Tennis pro and veritable goddess Serena Williams and I are completely different. I’m nowhere near as athletic, rich or legendary as she is (at least not yet, anyway). She’s arguably the best athlete alive, I still feel like I’m trying to find my way in my own career. So, in some ways, we are worlds apart—and yet, Williams and I also share a struggle that surpasses those variables. As a Black woman who faces racism, sexism and other ugly biases on a near-daily basis, I can relate to her struggles to be recognized for her talent rather than dismissed or reviled because of the colour of her skin. And unfortunately, this past weekend’s US Open final only made our connection more clear.
On Saturday, Williams stepped onto the court in the hopes of earning her 24th Grand Slam (which would tie her with Margaret Court for the all-time record). The tennis icon was met by a formidable opponent, Naomi Osaka—a powerful young star whom media has dubbed the “future of tennis.” The match already had high stakes, and Osaka played a skilled game against her idol. But the tone changed when chair umpire Carlos Ramos issued a violation against Williams, claiming that her coach was giving her hand signals through the game. After disputing the call, Williams smashed her racquet on the ground and received another violation and point penalty. Williams didn’t hide her frustration, calling Ramos a “thief,” which prompted him to levy yet another violation and full game penalty. (She was later fined $17,000.) Osaka ended up winning her first-ever Grand Slam title in two sets, but the night was tainted for all involved—Williams was clearly upset by the outcome, while Osaka’s win was marked with tears and boos from the crowd, until Williams urged them to celebrate her accomplishment.
Williams is not the first athlete to get mad on the court—but she’s a powerful, dark-skinned Black woman, which influences the responses to her anger and frustration, especially when compared to the way her peers’ emotions are perceived. For some (read: white men), these emotions are construed as “passion” and “grit,” but in others, they’re derided as “outbursts” and “tantrums.” Those in the know have said that it would have been routine for Ramos to offer a verbal warning before issuing violations and penalties. Furthermore, there seems to be a clear double standard with how Williams’ anger was treated—just compare Williams’ actions to Andy Murray kicking a tennis ball at a umpire’s head in 2016, Andy Roddick berating a lineswoman for a call in 2010 or any number of other male “meltdowns,” which so often go without consequence.
That’s something I see in my own life, too. In fact, I’m hyper-aware of the “Angry Black Woman” trope, which positions any displeasure as aggressiveness—and, like many Black women, I often find myself swallowing my rage so that I don’t perpetuate the stereotype. During a recent national TV appearance, I was tempted to challenge one of my co-panelists on a point that I disagreed with. In a split second, I processed what might happen if I said what I wanted to say the way I wanted to say it. Would I come across as “passionate” or “angry”? How much hate mail would I open myself up to? I kept my mouth shut and the moment passed—but I vowed that I would never let that happen again.
For the record, this misperception happens even when we aren’t angry—we might be annoyed, distracted or simply direct, but if our communication doesn’t centre the feelings of the person we’re speaking with, we’re perceived as fire-breathing dragons. I’ve challenged myself to stop using “softeners” in my communication—statements like “I just wanted to ask…” or smiley faces or a quick “lol,” all of which function to put the recipient at ease. I’ve done that far too many times, and in every case, they overshadow my attempt to be direct, leaving me completely frustrated.
It’s hard not to feel frustrated when I know my anger is justified, but I’m constantly being made to feel as if I’m overreacting. I imagine that’s something Serena knows about, too—despite what some offensive stories and headlines suggest, she had a right to her anger in that moment at the US Open. After it was discovered that she’s been drug tested more than the top American men’s and women’s players this year and after the French Tennis Federation President issued a ban on her custom Nike catsuit, this must have felt like yet another example of the tennis world attempting to single her out, question her skill or otherwise humble her.
Serena Williams goes off on chair umpire..
I don’t cheat…
You own me an apology…
I have never cheated in my life..
I have a daughter and I stand for what’s right for her… pic.twitter.com/xLvbMlPOjv
— Zach Klein (@ZachKleinWSB) September 8, 2018
When I woke up on Sunday, the video of Williams and Ramos’ confrontation was still on my mind. I couldn’t stop thinking about all the times when I was accused of cheating, or when my anger was blown out of proportion, or when I should’ve demanded an apology, but swallowed my rage to make others more comfortable instead. This wasn’t just about tennis, it was also about the obstacles Black woman face every day.
At one point during her confrontation with Ramos, Williams passionately declares, “I don’t cheat!” and I was immediately reminded of all of the times my successes were attributed to something other than my own talent or hard work. It started in childhood, when teachers would insidiously ask me over and over how I knew the definition of a word or how I figured out a math problem, obviously hoping to catch me in a lie. Then there were more blatant times, like when a teacher pulled me aside after handing back an essay, and accused me of plagiarizing because “there was no way” I could have put together sentences as masterfully as I did. And it didn’t stop when I went to high school, or university, or even when I started working. Like many Black parents, my own instilled in me the idea that I needed to work twice as hard to be seen even half as good as my white counterparts—but I quickly learned that when you get a little too good at your craft, suspicion soon follows, something Williams is familiar with, too.
That’s why it was so powerful to hear Williams say, “You owe me an apology” to Ramos. I was stunned by how definitive she was, but I also felt uncomfortable—she forced me to think about the instances where I let myself down by not demanding one, too. It was liberating to see Williams demand what she felt she was owed by Ramos in that moment, and it has been liberating to see the how much support she’s received since, a marked change from all the other times in her storied career where that backing was hard to find.
What Williams—and so many of us average, non-famous, non-wealthy Black women—deserve is simple: respect. That respect looks like us being heard, our hard work being recognized, our anger being seen as valid and support that goes beyond #ListenToBlackWomen tweets. While I will likely never find myself in front of the world, playing at the highest level of a sport like her, everything that has happened to Williams during and in the wake of her match has happened to me and so many other women I know. The circumstances may differ, but the feelings are the same—and for that, I will always stand in solidarity with Serena. Because what might look like just a game to some, is actually a battle still being fought.