, who has been the highest paid female athlete for a number of years. Sharapova’s thin, blonde brand of white femininity is literal currency, allowing her earnings to outpace Serena’s despite the fact that Serena is arguably the greatest athlete of all time. As one commenter remarked on Twitter, “Michael Jordan is the Serena Williams of basketball.”

The distortion and devaluing of Black women’s gender identity is a curious feature of what Dr. Moya Bailey has termed “misogynoir,” which refers to the unique hatred of Black women and girls. Female athletes, of all races, are routinely misgendered and harassed in ways that are both misogynist and transphobic. There is nothing wrong with gender-noncomforming, female-bodied people embracing masculinity, but there is something wrong when femininity is viewed as exclusive to white womanhood. There is something wrong when one’s particular “accidents of birth” are more valued, more protected, and more well-compensated. That Maria Sharapovagets more money than Serena is the definition of white privilege. Their shared womanhood does not change that. In fact, the difference in treatment and reception of these two players demonstrates quite clearly the very different ways in which Black and White women in the U.S. experience womanhood.

But the problem is longer and wider than the dimensions of the tennis court. In a series of papers, Emory University business professor Erika V. Hall and her colleagues have found that in everything from business, to dating, to sports, research participants routinely associate gender stereotypes with racial groups. Black people, regardless of gender are perceived to be more masculine. Asian people, regardless of gender, are perceived to be more feminine. Blackness was associated with words like “masculine, vigorous, strong, muscular, and burly,” whereas being Asian was associated with words like “feminine, graceful, gentle, beautiful, and delicate.” These stereotypes affected hiring practices, such that jobs which were perceived as needing feminine qualities, like say a librarian, favored Asian candidates over jobs that seemingly needed masculine qualities, for example a security guard, which favored Black candidates. When it comes to interracial dating, these racial stereotypes show up starkly. The study found that white “men had a romantic preference for Asians over Blacks” and white women “had a romantic preference for Blacks over Asians.”

But as Charles Blow pointed out in his column this week at the New York Times, it is Black women who lose in this game, as perceptions about our beauty and femininity and make us the least attractive dating option in interracial marriages and online sites.

In the midst of this terrible mix of gendered racial stereotypes, racial animus and jealousy, privilege, and misogynoir, Serena Williams rises as the champion. A few weeks ago, I had the supreme pleasure of watching Serena win her 20th major title at the French Open in person. I will be watching next month as she attempts her 22nd title, her first career grand slam (winning all four majors in the same calendar year) and her opportunity to tie the title record of all time great Steffi Graf. Each match that she plays forces America to reckon with the strength, beauty, ferocity, indefatigability, heart, graciousness, confidence, anger, fierceness and power of Black womanhood. For nearly two full decades now, the Williams sisters have been the emcees of an annual celebration of American athletic dominance — a series of moment singularly spectacular for this one reason: I can think of no other moment when so many Americans of all hues come together to celebrate, or merely acknowledge the power, precision, and panache of Black womanhood.

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