The Problem with the Conversation Surrounding Serena Williams

Merlisa Lawrence Corbett@@merlisaFeatured ColumnistSeptember 3, 2015

Serena Williams during a press conference at the U.S. Open.
Serena Williams during a press conference at the U.S. Open.Kathy Willens/Associated Press

When conversations on racism in sports arise, rebuttals often point to the popularity of beloved black male stars such as Michael Jordan, LeBron James or Russell Wilson. Bias against black men in sports—and any social progress in that area—has been well documented.

Less familiar is the unique brand of discrimination African-American women are subjected to: anti-black misogyny.

This is the killer combo of racism and sexism that has entered the national conversation as Serena Williams attempts to win a record seventh U.S. Open, 22nd Grand Slam title and her first calendar-year Slam.

Delia Douglas, Ph.D., an instructor at the Institute for Gender, Race, Sexuality and Social Justice at the University of British Columbia's Vancouver campus, calls it "anti-black racism in a gender-specific form."

"You're seeing very specific gender/racist stereotypes in terms of the ascription of masculinity to Serena," Douglas told Bleacher Report.

The roots of this very specific form of bigotry, Douglas said, are found in enslavement and colonialism. "Because black women's bodies have always been...[viewed as property], deemed expendable, disposable, because on the one hand sport is still claimed as a male space...you're navigating sexism and racism.

"But to claim that all female athletes simply have to navigate sexism and heterosexism does not get at the specificity of the history of black women and black women's bodies, which are particular targets."

This is the context for the Twitterverse's explosion earlier this week when Darren Rovell, a business reporter for ESPN, dismissed as "idiotic" any "racism talk" regarding Maria Sharapova's marketing advantages over Williams.

Darren Rovell @darrenrovell

Racism talk is idiotic when it comes to Serena. It's the same marketplace that pays big $ to tons of black athletes.

It was another useless dismissal of what Williams has faced in her career.

Williams enjoys a special status among many black women. She is our Jackie Robinson, a member of our disenfranchised group excelling in an almost all-white sport.

Just as scores of African-Americans flocked to televisions and drove hours to MLB games to cheer on Robinson, many black women follow Williams' matches as if our careers were on the line.

Just as in the 1970s, when some black people telephoned neighbors to alert them that another black person was about to win the showcase on The Price Is Right, African-American women stay glued to Serena Williams because she's doing something we rarely see.

She's a black woman winning in a white world, despite all the obstacles standing in her way.

Serena Williams poses with trophies from Wimbledon (2015) and the U.S. Open (2014).
Serena Williams poses with trophies from Wimbledon (2015) and the U.S. Open (2014).Uncredited/Associated Press/Associated Press

There have been other black female athletes who rose to national and even international fame, but we didn't get to embrace them and their accomplishments as a collective the way we do Williams and hers.

Althea Gibson broke the color barrier in tennis in the 1950s, before Grand Slams became annual television events. Jackie Joyner-Kersee is one of the greatest female athletes of all time, but the Olympics are more fleeting.Venus Williams arrived on the scene before Serena, but the younger sister has soared so much higher. The fact that Serena Williams has been able to distinguish herself above an older sibling with seven Grand Slam titles points to just how magnificent her career is.

Williams travels the globe, winning all over the world, giving us a constant chance to connect. She breaks barriers and records in the information age, when we can text, tweet and post Instagram photos about it.

As she continues her quest to win a calendar Grand Slam and to tie Steffi Graf's Open-era record of 22 Slams, Williams represents success in the face of the struggle many black women face in a society that too often relegates them to second-class citizenship.

So when Williams is marginalized, yes, sometimes we take it personally. Especially if we suspect someone is being dismissive.

Last year, Shamil Tarpischev, president of the Russian Tennis Federation, set off a firestorm after he called Venus and Serena Williams the "Williams brothers" on a Russian television show. The WTA fined Tarpischev and suspended him for a year.

On the eve of the women's finals at Wimbledon, Ben Rothenberg, a freelancer who covers tennis for the New York Times, wrote a story about WTA players and body image that painted Williams as too muscular. The pushback was strong, and the Times' public editor, Margaret Sullivan, wrote a column to address how Rothenberg missed the mark in his reporting.

During the women's final at Wimbledon, David Frum, a political pundit and editor of the Atlantic, publicly accused Williams of using steroids on Twitter. When CNN's Wolf Blizter gave Frum a chance to back down from his comments, he refused. Instead, he doubled down.

About the same time Frum made his accusations, Max Eisenbud, the agent for Maria Sharapova, tweeted, "125 mh #isthisnormal?"

Who knows why Rovell or Frum felt the need to pass judgment on Williams' market value or physique? Only Eisenbud can speak to the intent behind that hashtag.

Serena Williams with the French Open and Australian Open trophies.
Serena Williams with the French Open and Australian Open trophies.Uncredited/Associated Press

But what is clear to many black women is that when it comes to Williams, regardless of intent, some white guys just don't get it.

Oblivious to the black woman's unique experience in this country—enduring racism and sexism—too many white men discuss Williams in the context of their reality. Rovell, who suggested racism couldn't be a factor with Williams simply because LeBron James is getting paid, seems to assume black male and black female athletes share a singular experience.

That's simply not the case.

As Sports Illustrated tennis editor Elizabeth Newman tweeted back to Rovell:

Elizabeth Newman @ENewman74

@darrenrovell There is no standard of beauty for males. For females the standard is often white and blonde, regardless of achievement.

When Rothenberg made Williams' body the primary focus in his Times piece, the negativity seemed rather "sistah-specific." The story quoted Tomasz Wiktorowski, coach of Agnieszka Radwanska, saying of his player, in comparison to Williams, "It's our decision to keep her as the smallest player in the top 10. Because, first of all she's a woman, and she wants to be a woman."

Rothenberg also introduced Sharapova in his story as a "slender, blond Russian who has been the highest-paid female athlete for more than a decade because of her lucrative endorsements."

So the antithesis of Serena is blond, slender and not manly?

Douglas believes everything from the Times article, which she called "body shaming," to accusations of steroid use is rooted in the unique form of sexism and racism that black women face.

"It's very much a specific kind of anti-black misogyny," said Douglas. "Because whether you take the charge of steroids and/or ascription of masculinity, that she's male in disguise…that type of denigration of black women makes them a threat or threatening.

"And black women who dare to assert themselves in an anti-black and anti-female world risk being ostracized."

Peruse any comments section below an article written about Williams, and you'll see posts from anonymous trolls illustrating Douglas' point. They compare Williams to a gorilla or suggest she is a man in drag.

Granted, it's easy to dismiss racist and sexist rants from nameless, faceless and shameless people—tantamount to grade-school kids scribbling obscenities on restroom walls. But when someone like Rovell, Frum or Tarpischev weighs in, it gives a bigger voice, more weight, to troll-like discussions about Williams. And when they respond to criticism of their remarks with dismissive rhetoric, it fuels the frustration many black women feel about how some white men talk about Williams.

Crazy-making is what it is. To see, feel and know in your gut something is happening to you and yet be told it's in your imagination. That these insults—these putdowns—have nothing to do with you being a black woman.

Sep 2, 2015; New York, NY, USA; Serena Williams of the United States waves to the crowd after her match against Kiki Bertens of the Netherlands (not pictured) on day three of the 2015 U.S. Open tennis tournament at USTA Billie Jean King National Tennis Ce
Geoff Burke-USA TODAY Sports

"The sad truth is that many people actually believe sports are not for women and girls, and tennis is not for African-Americans," said Traci Green, head coach of Harvard's women's tennis team and a former top-ranked NCAA player who also serves on the board of the Black Women in Sport Foundation.

Like it or not, Williams is the face of tennis. In fact, her face is everywhere these days. She's on the cover of magazines, does commercials and is even painted on murals in Brooklyn.

Of course, Williams is not without her faults. But her one mid-career meltdown has not been the topic on social media in the weeks leading up to her historic run at the U.S. Open. Instead, we're discussing sexist and racist accusations and innuendo. People are just making stuff up.

"When it comes to social media and scrutinizing athletes, some folks are likely tweeting the same comments (good or bad) they would have said in private 10 years ago," said Green.

"Racism then is not the same as racism now," said Douglas. "Racism is not one thing. It's dynamic. It's malleable. That's why it's difficult to address and why the very meaning of racism is always contested."

So even a discussion about endorsements can be used to serve as the measurement of Williams' value relative to Sharapova. In his "highest-paid female" article, Forbes journalist Kurt Badenhausen wrote, "But for all of her brilliance on the court, Williams still looks up at rival Maria Sharapova when measuring their bank accounts."

Williams "looks up at" Sharapova?

That's absurd.

Williams has earned more than $73 million in prize money, more than any woman in the history of sports and double what Sharapova has made. Williams has 69 career titles and 732 singles wins, compared to Sharapova's 35 titles and 592 wins.

"Venus and Serena have not been given their due as Americans," Douglas said. "But here we have a situation where Sharapova, a Russian, is being inserted into that de facto position of an American, as the ideal of the patriot, even though she's Siberian.

"This is how white racial patriarchal power is organized and how it functions."

Douglas believes even Althea Gibson is subjected to this particular brand of anti-black misogyny. Despite winning five Grand Slams and breaking the color barrier in tennis, Gibson is not celebrated nearly as much as Arthur Ashe.

"Why is it that in New York, at the U.S. Open, you have Louis Armstrong and Arthur Ashe Stadiums? Where's Althea?" Douglas said. "I don't understand why it has to be a musician. She was the one who broke the color barrier for tennis. ... She did. Again you get to see how both sexism and racism interconnect here."

Deborah Slaner Larkin, CEO of the Women's Sports Foundation and former executive director of the United States Tennis Association Foundation, fears that minority girls, whom she says are underrepresented in sports, may question, "Is it OK for me to be strong? Is it OK for me to have muscles?

"Serena can handle this. She can take care of herself," Slaner Larkin says. "But what about the young girls who are getting these negative messages?"

You have to wonder if these types of comments might seep into the consciousness of little black girls.

When pushing back against grotesque characterizations of Williams, many black women are not seeking agreement or acceptance from these white men. No one is asking that they appreciate or celebrate Williams' achievements.

Instead, what many want is for these men to acknowledge that simply because something doesn't look or feel like racism or sexism to them, that doesn't mean it isn't. Offenders don't get to be arbiters of what's offensive.

Meanwhile, we'll keep marveling at Williams' athleticism, longevity, creativity, beauty, intelligence and perseverance in the face of this scrutiny. It doesn't matter if everyone gets it. She's got it.

Unless otherwise noted, all quotes were obtained firsthand.