The Serena Williams "Incident" (and Black American Athletes in General)

Updated on September 10, 2018

Another Black Athlete with Attitude

There are more than a few Americans who take it as a personal insult if you say that racism is a major problem today in the United States. They often feel the need to declare that they and many of their American friends treat all people equally, and people who see instances of racism are being oversensitive or downright paranoid. As a white male in the United States, I do not take it personally when people point out racism or any of the other many things that make my country flawed. I also recognize that I, along with likely every other member of the human race, am unconsciously (and sometimes consciously) prejudiced against various "types" of people. It takes a tremendous lack of humility and self-awareness to believe that you are free from all forms of prejudice. And if you think that the United States has left its long history of prejudice in the past, then you are either ignorant, delusional, or both.

Sports have been an arena in American history where African-Americans were sometimes given for the first time an opportunity to break social barriers and compete against whites. People like Jack Johnson, Jackie Robinson, Muhammad Ali, Tiger Woods, Serena Williams, and many others did more than excel at and sometimes even dominate their sports. They challenged social norms, either by busting out in a sport traditionally dominated by whites or by talking and behaving in ways that rubbed people the wrong way. It's bad enough that they kicked people's butts. Sometimes, they did it with too much attitude. Muhammad Ali, for instance, may have had the biggest (and baddest) mouth in American sports history, and he had the audacity to refuse to fight for a country that had a history of treating his people like shit.

I have no idea what it was like to walk in the shoes of all these black Americans who had to do far more than just beat their opponents in whatever sport they were playing. They also had to deal with all the forms of prejudice - overt, subtle, unconscious - coming from people pushing back against their success. No white American knows what it is like to walk in the shoes of a black American. Hell, no human knows what it is like to walk in anyone else's shoes. So why do so many Americans get so pissed off when someone describes his or her personal experiences with racism?

Yesterday, Naomi Osaka, a woman of Japanese and Haitian descent, won the US Open. Her victory, however, was overshadowed by the behavior of Serena Williams, who was penalized first a point and then a game for different code violations. You could make a strong case that she should have kept her cool instead of overreacting and tarnishing Osaka's historic victory. But whether Williams was right or wrong, I can't really blame her for losing it. I cannot imagine the crap that she, her sister, and her father have put up with over the decades as they tried to bust into a traditionally white dominated arena and ended up succeeding in such spectacular fashion. Through it all, they mostly sucked it up and battled on. So I can understand her frustration when an umpire, out of the blue, in a Grand Slam final, decides to enforce an anti-coaching rule that is broken all of the time. After years of mostly sucking it up, being suspected of doping, and even being told sometimes what was "appropriate" to wear, I guess she had enough. Her integrity was being questioned. Here was another person questioning whether she was worthy of her success.

Williams has taken some additional criticism for accusing the umpire and the USTA in general of sexism. Personally, I think she has shown remarkable restraint in not bringing up racism. She has probably learned over the years to avoid mentioning that topic directly. Given the visceral reaction so many have had to black athletes kneeling during the national anthem, she has probably been wise (thus far) to not open that can of worms. Many Americans still do not respond well, after all, to successful black women with too much attitude.

Or maybe this was just a tennis match that is not particularly important in the big scheme of things. Maybe Williams was just mad that she was getting outplayed and let the frustration get to her. I tend to think, however, that what happens in the athletic arena can sometimes be a reflection of society in general. But whether you buy that idea or not, you have to admit that this little tennis match is stimulating some interesting conversations. Whatever you think of her behavior, I guess we can at least thank her for that.

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