When we talk about Serena Williams, we must talk about racism

Serena Williams at the US Open (Photo: Getty Images)

We cannot debate the Serena Williams US Open final without acknowledging how race – and gender – compounds the discrimination she faces, says June Eric-Udorie

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By June Eric-Udorie on

By now, you’ve probably seen it. By it, I mean the viral cartoon of Serena Williams drawn by Mark Knight of the Australian Herald Sun. In the cartoon, Williams is depicted as an angry, large brute, a mammy, if you like, jumping over a broken tennis racket next to a baby’s dummy. In contrast, Naomi Osaka, who was Williams’ opponent in this year’s Women’s Final at the US Open, is depicted as a blonde-haired white woman, though she is of Haitian-Japanese descent. The cartoon has been criticised for employing racist stereotypes, but the Herald Sun’s editor supported Knight online, tweeting that the cartoon “mocks poor behavior by a tennis legend.” Regardless, the cartoonist’s message is clear – black women do not get to be innocent.

On Saturday, at the Women’s Final of the US Open, umpire Carlos Ramos issued Williams a warning for having received coaching via a hand signal from her coach, Patrick Mouratoglou. In doing so, Ramos implied that Williams, a player with so much passion, grace and integrity for the sport, was cheating. Williams was mad, and rightfully so. She expressed her rage, saying, “I don’t cheat to win: I’d rather lose.” She repeated, over and over: “You owe me an apology. You owe me an apology.”

Later, at the press conference, Williams talked about how this was an incident of sexism, sharing: “I’ve seen other men call other umpires several things, and I’m here fighting for women’s rights and for women’s equality … For me to say ‘thief’ and for him to take a game? … It was a sexist remark. He’s never took a game from a man because they said thief. For me, it blows my mind. But I’m going to continue to fight for women.” In what was a significant event for Williams, who was returning to the US Open after having her baby daughter a year ago, Ramos’ misogynoir – the ways in which racism and anti-black alter the experience of misogyny for black women – ruined the show.

Most of the reportage on this incident has focused on the fact that Williams experienced sexism. Tennis legend and founder of the Women’s Tennis Association, Billie Jean King, tweeted: "When a woman is emotional, she's ‘hysterical’ and she's penalised for it. When a man does the same, he's ‘outspoken’ & and there are no repercussions. Thank you, Serena Williams, for calling out this double standard. More voices are needed to do the same." Statements from the Women’s Tennis Association and United States Tennis Association also backed Williams’ claims of sexism. But there’s also racism at play here. And the Australian Herald Sun’s cartoon depiction reminds us that Williams is a black woman, and black women are not allowed to rage.

The Australian Herald Sun’s cartoon depiction reminds us that Williams is a black woman, and black women are not allowed to rage

I cried watching Williams at the US Open this weekend, as she tried to assert her rights and what she deserves in a world that does not value black women. I’m crying writing this right now. To talk about Williams without acknowledging how race and gender compound the discrimination she faces would be a disservice. Williams, like most black women, is not expected to stand up for herself. Black women do not demand apologies. Black women are to act as the backbones of our communities. To centre ourselves is unheard of. To do as Serena Williams did – to demand fairness and justice – is thought to be unspeakable. And so for Williams to express rage, and to do that brazenly and with confidence, goes against America’s expectation of the roles that black women should play.

What America would have liked to have seen on Saturday was deference, for Williams to shut up, to be grateful that she is even allowed to play this sport, and to deal with the racism and microaggressions in private. The racist cartoons that have emerged since the incident demonstrate the ways in which black women’s bodies and behaviors are misrepresented.

And yet there is something still so remarkable here. Even though Williams was probably aware that she would be punished and villainised for being strong, emotional, angry, demanding – in short, human – she did it anyway. Not only was it a risk for her, it was a risk for us, too, as we now see that there are ways for us to be fully human – to express all forms of emotions – and to feel free in doing so.

In 2015, Claudia Rankine, poet and essayist, wrote a piece about Serena Williams in The New York Times. She wrote: “There is nothing wrong with Serena, but surely there is something wrong with the expectation that she be ‘good’ while she is achieving greatness. Why should Serena not respond to racism? In whose world should it be answered with good manners? The notable difference between black excellence and white excellence is white excellence is achieved without having to battle racism. Imagine.”

And that’s what’s so terrifying here: to imagine what it would be like for Williams without racist and sexist systems.


Serena Williams at the US Open (Photo: Getty Images)
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women in sport

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