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

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

Many 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.


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


  1. JBH ENT says

    I’m not a real fan of tennis but i have watched sports most of my adult life and i’ve see many bad calls on both sides of the table.

    It’s usually the person watching the game that makes it racist!

    Real sports fans don’t make it racist !

    Replay has been a blessing and a cursing depending whether the call was for or against your team , etc.
    As a fan there are things that i feel doesn’t need to change and it has nothing to do with nationality…

    Now i watch horse racing sometimes !
    But i have never seen a horse with a dress,pants or tattoos all over it’s body.
    Some of us get the greatest opportunities of a lifetime and right away we want to change things.
    Why do we always have to make fashion statements ?
    I don’t watch the game to see your clothes or your dumb hair cut or tattoos i watch to see your greatness on the field /court…

    The williams sister’s are two of the best athletes in the world.
    They proved that right away ! All professional athletes need to control themselves if not for them ! Do it for the people that simply love to watch you play the game…

  2. Kitty Muzz says

    She didn’t really mean it. She was just angry, and anger is duresse, isn’t it? She shouldn’t be held accountable for her threats is she?

  3. Marine says

    Oh, so sad to see yet another anti-white prejudice-fuelled article. Justifying the unjustifiable. Angry black woman stereotype is alive and well exactly thanks to articles like this. And yes, I’m black.

  4. Tim says

    The first sentence of your article is so off base, I’m not sure why I continued to read it. Obviously, your editor did not read it prior to publishing. How you can say that Serena Williams was just being a “very serious and tense player” when I and the rest of the world saw a very threatening and hostile individual? It had nothing to do with her race or gender; but rather an immature person who doesn’t know the meaning of sportsmanship. You shamelessly defend her actions by making one excuse for her after another.

    By making Serena’s meltdown the focal point of your article, you are actually doing a disservice to the issue of black women being viewed as angry and hostile. Write an honest and legitimate piece about this issue if you are so passionate about it. But Serena Williams was extremely threatening and hostile at that moment in the match. In fact, it is criminal to make those violent statements to another person. She is obviously young and immature and handled it poorly. She did not even apologize at the post match news conference. I believe it took her a week to do that. If you were so upset about the Serena incident, then the premise of your article should have been about how an immature and spoiled athlete embarrasses herself, her family, and women’s tennis. As a journalist, you need to have integrity. This article was not honest.

  5. says

    Thanks for the response. I understand the points you raise and think they are valid. And thank you for reading the LA Progressive. We always hoped that people would engage in this kind of dialogue.

    Back to the issue. Just this afternoon I happened to be watching television and saw a commercial for National Car Rental (I think it was National) anyway, the ad agency capitalized on John McEnroe’s famous reputation for losing his temper. McEnroe is in the commercial. In the ad, a car rental rep tells McEnroe about the good deals National is offering and McEnroe flies off the handle — and yells at the rep. I guess the ad agency felt that McEnroe’s inability to treat people with civility when he is angry is not only accepted by America but is actually endearing.

    It was just coincidental that I saw this ad today. Thought I’d mention it. Doubt if we’ll be seeing Serena’s outburst used to market anything. My guess is the angry black woman just doesn’t go over in America as well as the angry white man.

    But, again, I must emphasize that I believe Serena’s actions were wrong.

  6. Shad0w says

    Hello admin, thanks for responding back. 😀

    Anyways, I want to touch on a couple things. I agree with you, I have seen all the videos, from every angle, from every site, from every camera that happened to be there (home video cameras in the crowd, camera phones, etc..) and not in one of them does she actually tell the lady “I will kill you”, so I agree there, I don’t know where that came from, but she never actually said that.

    The reason I think it arose though is because of what Serena actually did/said.
    She may have never “said” she would kill the girl, but she did say she would shove the ball down her f***ing throat. That is infact a threat, regardless how bad it may seem, or how often people “joke” about stuff like that without actually doing it (such as the phrase “put my foot up your ass”), if you did manage to somehow shove a tennis ball down someones throat though, then yes, it would clog up their esophagus and they would choke to death, thus die. I believe thats where the “I’ll kill you” came from.
    However I agree that they still shouldn’t feed words into Serena’s mouth as she never did actually say she would kill her.

    About McEnroe however, I agree that the media never exploded whenever he had one of his outbursts and they never started feeding words into his mouth either, however, as far as I know (and I might be wrong), he never actually threatened anyones life though, whether with tennis balls, rackets, his fists, etc..
    Instead, he just frequently cussed and once smashed his racket as well, which caused him to be docked a point, but otherwise, he is simply known for saying stuff like “You can NOT be serious!”, not something like “I’ll stick this racket up your ass”.

    However, at the same time, nobody, white or black, ever condoned John’s actions though, which is the opposite of what Ms. Cannick is doing. Instead of holding Serena accountable for what she DID infact do/say, she instead comes up with excuses for Serena that people just have “white girl scared of black girl syndrome”, or that black girls aren’t just “aww heck” woman, and that Serena just takes the game “seriously”, or that she was just stressed out, or blah blah.
    She even goes so far as to say the lineswoman just “made up” these threats, as if Serena never did/said anything, after all, quote “How else do you explain the lineswoman accusations of Serena threatening to kill her?”.
    Thats what peeves me off about articles like this.
    Especially because the author continues throughout the article, to talk about the Williams’ sisters having to “deal with racism” all the time… is she serious?
    She even equates it with the fact that Serena could hear everyone cheering when she lost at the German Open. As if they were happy “the black girl” finally lost, woohoo!
    Please, they were simply glad that Serena herself, not her color, lost. In the words of Green Goblin (you know, from Spiderman :P) “The one thing people love more than a hero is to see a hero fail”. Serena is the “hero” here, people love, in sports, to see the “hero” win and win and win, over and over, but there comes a time when they finally like to see them lose, and thats all that happened that one day, nothing to do with racism as Ms. Cannick implies. :/

    Im glad you and others here find Serena’s behavior wrong (plus Serena herself admits she was wrong and has apologized on shows like three different days now), I just wish people like Ms. Cannick didn’t come out and try to defend Serena as if she did no wrong, and that everyone on the court just made all this stuff up to hurt Serena, and that the Williams sisters deal with “continuous racism” from whites, all the time, even though the majority of the Williams sisters fans are white to begin with. Or even when people try to imply the opposite, which is that Serena/Venus themselves are racist (aka BS), even though Venus (cant speak for Serena here) has been dating a white man for about 4 and a half years now…

  7. says

    Thank you for the comment. What is clear to me is that my point was not made clearly. Serena’s behavior was wrong. She was obviously peeved and has not denied that she used bad language and poor judgment. The point I continue to make that no one addresses is that she did NOT say, “I will kill you”. This, for me is at the core of the argument. Another commenter, DanP, made the point that McEnroe use to “lose it” all the time but no one accused him of threatening their life. But if you listen carefully to the Youtube, Serena is accused of saying, “I Will Kill You”. However, her immediate reaction, which is very believable, leads one to question what she actually said. Her remarks let you know she thought the accusation was incredulous!! How could the line judge think those words came from Serena’s mouth. One explanation is that she (the line judge) was experiencing extreme fear. Some might say irrational fear —

  8. Shad0w says

    In the nicest way admin, I have to disagree with you and some of the responses on here.

    You should re-read the article yet again and you’ll see what some people are talking about when they refer to the fact that Serena was infact “hostile and threatening”.

    No it does not have anything to do with everyone “seeing” black women as hostile/threatening or stereotyping them just to “victimize them” or “hold them down”, it has to do with them BEING hostile, or atleast in some cases, such as this case.

    First of all, off the bat I think we can say that the author of the article is obviously not informed in what actually happened out on the courts the other day. In her article the author states “the lineswoman who was obviously suffering from a typical case of a white-woman-afraid-of-the-Black-girl syndrome”.
    Well firstly, no there is not a “white woman afraid of the black girl” syndrome, simply put, people do not fear blacks, so don’t even go on about that anymore.
    Secondly, if you watch the videos and look at the photos, you’ll see the lineswoman wasn’t even the so called “white woman” in the first place, she was a short, small asian woman.

    Thirdly the author goes on to state that there were “unmade threats” the lineswoman made up on the spot just out of racism or whatever BS she thinks.
    But you see, heres the thing… Serena wasn’t just “seen” as hostile… she WAS hostile! Thats what the author keeps missing!

    Serena walked the court yelling at the top of her lungs, waving the tennis racket in the linewomans face as if it is a club, spouting off profanity and threats, such as “I would shove this fu**ing ball down your fu**ing throat…!” (something that would, you know, kill someone, as they would choke and couldn’t breathe…) and then even proceeds to walk down the court and smash the s**t out of her racket on the court, and yet after all this, she tries to play poor defenseless black girl “Oh what, I didn’t say nothing!” yet it is all on tape, every bit of it, no matter how much the author tries to stick up for “her race”.

    I don’t know why you and the author are trying to defend Serenas actions, she isn’t being stereotyped as “just another” one of those “hostile threatening black girls”, she IS a hostile threatening black girl….

    Anyone that would say otherwise, especially because of her color, is insane and racist as well.

  9. CJLee says

    Thanks for this reply. I just find this article to be overly generalizing. In fact, from what I understand, it is unclear what the line judge said, if the word “kill” was used by either side. But beyond that, let me be frank: Serena Williams has done a lot to challenge stereotypes, she has experienced enormous success, and she is a role model to many girls (and boys) across the racial spectrum. I am a fan. But dropping f-bombs is not admirable or appropriate behavior. It is threatening. It _is_ unsportsmanlike. It is not what a role model should do, and I regret she did that. I don’t feel sorry that she was penalized, though, and lost the match. Playing and behaving that way sets a bad precedent for sports. McEnroe was equally distasteful.

  10. Ben says

    The issue isn’t whether it was or wasn’t a credible threat. Nobody thought Serena would actually shove the ball down the line judge’s throat, even if that’s what she swore she’d do.

    The issue is that Serena behaved inappropriately. Just because Serena is an “intense sista” doesn’t mean she isn’t bound by tennis’s rules of conduct. McEnroe, too, had his share of outbursts and paid his share of fines and point/game/match penalties.

  11. Lionhearted says

    Serena and her sister Venus are admirable role models, especially for young girls of color who can now feel that much more emboldened to take the world by storm, just as the two Williams sisters have taken the tennis world by storm.

    On the drive home, I heard a fuller apology that Serena made after a day’s reflection. I’m glad she did it. It’s just a game, a foot fault (or not), a hot moment in a very competitive sport. She needs to rise above this incident.

    For the larger issue of how blacks sometimes intimidate whites just by who they are, I think we all know that’s true, if we examine the world around us. What a burden that must be.

  12. CJLee says

    With all due respect, this article is simplistic and just plain wrong. Not only has Serena (and her sister Venus) won plenty of Grand Slam titles, but she intentionally broke her racket out of anger earlier in the match, and the line judge she yelled at was another woman of color (Asian-American). Does this amount to racism? No; she was outplayed by Clijsters and made a bad decision.

    From Wikipedia: Serena Williams “has been ranked World No. 1 by the Women’s Tennis Association (WTA) on four separate occasions; as of July 27, 2009, she is ranked World No. 2. She is the reigning Australian Open and Wimbledon singles champion and has won 23 Grand Slam titles: 11 in singles, ten in women’s doubles and two in mixed doubles. In addition, she has won two Olympic gold medals in women’s doubles. She also has won more Grand Slam titles than any other active female player and has won more career prize money than any other female athlete in history.”

    This person is a victim?

    • says

      @CJLee, after reading your comment, I reread the article. The opening paragraph sets the tone for the premise of the piece. It reads, “What happened Saturday during the women’s semifinal at the United States Open between Serena Williams and Kim Clijsters is just another example of how Black women are still seen as threatening and hostile.”

      The writer is focusing on Black women being seen as threatening and hostile. Serena’s ranking in the world of sports has nothing to do with the premise of this piece. The point is that the line judge overracted when she accused Serena of threatening to “kill” her. This goes beyond losing a point or a match. There are people who are doing time for being convicted of this kind of offense.

      This is not about losing a match or being a victim. DanP got it right when he compared McEnroe’s behavior to Serena’s. This has nothing to do with tennis and everything to do with irrational fears.

  13. Dan P says

    I grew up watching and idolizing John McEnroe and his on-court antics, and they were treated very differently by commentators than this incident. McEnroe for all of his tantrums was never seen as dangerous, no matter how wild he got, but Serena was accused of threatening violence immediately. I think this is an obvious incident of racial bias determining both the call, the judge’s response to being questioned, and the media’s handling of the situation.

    Beyond the racism, I think it is worth remembering that tennis is still a very sexist sport, where women until recently were required to wear skirts, where they are expected to act demure at all times and curtsy to the queen, where they are considered too fragile to play 5-set matches like the men, and where until recently they were paid less than the men.

    And then Clijsters went on to win the Open.

    • says

      @Dan P, I remember McEnroe’s behavior. Most agree that Serena’s outburst was a departure from her normal mode of conduct. But McEnroe regularly blasted the officials. And yes, I don’t remember anyone accusing him of threatening violence even though his outbursts of rage and spewing spital were much worse than what we see in the video of Serena’s loss of control. This rush to judge Serena as potentially violent, given that her outburst is uncharacteristic and she’s been on the circuit for ten years leads me to believe that the accuser had a preconceived notion of what she believed Serena was capable of doing – a notion that could not have been grounded in who Serena is but in who Serena is perceived to be.

  14. Sarah says

    I wasn’t watching the match, not interested in sports. My husband was watching. He likes Serena, later mentioned she lost her temper over a call. He said the ref was an Asian female. ? I have no idea if this is accurate. He believed the discipline seemed appropriate–and nothing racist.

  15. Niels says

    Spot on. Had to move my white arse to the continent to realise how anxious I used to be passing a group of black people on the street. And how silly. We get western media here, to fill off-hours on our local channels, and the bias, looking from this side, is startling at times.

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