Rupen Kalsi explores racist attitudes towards ‘the most maligned player’ of our generation
Serena Williams recently became Wimbledon’s Women’s Singles Champion for the sixth time, leaving her holding all four grand slam titles simultaneously. She remains one Open victory away from being the most decorated female tennis player of all time, alongside Steffi Graff, with 21 Major Championship titles to her name. However, one title she’s undoubtedly won is the most maligned player of her generation.
In 2001, Serena was booed and heckled on court when about to play in the final of the Indian Wells tournament. Why? Because her sister, Venus Williams, pulled out of a semi final match against Serena due to injury.
This simple act meant that rumours of match fixing and unfair play about the sisters began to swirl, leading to 19 year old Serena experiencing heckling on court so bad that for her father it brought back “cold memories of his experiences growing up in the South”. It’s an experience she now counts as one of the worst moments of her career.
A remark reportedly shouted at Serena Williams during
the Indian Wells tournament in 2001
Cut forward to 2015 and Serena decides to play at Indian Wells again. Now it was she who had to pull out of the tournament because of injury, but these similar circumstances didn’t turn out like 2001 – this time she was met with cheers and adulation.
To call this progress would be sheer self-deception, like a disorganized parish committee congratulating themselves for not poisoning anyone at their annual cake sale. What we are applauding is not the presence of something good happening at Indian Wells, but the absence of something bad.
The shouts of the people in the stands may have been muffled, but online the torch-bearing mob still have an audience for their bigotry – as long as they can fit it in into 140 characters.
JK Rowling’s response to a troll’s comments about Williams
In pseudo-justification of her success Serena is described as machine-like and hyper-masculine, an attack on not only her femininity and her humanity, but on the black physique.
The way her body is spoken about reveals pure symbolic racism, attributing her rip-roaring success to inherited strength and athleticism, rather than to her own strength of character and determination to perfect her game.
Her physique is simultaneously fetishized and derided. Where it’s deemed acceptable for Jason Whitlock to compare her backside to “an oozing pumpkin” yet to admit – in the same article – that he does find her “every bit as sexy as Beyoncé” – only when she’s not covered in “blubber.”
If that weren’t enough, bias about Serena’s body and beauty translates into a huge gap in earnings between her and the world no 2, Maria Sharapova, who earned $22 million in endorsements to Williams’ $11 million in 2014.
This is all despite the fact that Williams has accrued four times as many grand slam titles as Sharapova – showing that the harsher treatment of Serena isn’t about her game as much as it’s about her being, unashamedly,what she is.
This is hardly surprising, black and ethnic beauty jars with the western beauty myth – within which being white is a necessary condition. It follows that such “non-conventional” looks are criticized – as has been with the case with Serena and her eyebrows.
Ethnic women are similarly underrepresented in the media, with Serena’s US Vogue cover being the first of any solo black female athlete and magazines such as Harpers Bazaar and Vogue UK having no ethnic women on their covers at all during 2014.
The poor treatment of this exceptional sportswoman should be a great source of anger to us all. Serena is, and always will be, an outlier in the tennis world and her existence as a proud success symbol for ethnic women puts bubbles in the blood of her many critics.
In a world where to have the best chance at success you have to be a white man Serena’s story is nothing less than inspirational. But the moral of this story is that even if you are as exceptional as Williams you still can’t count on being treated fairly – and that’s what should make us angriest of all.
Image: Jimmy Baikovicius