10 Ways I Learn From Serena Williams
James Altucher

Serena Williams and the Black Truths She Embodies

I’m not sure how someone writes in praise of Serena Williams yet fails to mention her challenges as a black woman dominating a white sport. I saw a mention of her colorful outfits, which points how far she stands from the ideal women’s tennis player clad in all white. Thanks for that magnanimity.

The issue I have with such sensationalisms of Serena are that they too neatly place her within a whitewashed narrative of picking oneself up by their bootstraps, obfuscating her identity as an African American still battling race on the courts. Sportsmanship aside, these are some greater lessons we can learn from Serena.

Getting out of Compton

Luck has nothing to do with it, because I have spent many, many hours, countless hours, on the court working for my one moment in time, not knowing when it would come.

Perhaps it was partly a dream of her fathers he never quite accomplished himself, but the harsh truth is the Williams family was battling the systemic poverty of the East Rancho Dominguez Park in Compton where they grew up practicing amid broken glass, gangs and violence.

This isn’t just an American Dream story of hard work but overcoming the immense obstacles of growing up an oppressed minority in America and daring to challenge the status quo. Don’t be beguiled into thinking this just happens with hard work, it doesn’t. Poor and underserved communities require support, public services, affordable housing.

Overt Racism

Honestly, I don’t read the press. I don’t know what they’re saying.

Fair America often has this air of, “just lean in,” since nobody escapes the haters. But it isn’t that simple for minorities. In addition to the classism one must overcome, there are the racisms, the constant delegitimization and attacks on our bodies. As Serena puts it, following the racial attacks during the Indian Wells tournament in California, 2001:

What got me most of all was that it wasn’t just a scattered bunch of boos. It wasn’t coming from just one section. It was like the whole crowd got together and decided to boo all at once. The ugliness was just raining down on me, hard. I didn’t know what to do. Nothing like this had ever happened to me.

Black bodies are seen as savage and threatening to white lines women and audiences, and their sportsmanship policed in ways that other players aren’t. Perhaps everything comes at a cost, but for people of color, the barriers to entry and the cost of success is much much higher. “The US has a human rights obligation to address structural racism comprehensively.”

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Elegant Black Femininity

I’ve had to learn to fight all my life — got to learn to keep smiling. If you smile, things will work out.

The charge that Serena’s success is rooted in a masculine physique is best called out by JK Rowling.

Serena is 5'9" and 150lbs, which is about 1/2" shorter and 10lbs heavier than your average professional woman tennis player. This skewed perception of Serena has led to men and women all weighing in with their opinions on her body, from Tarpischev referring to her as one of “Williams brothers,” to “the mainstream depiction of Williams [which] often hinges on depicting her as amoral, lazy, disrespectful, and animalistic.”

Even the New York Times found itself in trouble talking about Williams’ body type, prompting a reader to ask, “Why is this even a story? Why does the newspaper feel the need to talk about Serena’s body type? What’s with the obsession over ‘perceived ideal feminine body type?’

This predictably leads to the huge disparity in earnings between Serena Williams and Maria Sharapova, where “despite quintupling Sharapova’s prize money and holding an 18–2 career record against her, Williams makes half of what her pseudo-rival manages in endorsements.” [See: Serena Williams and the Fear of a Dominant Black Woman]

There’s a very real wealth gap for women of color and despite all of this, I find in Serena, an elegance in her exceptionalism. We need to stop applying different standards to women, especially to women of color.

Serena Williams is a winner borne out of sheer resilience and power, rightfully, one of the greatest tennis players in history. But it isn’t just her trophies that captures this much admiration amidst the controversy. It’s what she represents for minorities facing vilification and the elegance with which she serves back.