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Est. April 5, 2002
September 13, 2018 - Issue 755

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The Threeness of Serena Williams:
the Challenge of
Race and Gender in Sports

By Al-Tony Gilmore, PhD

"She ever feels her threeness, - an American, an
African American, a woman; three souls, three
warring ideas in one dark body, whose dogged
strength alone keeps it from being torn asunder."

Arguably the most dominating and enduring champion athlete in any sport of the 21st century, Serena Williams has become an icon of class, dignity, activism, generosity, competitiveness, graciousness, style, excellence and social justice. She is also both unapologetically black and an advocate for gender equality. In her recent tennis championship match with Naomi Osaka in the finals of the U.S. Open, Serena was being outplayed by her friend, fellow sister, and younger opponent. But just as she was mounting a credible comeback in the match - something she had done sucessfully multiple times - an official penalized her for behavior that violated the code of conduct as expressed in the rules book. The problem with the official's action is that those rules have never been applied to a male world class tennis player in a championship match at the Open. As black tennis player, James Blake, observed, male players including himself are given soft warnings by game officials whenever personal conduct becomes an issue. In a match of that significance, Serena was not provided that routine courtesy, and her reaction to those critical point and game deductions was understandable, and moreover, justified, especially given the unpenalized court antics and verbal abuse of officials by prominent male players, who play by the same rule book. Not one single line in the rule book suggests that women are required to follow one set of rules and men another. But when a black women raises her voice and expresses utter frustration in disagreement to a white official, it is not the same as when a white male player does it or, for that matter, a white woman player. Thus, what has surfaced is a not only a gender issue, it also borders on being a race issue as well.

It is doubtful that a white women of Serena's caliber would have been treated the same under similar circumstances. Nonetheless, the establishment of professional women's tennis players and the #MeToo movement have circled their wagons around Serena in protest of gender bias in tennis officiating , and for what she represents as an icon for gender equality, but have been silent on the race issues. No one has complained or made an issue of the fact that one of her competitors, Maria Sharapova, has won far fewer tournaments and less prize money than Serena, but made $23 million in endorsements in 2016 compared to $13 million for Serena. Those discrepencies, however, are of concern to black people who identified with her mercurial rise from Compton, California, along with her sister, Venus, to being the best of all -time in her sport. All along the way, black people marveled in the black pride of her parents, especially her father, Richard, and their disdain for the culture of elite white tennis players, preferring to chart an unprecedented course for tennis success that would not diminish their "blackness." Serena and Venus not only excelled at every stage of their " unorthodox and unique" development , they did to tennis what Florence Joyner "Flo Jo" did to track, bringing "black style" in hair and outfits along with them, becoming profound role models throughout the black diaspora.

What exploded at the U.S. Open has been processed by some groups through the lens of gender, and by others through the lens of race. Both are half corrrect in that they both missed the crucial intersection of race and gender. Serena has become the poster child of two groups who do not always see things quite alike. It is about the duality she lives and represents on a world stage. She has not been able to escape what W.E.B. Du Bois wrote about a century ago in The Souls of Black Folk : " One ever feels his twoness, an American, a Negro; two souls, two thoughts, two unreconciled strivings; two warring ideals in one dark body, whose dogged strength alone keeps it from being torn asunder." This is a dilemma that Serena embraces with dignity and determination, her race, gender and national identity advances Du Bois' sage observation to the "threeness" of the 21st Century. Serena falls squarely within that complex framework.

Set aside the fact that Serena was playing another black woman, racism cannot be dismissed from the equation of sports justice and competitive fairness, because her anger was not directed against her competitor, it was specifically targeted to a white official on a world stage. Few white people from the elite world of tennis are used to having a black person - especially a woman - question their intergrity and judgment in the tone, temperment and fierce eloquence of Serena. It was a dressing-down that comes from deep in the soul of black people when they know they have been bamboozled. None of the #Metoo supporters of Serena are willing to place the race card on the table, but they will support her with a full deck of deserving, though self-serving, gender biased cards. Feminists and women's rights activists have come out in full force.

The United States Tennis Federation uniformly stands behind the ruling of the umpire, and even several days after the event there has been no statement that the Federation is willing to explore or revisit the application of the rules, or the past history of the official involving penalties or lack of penalties for behavior of other players no different than that of Serena. One thing is for certain, Serena has no history of unsportsmanlike conduct, making one pause to consider if the umpire was purposely over-policing her eye contact with her coach in the stands. For all great athletes, especially those of high character such as Serena, there has always been a bending of the rules and benefit of the doubt given for minor infractions. Serena is too good to have been penalized for coaching , a call that has never been made in the history of championship matches of the U.S. Open. As for the penalties incurred by her tirade against Ramos, they must be weighed against male players hurling far worst words at umpires without penalty. Clearly a double standard --based at least on gender - was used against Serena, possibly because of a subconcious belief the her "emotional female gene" was not restrained enough for Ramos' sensibilties around female court demeanor and conduct. "When a woman is emotional, she's 'hysterical' " said tennis great Billie Jean King in a criticism of gender inequalities in the sport. She might have added - but did not - that when a black women is emotional around white people, she's judged to be an imminent danger. Moreover, there is a difference between being an hysterical white woman and an angry black woman - one is seen as being more of a threat to white authority and society than the other and, thus, the penalties are not the same. For example: there are more angry black girls who are suspended from school than hysterical white girls; and there are more angry black women who are incarcerated for the exact same crimes committed by hysterical white women. None of those realites diminish the legitimacy of the claims that the penalties Ramos imposed on Serena were sexist, but to exclude race from the discussion may be convenient, but it is not accurate or accountable based on the circumstances.

The United States Tennis Association takes pride in the U.S. Open being played in a stadium named after Arthur Ashe, and in having Katrina Adams, a black woman, serve as its President and CEO. It will likely examine all of the gender biased issues raised by the episode of Serena Williams and umpire, Carlos Ramos , but not make even the faintest hint the race may be involved. There will be no special recognition or public relations initiative announcing that this was the fourth time and second consecutive year in which black women played each other for the title, and that Naomi Osaka has joined Althea Gibson, Serena and Venus Williams, and Sloane Stephens as winners of a tournament that once barred black players, particularly those who dominated black tennis and the black American Tennis Association during the Jim Crow era.

While the discussion continues to be quarantined within the boundaries of gender inequalties, the imagery of the episode in Flushing Meadows of Queens, New York as evidenced by Mark Knight, a well known Australian political cartoonist, is racist to the core. Knight's cartoon is an exaggerated caricature of Serena reminiscent of black images in American popular culture in the age of Jim Crow and the nadir of black life in post Emancipation Proclamation America. The editorial cartoon depicts a grossly overweight, large lips, evil eyed minstrel and savage looking woman throwing a temper tandum over a broken racket and baby's pacifier. Interesting for contrast with civility, Osaka is depicted as a petite cultured "white" woman who is asking the umpire to " just let her win." Not since black boxer Jack Johnson was the world's champion, 1908-1915, has an athlete of Serena's stature been so grotesquely and maliciously lampooned.

Serena is no stranger to being slighted. She has had to endure verbal harrassment, unequal compensation, sexism and outright racism, even being called the N-word while on the court. She has had to rise beyond rumors of her "unnatural physicality," claims never associated with her white counterparts. Always conscious of playing for her race, she accepted the stress that came with every televised championship match when the emotional well being of black fans hinged on the outcome of those matches. Serena reminds us of the sexism this nation practices but ignores with impunity. "People call me one of the world's greatest female athletes" she questions, but "do they say LeBron is one of the world's best male athletes? Is Tiger? Is Federer? Why not? They are certainly not female."

Many will remember her piercing refrain to Carlos Ramos, "You owe me an apology." It's one she'll never get, but in the wake of this transformative " racialized sexism or misogynoir " the impact is indelible. From this point forward, no court oficial in the U.S. Open - and hopefully elsewhere - will make calls against women that are not made against men. There can be no better apology for Serena, or more fitting eulogy for the death of gender biased and race tinged officiating. The sport of tennis is the beneficiary.

Around this controversy that will be discussed and and analyzed for some time to come, there may be a teaching and learning moment. Christine Brennan, noted sportswriter, wrote that there are only two questions that matter: Was Serena treated differenty because she is a woman, and was she treated differently because she is an outspoken black woman? The answers to both questions are not mutually exclusive. In fact, they are compatible and applaudable. Serena will always be filtered through the lenses of race and gender, because she identifies so strongly with both .

So much to be learned from the courage of Serena Williams and all that she represents at the intersection of sports and society. She ever feels her threeness, - an American, an African American, a woman; three souls, three warring ideas in one dark body, whose dogged strength alone keeps it from being torn asunder. Al-Tony Gilmore, PhD, is author of Bad Nigger! The National Impact of Jack Johnson, and is Historian Emeritus of the National Education Association. He is a noted author of numerous books, and is a pioneer in the field of sports history. Contact Dr. Gilmore.

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