Don’t Be Afraid of the Black Girl: Serena Williams

TENNIS-FRA-ROLAND-GARROS-HENIN-WILLIAMSWhat happened during the women’s semifinal at the United States Open between Serena Williams and Kim Clijsters is yet another example of how Black women are still seen as threatening and hostile.

Serena Williams may be one of the world’s greatest tennis players, but don’t get it twisted, she’s still a sista and she’s known for being a very serious and tense tennis player. So if she feels that she is being intentionally targeted with bad calls, she’s not going to just take it lying down. This includes challenging foot faults on match point.

Was Serena intense? Yes. It was an intense moment in the match. After all, this was the U.S. Open’s women’s semifinal. More likely than not, she was under an extreme amount of pressure. Maybe it got to her. It can happen to the best of us. After all, a person can only take so much and it’s not as if the field of tennis rolled out the red carpet for Serena and her sister Venus.

From day one, the Williams’ sisters have had to fight for everything they’ve accomplished in tennis, including the continuing racism that keeps the Williams’ sisters from Palm Springs’ Indian Wells Tournament and allows for commentators to credit the sister’s “strength” and “athleticism” for their victories while their white counterparts win because they “play smart” and “strategize.” It’s also the reason that my hometown paper the Los Angeles Times can feel confident in reporting this latest news while using a photo of Serena Williams from the back seemingly towering over the lineswoman and gives license to every other news outlet to have a field day.

In fact, it wasn’t that long ago that Serena Williams wrote on her blog about an incident at the German Open where she lost to Dinara Safina. She wrote that she could hear the entire players lounge “all happy and joyous” because she finally lost.

It was funny when I lost I was in the locker room and I could hear the entire players lounge really loud like really happy and joyous. Like down goes the champ! Someone beat her!!! It was like a big hoopla….

What ensued Saturday was nothing more than a few angry curse words that turned into Serena having to defend herself against unmade threats towards the lineswoman who was obviously suffering from a typical case of a white-woman-afraid-of-the-Black-girl syndrome. How else do you explain the lineswoman accusations of Serena threatening to kill her? Williams could be heard saying to the lineswoman: “I didn’t say I would kill you. Are you serious?”

Yeah, are you serious?

Most Black women can relate to what happened to Serena. We get mad like everyone else. The only difference is that for some reason when white women get angry, they’re not seen as threatening as we are. Maybe it’s the expression on our face. Maybe it’s the seriousness with which we address issues when we are upset. Maybe it’s the tone of our voice. You know that “don’t fuck with me today” tone that can stop a person dead in their tracks and scares the shit out of most white people.

Like comedian Dick Gregory said about Black people’s hair, when we’re relaxed, white people are relaxed. You could say the same applies in tennis.

Look—I’ve said nothing more than “good morning” to a white person and had that taken the wrong way. Maybe I didn’t smile big enough when I said it, I don’t know. What I do know is that I can recount the many times I have had to explain something I did or said that someone white took out of context or found “troubling.” So I am not surprised that Serena’s outburst on the court towards the lineswoman turned into a death threat.

Serena Williams is a very smart woman. She knew that when she opened her mouth to contest the call and the first curse word rolled off her tongue that there was going to be a price to pay for it and she did, she lost the match to Kim Clijsters. Kim Clijsters. It was obviously important enough to her at the time to have her say and that she did.

What’s more of a concern to me as a Black woman is that white people recognize that we all aren’t foot stomping “aww heck!” kind of girls when we get upset, some of us are “what the f*ck?” kind of girls, but that doesn’t mean that our words should be taken out of context, our actions scrutinized and then generalized to represent how all Black women act. Because come Monday morning, from Rush Limbaugh to Los Angeles’ shock jock Bill Handel, that’s exactly what is going to happen and once again Black women are going find themselves the brunt of crude and tasteless jokes meant to further demean and dehumanize not only Black women but Serena Williams.

Just ask former Congresswoman Cynthia McKinney about her run in with the Capitol Hill police. Or better yet, ask First Lady Michelle Obama who endured months of ridicule and scrutiny at the hands of the mainstream media that eventually resulted in an immediate campaign to “change” her image to a much kinder and gentle Michelle right before the election that catapulted her husband into the presidency. And while many will say that the campaign was a success—Michelle’s image enhancement campaign, I must say that I never did quite understand what was wrong with the old Michelle.

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There’s nothing wrong with Serena Williams. Perhaps when more Black women tennis players ascend to the level of the Williams’ sisters and the Women’s Tennis Association has the opportunity to interact with more Black women outside of Serena and Venus, they won’t be so afraid of the Black girls. Perhaps.

Jasmyne Cannick

Reprinted with permission from JasmyneCannick.com

Published by the LA Progressive on September 14, 2009
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About Jasmyne Cannick

Jasmyne is a critic and commentator based in Los Angeles who writes about the intersection of pop culture, race, class, and politics as played out in the African-American community. An award-winning journalist who previously worked in the U.S. House of Representatives as a press secretary, Jasmyne was selected as one of ESSENCE Magazine’s 25 Women Shaping the World and is a regular contributor to National Public Radio’s “News and Notes.” She is currently working as a political consultant in California on local and state campaigns.