Give Serena Williams Her Apology
What is it about Serena Williams that gets white people and Black men’s blood boiling? Keep your answers to yourselves because that is a rhetorical question. We all know the answer, even if some of us will not dare say it out loud.
Serena Williams is a Black women in a white supremacist world that is built so that her kind of excellence does not exist let alone thrive for two decades. Her very existence is a defiance in a way and her treatment reflects that. From the white people who have insinuated that she and her elder sister Venus somehow did not belong, to the Black men who for years would tell anyone who would listen about how unattractive they found her physique but are now upset that she made the decision to marry an Armenian man who loves her dearly.
Serena’s life is a textbook (not the ones in Texas) example of the different intersections of the oppressions created by white supremacy. The extraordinary thing about Serena’s life may prove to be how familiar it is to Black women everywhere. That even with her unrivaled achievements, the hurdles that she has had to overcome — from sexism to racism, colorism and anti-blackness (all different forms of oppression that need to be understood independently as well as together) her struggles mirror the struggles of the Black women we do not know by name, the women who work two or three jobs so that they can feed their families. Black womanhood means that whether you are a millionaire or not you will always be reminded about your place in the hierarchy created by white supremacy.
Speaking on Black women, Nobel Laureate Toni Morrison aptly stated that “Black women have been walking on water for 400 years.” In a different interview Morrison continues that “In all of Black women’s history we have been both ship and harbor…we can do things one at a time or four at a time if we have to.” That is what Serena Williams knows. She has been many things to many people and she as well as her Black women supporters know that the burden of Black womanhood, the simplicity of knowing “it’s just the way it’s always been” is also the miracle. If survival happened before then it can happen again. To be one thing and yet a thousand different things is the miracle of Black womanhood and this was on full display at the Women’s singles final of the 2018 United States Open Championships. Serena was expected to be fiery and quick while competing and graceful and calm while experiencing what she felt was an injustice by the chair umpire.
There has been a lot said about what happened Saturday night and the reactions have not been surprising to people who have been listening to the things that Black women have to say. A lot of the reactions to Serena’s so called “extreme outburst” find themselves in anti-Black racism as well as the misogynoir that Black women face daily. In a major final of one of the biggest events in sports a passionate display is to be expected…unless you are a Black women. In a white supremacist world that already has you stereotyped as irrationally angry, you are also expected to accept the injustices you face quietly. When Serena Williams did not do that she posed a threat to white supremacy.
What has been concerning though has been the blatant ignorance about what makes Serena Williams, Serena Williams. There has been little consideration paid by mainstream media to all of the moments in her career that led to that moment and it is important to take note of those moments as we continue to wrap our minds around her important and justified demand for an apology.
One of the most frustrating things said has been that Serena would have lost anyway. Of course there needs to be acknowledgement of how her well her opponent played that night but there also needs to be recognition that Chair Umpire Carlos Ramos choosing to insert himself into the match by penalizing Serena a game derailed a fair outcome.
When people say that she was going to lose so confidently they need to realize that they are erasing a big part of who Serena Williams is. They are talking about the women who has won more majors after saving a match point than anyone else. The women that the world has watched win majors on one leg, no serve, no back, hindered movement with nothing but the sheer will power and desire to win. She has been down a set and two breaks and won matches and not just on one or two occasions either. We have watched her win a match from three match points down — on her OPPONENTS serve. One of the hardest things following the immediate conclusion of that match was knowing that we actually will never know how it would have turned out. It is ridiculous to ignore that all of Serena’s matches start and end on her racquet. If she loses a match it needs to be on her terms with no interference from the outside.
Whether you share this view or not it is important to recognize that you cannot have an opinion until you understand the facts. For Serena that moment of asking for an apology from Carlos Ramos is rooted in injustices that she has faced throughout her entire career and until everyone who denounces her understands and acknowledges this, what is being perpetuated is an endless cycle of misogynoir.
In the early 2000’s Russian tennis player Elena Dementieva when asked who she thought would win a semifinal between Venus and Serena Williams, eplied that she thought the winner would be decided by their father and coach Richard Williams, never mind that their mother Oracene Price was known to be Serena’s main coach. In 2001 when Venus pulled out of a match against Serena because of an injury, the crowd at Indian Wells now known as the BNP Paribas Open jeered and shouted racial slurs at Serena as well as Venus and Richard who were in the crowd during Serena’s match against Belgian Kim Clijsters. Serena and Venus went on to boycott that event for 13 and 14 years respectively. At the 2004 United States Open Championships in her match against Jennifer Capriati the lines people and chair umpire made so many terrible calls, calling several of her shots Out when television replay showed that they were clearly inside the court. The Chair Umpire was removed from chairing any more matches that tournament and it is widely accepted that that is the match that led to tennis accepting the use of Hawkeye technology and the line challenge system. So if it is known and accepted that biases against Serena were the reason that the sport started to make use of technology, why is it now ridiculous to acknowledge that she was justified and within her rights to ask for an apology from an umpire that she felt was insinuating she was a cheater? You will struggle to find an example of a player going from a warning to a point penalty to a game penalty in a matter of minutes and let alone during the same set. That is because chair umpires usually make use of sound judgement in matches. Carlos Ramos did not make use of sound judgement. It was a major final and Serena Williams was going for the all-time record in major titles. It is understandable that her emotions would be on high alert and the responsibility was on the chair umpire to make reasonable decisions. He did not do that and it is unreasonableto expect Serena to not immediately think that all of the past injustices against her were also rearing their head in this situation.
It is also important to make note of the Women’s Tennis Association allowing on court coaching at non major events and despite this, both Serena and Venus Williams have never made use of it. Furthermore, Serena Williams had never received a coaching violation in a major meaning she would not necessarily be aware of what it entails. When Serena told Ramos that she had never cheated and he nodded his head he should have explained what his reasoning was so as to avoid confusion when he docked her the point. Over the last couple of days there has also been much written about several players who have used much more offensive language than Serena used when speaking to Ramos but that is not the point here. The point here is that Serena Williams with the experience of 20 years of being called everything from “man, ape and drug cheat” responded with all the weight of those years on her shoulders. Could she have been calmer? That is up for debate given the magnitude of the occasion but the insinuation of cheating and coaching was fairly read by Serena as yet another example of trying to deny her the place she deserves amongst the tennis elite. Serena Williams did not have a meltdown, she was trying to hold on to a reputation that a white supremacist society is always trying to destroy, a reputation that is often seen as illegitimate because its brilliance belongs to a dark skinned Black women. If we’re going to call ourselves allies to Black women when their experiences prove we are not then let us at least have the decency to let them have the right to defend themselves while we make serious efforts to hear them and understand what their lives are like because of white supremacy. Give Serena Williams her apology because her list is getting longer.