Serena Williams and the fear of the angry black woman

Like many sports fans I spent my Sunday evening watching Serena Williams in the U.S. Open final. It is a familiar scene, but this year with Serena in the final only 6 months after nearly losing her foot, this final felt different. Serena who destroyed all competition leading into the championship seemed poised to win yet another grand slam title.

But Sunday was not Serena’s day. Williams lost the first set quickly and looked frustrated and out of sync. Australia’s Sam Stosur was playing aggressive and relatively error free tennis and was cruising along until the beginning of the second set when Serena hit a winner and grunted…but somehow Stosur was still able to get her racket to graze the ball.

The umpire used what is known as the “hinderance” rule to give Stosur the point. Serena approached the chair clearly upset by the call, somewhat confused, and mistaken as to whether this particular chair umpire was the same woman who made a controversial call against her two years ago leading to the now infamous outburst at the Open.

For nearly 3 change overs, Serena spoke her mind to the chair umpire saying she is an “ugly” person on the “inside” and Serena said “I am not the one,” implying she is not to be messed with. No profanity was used.

As a result, Serena was fined only $2,000, a far cry from the nearly $90,000 Serena was fined after her 2009 outburst. Unfortunately, such a mild expression of “anger” from Serena lead to the same old critiques by the media who clearly do not accept verbal expressions of anger and frustration from female athletes, especially those of color, on par with their male counterparts. In a sport like tennis that is traditionally lacking in people of color, these racial and gender based critiques are even more apparent. Fox News even went so far as to describe this incident as “what’s wrong with our society” claiming that what Serena said had “racial undertones.”

Crunk Feminist Collective had this to say:

Yes, I’m aware of all the ways in which her acts in this moment reinforce stereotypes of the Angry Black Woman. However, we cannot use our investment in a respectability politic which demands that Black women never show anger or emotion in the face of injustice to demand Serena’s silence. Resistance is often impolite, and frequently it demands that we skirt the rules.

Even so, when asked about her loss yesterday, Serena, while not remorseful about her exchange with the ref, was nothing but gracious to Sam Stosur on her win.

Moreover, the USTA loves angry heckling players—as long as they are white men. Early in the tournament, there was a video and interview tribute to Jimmy Connors, a player legendary for his angry outbursts on the court. In the tribute they devoted extended time to showing one of the more famous of these outbursts, in a celebratory manner. White anger is entertaining; Black anger must be contained.

As a self-aware black woman I am always cognizant of the risk of being seen as the stereotypical “angry black woman.” I can’t imagine what it must be like for a professional athlete like Serena Williams who is constantly in the spotlight to balance her public image for a majority white audience of traditional tennis fans. While male tennis legends like John McEnroe, Jimmy Connors and even Andre Agassi are labeled “bad boys,” which is almost a compliment, Serena is derided for her outward expressions of anger.

What Serena did in Sunday’s final was unprofessional, but compared with rants of male tennis legends past and present her “you are ugly on the inside” seems pretty benign.

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