As a sportswoman of colour, Serena Williams is held to impossible standards

“Comment: Williams is held to a different standard than her white, male counterparts both because she’s a woman, and because she’s black, writes Ruqaya Izzidien.

Reactions to Serena Williams’ dispute with umpire Carlos Ramos during the US Open final on Sunday exemplify the expectations and stereotypes with which we subdue women of colour.

Williams was docked a point and then a game when Ramos judged that she had violated three rules, by receiving coaching (which she disputes), smashing her racket, and verbally abusing the umpire, by calling him a “thief”. She accused him of sexism, saying that “He’s never taken a game from a man because they said ‘thief’.”

While there are calls for a review of the code of conduct that might allow players to express their frustration by smashing rackets, or that would permit coaching, Carlos Ramos, tennis, and competitive sport has come under fire for penalising women for actions that are overlooked in male counterparts.

Following the match, a number of male tennis players tweeted about their clashes with Ramos that did not result in penalties. 

Former world number one player, Andy Roddick, described the incident as the worst refereeing he had ever seen. Another retired player, James Blake admitted “I have said worse and not gotten penalized.” When world number one seed, Rafael Nadal, threatened Ramos in the French Open in 2017, warning that he would never chair another of his matches again, he was not penalised.

Why then, are so many people vehemently claiming that Williams had a meltdown, was a boor, a brat, and at fault?

“Women of colour are expected to moderate themselves to be more to amenable, more manageable to the white, male, authority figures around them”

Because it’s much easier to discredit Williams’ argument that to examine the complex ground where sexism and racism meet. Both in her behaviour on court and in the commentary that follows, Williams is held to a different standard than her white, male counterparts both because she’s a woman, and because she’s black.

You don’t have to look any further than the racist cartoon that was released by the Melbourne-based Herald Sun, which has since been defended by the paper’s editor. Cartoonist Mark Knight drew Williams as an African-American caricature reminiscent of Jim Crow era cartoons. She is depicted as irrational, with oversized lips, breasts and buttocks, while Ramos is calm and Haitian-Japanese Naomi Osaka is whitewashed to resemble a slim, blond white woman.

The figures in the cartoon are either thin, white and calm, or an angry, irrational, oversized black woman — a dangerous, tired and offensive binary that the paper should acknowledge, rather than defending it with implausible claims that “It had nothing to do with gender or race.”

In a column in defence of the cartoon, the editor claims that it mocks Williams for her behaviour, just as it does politicians. But Williams is not a politician who has been entrusted with a position of power and the cartoon does not satisfy itself with mocking her actions — with the depiction of her as a baby — but mocks her race through a grotesque cartoon that doesn’t actually resemble her.

In a viral tweet, editor of the Independent Journal Review, Josh Billlinson highlighted the double standard with which we treat strength in women. Billinson juxtaposes two tweets by The New York Post, which depict the Yankees’ Aaron Boone as simply “arguing a strike”, but presents Serena Williams having “the mother of all meltdowns”, despite the two athletes standing in almost identical poses.

But it shouldn’t require such an explicit comparison to comprehend that Williams is held to different standards to her male counterparts. Her outstanding record of success has been achieved under the shadow of a long history of unfair treatment.

“Williams’ anger is the natural consequence of navigating the double-whammy of being a woman and a person of colour”

By tennis-outburst standards, Williams’ reaction was far from the likes of John McEnroe, who forged a career out of his on-court anger, but she should be excused for showing anger since it is based not only on the hypocrisy of her penalty, but on the sexist and racist treatment that inevitably follows her.

Williams’ anger is the natural consequence of navigating the double-whammy of being a woman and a person of colour. Ramos didn’t penalise Williams because she’s a woman, he penalised her because she’s a woman and she’s black.

Women of colour are expected to moderate themselves to be more to amenable, more manageable to the white, male, authority figures around them. So to be confronted with a black woman who does not bow to these demands only infuriates Williams’ detractors, who exercise their frustration through unfair penalisation, racist cartoons and commentary that refuses to engage with Williams’ legitimate arguments.

“This has been the ask of women, especially of non-white women, since the beginning of time,” tweeted director and producer Ava DuVernay. “Take the diminution and don’t get mad; if you get mad, you’ll get punished, and then be expected to fix it, and make everyone comfortable again.”

During the dispute, Williams said, “This has happened to me too many times.” She’s right. On the court she has faced a number of contentious calls as well as objectification, and off-court she consistently faces scrutiny of her body and femininity and is a target for racist dehumanisation. She has been called a man and compared to animals.

Rafael Nadal, who frequently plays in vests that expose his biceps, does not become the subject of scrutiny for his muscles, as Williams does. Most recently, Williams was told she would not be allowed to compete in a catsuit in the French Open in future years, after donning a one-piece that covered her legs and shoulders, and that was designed to prevent a recurrence of a blood clot.

Referring to the decision, French Tennis Federation President Bernard Giudicelli said that players “must respect the game and the place.”

But Williams decision to cover her body — whether she chose to do so for health reasons or otherwise — has nothing to do with respect, and calls for her to ditch it have nothing to do with tennis, and everything to do with controlling the bodies of women of colour.

And it’s no surprise that it was the French governing body that took issue with it. The same country took issue with women swimming in full-body swimsuits and routinely disrobes Muslim women under the pretence of “respect”. Women of colour are expected to be as invisible, as quiet and as assimilated as possible.

Read more: Silencing Arab and Muslim women

And when they do not; when they are powerful, when they have muscles, when they stand up to discrimination, they are maligned, their arguments discredited, and the gravity of what they have to live with is completely disregarded.

Serena Williams would not have been penalised if she were a white male. She would not have been forced out of a catsuit if she were not a black woman. If umpire Carlos Ramos had treated Williams as a white male player, she might even have won the US Open 2018, but now we will never know.


Ruqaya Izzidien is a British-Iraqi freelance writer specialising in social and cultural affairs. Her work has been published in The New York Times, the Guardian, the BBC and Al Jazeera English.

Her debut novel The Watermelon Boys, published by Hoopoe Fiction is out now.

Follow her on Twitter: @RuqayaIzzidien

Opinions expressed in this article remain those of the author, and do not necessarily represent those of The New Arab, its editorial board or staff.

Ruqaya Izzidien

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