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.

Join the Conversation

  • Yashoda

    I’m sorry, but no. Serena interrupted a point while it was going on, which is AGAINST THE RULES. She did not grunt, she shouted. It is so against the rules that it’s an automatic penalty, which is very, very rare in tennis.

    I have played tennis all my life, at a fairly serious level, and it’s frankly a miracle she didn’t have to forfeit the match. You are not allowed to mouth off to the umpire.

    McEnroe, Connors and Ilie Nastase may have been labelled “bad boys” by the press, but on court, they were equally punished for their outburts. This is the act of someone who behaved completely unsportsmanlike, then lost her cool when she was punished for it. The very fact that she’s been punished before for this specific violation, for interrupting the point while being played, means she knows not to do it, and continues to do it anyway.

    • Shana

      Firstly, Stosur was never going to return Serena’s shot. While it is against the rules, it happens all the time but in this case Stosur just so happened to get the edge of her racket on the ball. While it is rare to hear this call it should be called a LOT more often. I don’t want to get into multiple other players who should be penalized for hindrances.

      It was a huge point for Serena and many if not all players would have celebrated a shot like that with a “Come on!” And many players would have gotten just as upset as Serena was. She lost her cool and admitted her wrong doings.

      And (white) male players mouth off all the time and they get fines accordingly. Serena gets judged a lot harsher than them.

      Love her and love watching her! She is truly a champion.

      • will weldon

        She admitted her wrong doings in the loosest possible sense of the word. Serena Williams did not seem contrite at the post game press conference, and when asked about her previous instance of Umpire abuse she claimed not to remember it and would look it up on Youtube. It’s hardly the behavior of someone who feels any remorse for what they did, and it’s too bad because on the court she’s such an incredibly dominant player and can bring the kind of excitement to the game that reminds people that women’s sport is just as exciting as men’s.

  • Jane Osmond

    Good point, although what is wrong with being an angry black woman?

  • Sam Lindsay-Levine

    I don’t know anything about tennis so I looked up the male tennis pros you mentioned on Wikipedia. From a cursory reading it doesn’t seem like they exactly got away unpunished either.

    “A low point in Connors’ career occurred on February 21, 1986, when he was defaulted in the fifth set of a semifinal match against Lendl at the Lipton International Players Championships in Boca Raton, Florida after being angered by the officiating. He paid a $20,000 fine and accepted a ten-week suspension from the professional tour, starting March 30. He was forced to miss the French Open.”

    “Following his first-round match against Tom Gullikson, McEnroe was fined U.S. $1,500 and came close to being thrown out of the championships after he called umpire Ted James “the pits of the world” and then swore at tournament referee Fred Hoyles.

    While playing and winning the tournament in Stockholm, McEnroe had an on-court outburst that became notorious in sports highlight reels. After questioning a call made by the chair umpire, McEnroe demanded, “Answer the question, jerk!” McEnroe then slammed his racquet into a juice cart beside the court. He was suspended for 21 days for exceeding a $7,500 limit on fines that had been created because of his behavior.

    He took a seven-month break from the game following the US Open, where he was suspended for two months and fined US$17,500 for misconduct and verbal abuse.

    In his fourth round match against Mikael Pernfors at the 1990 Australian Open, McEnroe was ejected from the tournament for swearing at the umpire, supervisor, and referee. He was warned by the umpire for intimidating a lineswoman, and then docked a point for smashing a racket. McEnroe was apparently unaware that a new Code of Conduct, which had been introduced just before the tournament, meant that a third code violation would not lead to the deduction of a game but instead would result in immediate disqualification; therefore, when McEnroe unleashed a volley of abuse at umpire Gerry Armstrong, he was defaulted. He was fined $65,000 for the incidents.”

    That said, I think we can all agree that the Fox News analysis is wildly off-base and offensive; also, that the sky is blue and the sun rises in the east.

    • Kilkenny Kat

      Not to mention McEnroe, at least, was roundly mocked for his behaviour off the court.

      There was a very funny sketch on Britcom TV show Not The Nine O’Clock News in the early 80s showing McEnroe screaming at and abusing his parents for not serving his juice properly. Quite funny.

  • jo

    What about Serena’s comment that the ref better “look the other way” if she ever saw her in the hallway? That doesn’t seem so benign. It sounds like a threat. (And I think a player should be fined for that no matter their gender or race.)

    • Shelly

      That is a threat (not to mention, hello, BULLYING!), and that is something that should not have been tolerated. Serena got off easy.

  • Smiley

    I agree with the comments that state that Serena has nothing to complain about.

    From what I understand, she behaved badly. And it is appalling that one should try to defend her on the grounds that she is a POC.

    And to say to the umpire that she is ugly should have had Feministing falling on her like a ton of bricks, not defending her.

    Dreadful behaviour, unworthy of anyone.

  • Shana

    Serena lost her cool. She knows it and she has apologized for it! People need to step off!

  • Nicole

    I think Serena went too far. This has nothing to do with race. No matter who you are, there’s always a time and a place.

  • aas711

    Wow. There is a lot of privilege display and ‘splaining in this comment section. I think there is a lot to be said about how Serena Williams is perpetually displayed as angry in addition to manly and “naturally athletic.” Again, the discourse is not about the game itself, but how the media portrays her behavior.