In the weeks following Serena Williams’s 2018 US Open controversy, it seemed everyone had a strong opinion on whether Serena was in the right or wrong for behaving as she did. People of all different identities and intersectionalities landed on opposite sides of this issue.
Unlike most ‘bad’ calls in sports that get hotly contested, the penalties that chair umpire Carlos Ramos gave Serena were not merely contested for whether they were right or wrong according to the official rules of the sport; more controversially, they were contested for whether they were right or wrong according to the rules of a just society. Serena was pointing out the unequal standards male versus female players are held to in the tennis world, and both male and female celebrity tennis players publicly backed her on this point. Despite how strongly Serena made this point, saying “I’m here fighting for women’s rights and for women’s equality,” in the ensuing debates that judged her behavior, people weren’t even on the same page as to what they were debating. Which rule book was being used as the standard for ‘right’ or ‘wrong’? Because we’re not just talking sports technicalities, we’re talking issues that go beyond the tennis courts.
The fact that an ‘angry black woman’s outburst’ wasn’t wholly dismissed, rather it was analyzed and picked apart by the world for weeks, should be the first indication that Serena was raising an issue that needs to be talked about. This isn’t the first time she’s done this and turned out to be right (the most notable example being when she had to speak up to save her own life while giving birth to her daughter), and it likely won’t be the last. She continues to fight social injustice knowing full well she will face a backlash of people who aren’t ready to hear uncomfortable truths about double standards and discrimination. She continues to stand up for what’s right knowing full well people will tear her apart for it.
Despite her fame, despite how proudly she’s represented the USA in international sporting competitions, people criticize her:
- She’s a “shemale,” a “man,” even a “gorilla” because of her muscular build.
- Yet when she acts angry like a man, she’s completely out of line — because (black) women must control their temper.
- Finally, she’s dismissed when she stands up for herself and calls out this double standard…becauseyet again, she’s not really a man so she doesn’t deserve to be heard.
So, Serena continues to be criticized, mistreated, bullied. Ironically, if she were a man (what people jokingly call her), she might actually have power to fight the injustice waged against her.
How would it feel? How would it change you if the world watched as you got criticized for everything from the way you look/your body to the way you behave even if it’s within reason and the same bounds as someone else just with a different identity?
It would get to you. You would try to speak up for yourself rather than let it go every time and allow future generations to face the same mistreatment. Yet speaking up for yourself gets you more criticism, because most people will never understand how it is to live with less power and privilege than the majority. When someone with so much power and platform constantly has her power to influence taken from her, when one of the best athletes in history is bullied into submission, you wonder how an ordinary person could stand up for themselves and say enough to effect positive social change.
Serena’s bullies, and society in general, should watch how they’re behaving. This isn’t just affecting Serena. It affects those around the world born into positions of lower power and privilege, who witness a champion being defeated by unfair standards time and time again. Yes, she still rises. But her never-ending struggle is a signal to future generations that the fight seems futile. Maybe that’s precisely what society wants – to protect those in power, keep everyone else in submission, and maintain a status quo of injustice.
I’m not advocating for extra-relaxed rules for women or people of color on the tennis courts; it simply shouldn’t be too much to ask for an end to double standards and an end to dismissing voices that challenge the problems in the status quo.