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Race, Class, and Serena’s “Outburst”

September 15, 2009

APTOPIX US Open TennisOn Saturday, tennis champion Serena Williams competed against Kim Clijsters in the U.S. Open semi-finals. Though it was predicted that Williams would win, Clijsters quickly took the lead, causing Williams to visibly express frustration while playing. Toward the end of the match, a line judge called a foot fault on Williams’ serve, resulting in Williams walking over to the judge, waving the racket in her face, and allegedly yelling obscenities and threats. In addition to losing the match to Clijsters, she was later fined $10,000 for unsportsmanlike conduct. She also issued an apology.

Though many are criticizing Williams for her behavior at the match — and rightfully so, as professionalism is key in all facets of life, including sports — few are taking the time to examine the ways in which Williams is being criticized. While it may be so that her actions were out of line, there are strong undertones of racism and classism in this discussion, and those need to be addressed.

Michael Kimmel of the Huffington Post had this to say:

Okay, let’s acknowledge that this was not Serena’s greatest moment, that she lost her temper — it was match point in the semi-finals, after all — and became both unhinged and enraged. And Serena is one big, strong woman. And a big strong black woman.

Those two last points, though, seem crucial. Serena’s outburst — and the rule-based, draconian penalty that cost her the match — were both racial and gendered. Let me be clear: I am not saying that the call was overtly, intentionally, racist or sexist. But the context for both the line judge’s reaction and the chair umpire’s call depended on Serena being a strong black woman.

Ask yourself this: would the line judge have felt so threatened had she been yelled at by perky, pretty little Melanie Oudin, all 5 foot 6 of her bouncy teenage self?

Kimmel goes on to point out the ways in which similar tirades by white male athletes are received by the public. Unlike Williams’ actions, those rants are expected, even encouraged. Public expressions of anger are not so welcomed when they are coming from women, and because of racist stereotypes that often cloud the way women of color are perceived — specifically, the stereotype that women of color are inherently aggressive — more negative connotations spring to the surface of the minds of many people when it is a woman of color expressing emotions publicly than when it is a man, or even a white woman.

Jasmyne A. Cannick elaborates on this in an editorial for New America Media:

What ensued Saturday was nothing more than a few angry curse words that lead Serena to have to defend herself against unmade threats toward the lineswoman who was obviously suffering from a typical case of afraid-of-the-black-girl syndrome. How else do you explain the lineswoman’s alleged accusations that Serena was 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?

Most 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 perceived to be 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 f— with me today” tone that can stop a person dead in their tracks and scares the s–t out of most white people.

No one is in disagreement that Williams was angry at the lines woman. She believed the call to be unfair, and she was already close to losing the match to Clijsters; who wouldn’t be angry in such a situation? But her anger is not interpreted the same way that the anger of a petite, white tennis player might be. It may not be conscious racism, but it’s there. And because we have no way of knowing what Williams actually said (go ahead, YouTube the video — there is no audio clear enough to distinguish what she’s really saying), the claims that Williams violently threatened this woman are entirely baseless. Sure, she wasn’t acting in the most ideal, professional matter, but there’s a difference between the sort of anger that occurs regularly in sports and physically threatening another human being. Williams’ actions are being attributed to the latter, and I simply don’t buy that.

And it’s not just race. Class is playing a role in this situation as well, perhaps just as big a role as race. Keli Goff explains this perspective on the Huffington Post:

One can’t simply blame race. After all, James Blake has enjoyed immense popularity among American tennis fans, many of us hopeful that he will one day fulfill the promise so many of us see in him. With the Williams sisters it has always been less about what color they are and more about who they are: from Compton, not from Connecticut; wearing wildly colored fashion combos, instead of pristine tennis whites; talking loud and proud of their roots, instead of quietly trying to blend in; rocking braids and cornrows in the early days, instead of joining the ranks of Beyonce (and some of the rest of us) by getting a more socially acceptable, “lady-like” weave.

Tennis is perceived as an elite, country club sport. And both Serena Williams and her older sister, Venus, are true individuals. They aren’t interested in conforming to the societal expectations of female tennis players, and why should they? If they’re gifted athletes — and they are — why should it matter how they dress, or where they come from, or how they talk? None of those things have anything to do with the talent possessed by these women, and they shouldn’t be judged on these aspects of their identities when it comes to their perception in the athletic world.

As Martin Johnson wrote in a piece for The Root, there is nothing incredibly noteworthy about Williams’ “outburst.” Such behavior occurs all the time in tennis. But Serena Williams isn’t Martina Navratilova or Monica Seles. Her behavior is not perceived or judged in the same way that those women are perceived. And it’s time for the media and the tennis world to acknowledge that and stop enabling the racism and classism inherent in the ways many think and talk about Williams.

I’m not saying that Williams should get off scot-free. She is guilty of unsportsmanlike conduct, and it was right for her to be reprimanded for that. But that’s all it was. We shouldn’t accuse her of behaving in a violent, threatening way if there’s no evidence to support that that’s what actually occurred. So let’s leave Williams alone, remove the racist and classist undertones from the public discourse, and chalk this one up to a case of poor judgment. Because it wouldn’t be the first time that’s happened in sports.

  1. Twiller permalink
    September 15, 2009 2:33 pm

    I disagree. Any athlete that holds up a ball to the official, then states, “I feel like taking this [expletive] ball and shoving it down your [expletive] throat,” should be punished regardless of race or gender. I would expect nothing less from athletes who should not only be good sportsmen, but professionals as well.

    • Carrie Polansky permalink
      September 15, 2009 2:51 pm

      The problem with that, Twiller, is that we don’t know that those are the words that she actually said. None of the video clips of the incident that I’ve seen contain clear enough audio to make out what she said. And because we can’t confirm that those were the words she used, or that she verbally threatened the lineswoman at all, we can’t hold her accountable for them.

    • Alceryn permalink
      September 15, 2009 5:16 pm

      I think Polansky’s point is also that Williams’ alleged unprofessionalism—aside from whether or not it happened or whether or not it was “truly” unprofessional—is taken up in a racist and sexist way by journalists and the like. The emphasis on her size, her “unclassy” unruliness… these descriptions are not racially neutral.

      The assumption that everyone should be treated equally is an extremely dangerous one… when in fact some people already begin with more cultural, political and economic advantages than others, and visa versa, due to long histories of racism, sexism, classism, homophobia and other oppressive regimes that persist under uncritical acceptance that we have achieved equality in all spheres of social life… including sports.

  2. Kt D permalink
    September 15, 2009 2:49 pm

    While I agree with Twiller’s comment–that she did deserve to be punished with a fine, etc. for her threats–I do think the article is on to something. Serena is a “threatening” person in and of herself. She is a strong, black, and successful woman (which is also key), and that is certainly not a combination society graciously accepts. If a female athlete is pretty successful, she must be somewhat “pretty” and “polite” or she will be labeled too manly both in the media’s and the general public’s eye. Society cannot yet grant so much to a woman–power, success, beauty, skill, anger, a voice–without taking other things away from her.
    So, while I do certainly think she deserved to be punished for her unprofessional and threatening comments, I also think she is receiving far more press on her reaction than many men–or possibly even smaller, less “threatening-looking” women–would receive. More than a couple of blogs and news sites have described her with terms like, “PMS”, “bitch mode”, and “impulsive”. Not to mention, it WAS a terrible call.
    There is an interesting summary video on this whole controversy at The site does a good job of presenting the news in a non-biased way, showing a few different opinions from various sources. It’s only a few minutes long and certainly worth checking out:

    • Carrie Polansky permalink
      September 16, 2009 10:31 am

      Thanks for the video link, Kt D! It’s got some really excellent coverage.

  3. Caitlin permalink
    September 15, 2009 11:36 pm

    I can agree that the incident is getting extra attention because Williams is female – we certainly don’t hear about it all weekend whenever a baseball player gets in an umpire’s face over a call. The collective conscious should be more egalitarian when judging athletes’ reactions. I think it’s a bit of a stretch in this situation, however, to call it racist or classist.

    Remove all the colors and genders from what happened for a second – picture yourself as the middle-aged, be-spectacled judge sitting on the sidelines here. You make a call, and a player of significant stature and athletic prowess comes charging at you, swearing and shaking their racket. I think you would have an ‘oh shit’ moment.

    Serena’s reaction was aggressive to an unprofessional degree, and I’m sorry, but that ain’t classy. If anything, if she wants to be a pride-inspiring representative – and role model – of her Compton roots, she should be extra conscientious of behaving BETTER than the typical image of someone that’s “straight outta Compton.”

    And let’s take a second to remember the perks that the Williams sisters enjoy *because* they are prominent black women in a traditionally white male sport. Namely, their celebrity is significantly greater than any of the other players. I don’t even watch tennis and I know who they are. Secondly, they reap the profits from several multi-million dollar endorsement deals from companies ranging from Reebok to McDonald’s (also companies whose interests in marketing to black youth are not insignificant). Serena gets extra media attention and a helluva lot of extra money for being a strong, progressive and positive black female role model, and yes, she’s going to get extra media attention when she’s a bad role model too.

    PS – I’d like to point out the reverse racism in the Cannick quote. It’s just as biased to say that “most white people” are intimidated by black women as it is to say that “most black women” are angry. That kind of mentality doesn’t help anyone.

    • Carrie Polansky permalink
      September 16, 2009 10:30 am

      A few things –

      1. Serena Williams did not come “charging” at the judge. If you watch the video, she’s actually walking quite slowly and carefully. Furthermore, if a line judge in a sporting event has too thin a skin to handle being yelled at (which, as much of a problem as it is, happens all the time in every sport ever), perhaps s/he has chosen the wrong profession. It doesn’t mean that what Williams did was acceptable, because it wasn’t, but it does mean that “I was scared of the big aggressive lady” isn’t an acceptable excuse, either.

      2. What Williams did was unprofessional. But that has nothing to do with her being from Compton. And if she was from a more “elite” neighborhood, do you really think anyone would ever mention where she grew up? Probably not.

      3. The Williams sisters enjoy the same perks as every other prominent professional athlete. If you’re arguing that other successful athletes don’t have huge corporate marketing deals, you might want to look more carefully at cereal boxes and beverage commercials. Corporate sponsorship is a perk that comes with being a famous athlete, so the Williams sisters are not being singled out for being women of color. And I don’t watch tennis either, but I know that there are plenty of other tennis players who received tons of media attention and praise (Andre Agassi, Martina Navratilova, etc.) at the peak of their careers.

      4. Yes, it is biased to make blanket statements about any group of people. But I really have to question the validity of the phrase “reverse racism.” Either something is racist, or it isn’t.


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