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Please Stop Telling Black Women to Smile

I watched the replays of Serena Williams losing her temper with the ump in what eventually became her U.S. Open women’s final loss to Naomi Osaka on Sunday, and I could easily see any Black woman at any time in the same situation reacting the exact same way.

The umpire’s privilege, sexism, racism, and White Fragility was on full display Sunday.

Black women aren’t allowed to be livid. John McEnroe, one of the greatest male players of the game gets the label of being tennis’ original bad boy and a legend for being livid on the tennis court back in the 80’s. Serena Williams gets labeled a whiner, and the angry, emotional Black woman with the bad attitude for the same behavior John McEnroe displayed nearly 34 years earlier. The double standards of the International Tennis Federation are clear to anyone with eyes to see.

Black women are so tired of the double standards when handing down punishment, and we’re tired of being told how to react when the status quo’s privilege and patriarchy becomes a barrier to our progress. We could feel Serena’s anger. It’s was a moment most of us watching could identify with.

Not only was Serena penalized harsher than some of the most famous men and women in professional tennis demonstrating the same behavior when, (some have since come to her defense acknowledging they had done far worse), after losing the match, she had to put aside her anger and frustrations to comfort her very young competitor, a another woman of color. Sisters everywhere understood the significance of the moment in the photo above.

Serena was a big sister, a mother, and a friend full of empathy in that moment, understanding no matter how angry she was, she had to set the atmosphere straight. Like a good mother, she chooses to nurture even though she was in pain.

Furthermore, Serena who is arguably the greatest tennis player in history, has been subjected to derogatory racist and sexist political cartoons internationally. She’s been “advised” by countless White female commentators on what she should have done or how she should have reacted to avoid losing. Serena was even called a bully for saying anything at all to the umpire. Even when acknowledging how umpires penalize women harsher than the men in tennis, the White female commentators still found fault in Serena’s behavior instead of the umpire’s.

The resounding attitude of the White female talking heads on Monday was that Serena should be happy that she’s allowed to play with the privileged, even amid sexism, racism, patriarchy, inequities of refereeing/punishments and misogyny.

Just look at ole privilege always offering Black women suggestions on how to not make privilege uncomfortable as we point out their inconsistencies.

The commentators offered rules for Serena while playing tennis like not speaking up to defend herself when being falsely accused, or not making comparisons of unfair treatment between men and women and Black women and White women at the very moment an offense happens.

Black women must defer attending to their own immediate needs to care for everyone else’s. The message given by the world is that no one cares about the needs and frustrations of Black women, and we aren’t allowed to care either. The commentators, didn’t even invite Black women to the discussions. The simply spewed their typical behavior modification remedies with no regard for our well-being.

How typical.

It doesn’t matter if Blacks are at the top of their games, or if we’re the first Black leader of the free world, Black people will always catch hell from racist and moderate White folks fighting to maintain the status quo. Anything bucking social and patriarchal orders must be stopped by the status quo immediately, and by any means necessary. Serena’s penalties are just another instance of the status quo putting their checks on people of color by making sure Black women don’t win the status quos games, no matter how great we are.

All these unrealistic expectations weighing on us day in and out leaves Black women with few reasons to smile.

Black women don’t need White women to tell us how to express ourselves. We are tired, we are burdened, and we see and experience injustices differently. We feel the impact of inequality in our institutions every day. Black women have the right to be tired of Colonial-era bullshit, and we have the right to complain about it. We can even be livid.

We have the right to defend ourselves and our positions, and we have the right to fight what we deem an injustice. White women, you don’t get to always make the call about what injustice is to us.

We have the right to be livid at patriarchy and we have the right to express our anger in ways that help us to air our frustrations, without judgement. White comfort is not our concern. We are saddled with caring about enough things and enough people already.

Black women don’t need to look like or act like White women do to demonstrate we are hurt or being harmed, and we don’t have to get your permission tell the world about punishment inequities. Open your eyes, look at history, and listen to our stories. When we convey it, will you just believe us?

We aren’t seeking your approval or validation. We already know the world doesn’t have the ability to see us as equals, no matter how good we are. So please stop asking Black Women to smile and be happy.

Most days, we have very little to smile about.

Black women are simply waiting to be treated with the dignity and respect we deserve. The same level of respect given to White men and women around the world. Maybe then, a sister can genuinely smile and mean it.

Marley K., 2018

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