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RACISM, SEXISM AND ‘UNATTRACTIVE’ REALITIES OF AMERICAN CULTURE

 

 

By David J. Leonard | With thanks to NewBlackMan

 

Wednesday, 14 September 2011.

 

My anger and frustration following this week’s US Open tennis final match has nothing to do with the match itself.  While pulling for Serena Williams and disappointed by her defeat, the surprising loss did little to damper my spirits.  What has inspired my ire has been the media’s yet again troubling treatment of Serena Williams.

 

Following the match and in response to her confrontation with the match umpire (see here for details and video), commentators have taken her to task, deploying racialized and gendered criticism.  Described as “petulant,” going “bonkers,” as “a stereotypical Ugly American” and as someone whose “ego” led to a “tirade” the media tone has rendered what appeared to be a tame and minor confrontation into a spectacle that rehashes longstanding stereotypes about black women as childish, emotional, lacking self-control, and otherwise angry.  In other instances, Williams has been demonized for her “outburst” and “menacing behavior,” for “losing her cool” during an “Ugly US Open meltdown” and the “the menacing tone of her remarks.”  Mary Carillo referred to Serena’s behavior as that of an “ass clown.”

 

The references to her tone and demeanor as menacing, given the ways in which white supremacist discourse has pathologized and rendered African American as cultural, physical, and economic menaces are particularly revealing.  “Racial logic has advanced a link between the legibility of black bodies, and a racial being,” argues Delia Douglas in “To be Young, Gifted, Black and Female:  A Meditation on the Cultural Politics at Play in Representations of Venus and Serena Williams.”  Noting, “that black bodies have historically been designated as the site and source of pathology,” Douglas makes clear that “behaviour and habits are seen as symptomatic of these racial distinctions.”

 

 

The hyperbolic and racially and gendered rhetoric is encapsulated by a column from George Vecesey in The New York Times

 

As she stormed at the chair umpire during a changeover, Williams was reverting to her vicious outburst at a line official that caused her to be disqualified at match point in a semifinal in 2009, the last time Williams was here.” “But at what point does comportment, sportsmanship, become part of the measure of a great champion?” “The tantrum early in the second set caused many in the crowd to boo the decision, delaying the next point. Stosur kept her cool, and Williams never showed a trace of those couple of hard hits. She could have gone out with dignity on an evening when she did not have her best game. Instead, she called the chair umpire a hater, and later professed not to remember a word of it.

 

Irrespective of the exaggerating and demonizing rhetoric, Serena Williams’ confrontation of the umpire was tame; while angry with a suspect call and unwilling to capitulate to authority merely because of custom, she was clearly composed, calm, and collective; there was no “outburst;” she did not “lose her cool” nor was anything about her behavior “menacing.”   

 

Even the USTA has concluded that the “controversy” was much ado about nothing, fining Williams $2,000 dollars.  Explaining the fine, it announced:

 

US Open Tournament Referee Brian Earley has fined Serena Williams $2,000 following the code violation issued for verbal abuse during the women’s singles final. This fine is consistent with similar offenses at Grand Slam events. As with all fines at the US Open, the monies levied are provided to the Grand Slam Development Fund which develops tennis programs around the world.

 

After independently reviewing the incident which served as the basis for the code violation, and taking into account the level of fine imposed by the US Open referee, the Grand Slam Committee Director has determined that Ms. Williams’ conduct, while verbally abusive, does not rise to the level of a major offense under the Grand Slam Code of Conduct.

 

Noting the existence of “similar offenses” during the course of all Grand Slam events, the USTA acknowledges the banality of the behavior from Serena Williams. 

 

Williams has been positioned as yet another black athlete who may have the athletic talent, but lacks the mental toughness and commitment needed to excel on the biggest stages.  More significantly, the post-match commentaries reveal the powerful ways that race and gender operate within American culture.   Her blackness and femininity, especially in the context of the white world of tennis, overdetermines her positioning within a sporting context.  This moment illustrates the profound impact of both race and gender on Serena Williams, a fact often erased by both popular and academic discourses.  According to Delia Douglas, “The failure to consider the ways in which sport is both an engendering and racializing institution has lead to myriad distortions, as well as the marginalization and oversimplification of black women’s experiences in sport.”   As such, her stardom, her success, and the specifics of the incident does not insulate her from criticism and condemnation, but in fact contributes to the acceptability in fans and commentators alike symbolically shouting and yelling, “Shut up and play.”

 

To understand the reaction is to understand a larger history involving Serena Williams.  Two days before the finals match, William C. Rhoden, in a video commentary entitled “Embracing Serena,” argued that Serena hasn’t been accepted as “a great American story.” Citing a certain level of “ambivalence” and a refusal to celebrate the “resilience” and the “will” exhibited by the Williams sisters, Rhoden highlights the ways in which cultural citizenship has been denied to the Williams sisters; better said, he points to the racial double standards and the ways in which race and gender overdetermine the manner in which the Williams sisters are positioned and confined within the national landscape.  On cue, commenters (before and after the match) provided evidence of Rhoden’s argument, referring to Serena Williams as a “psychopath,” immature, as a “poor sport,” as an embarrassment,” as a “hater,” as “out-of-control,” “unattractive inside,” as “disgraceful” and a “poor loser,” illustrating not only a level vitriol but the “continuance of racism” and sexism “in the new millennium” (Spencer 2004).  The 2011 U.S. Open was like the 2009 U.S. Open, the 2001 Indian Wells tournament and countless other years where fans and commentators alike subjected Serena and Venus to the logics white racism and sexism all while denying the continued significance of both.   

  

The continued relevance of race and gender are evident in other ways. We can see it with the constant references to her body (Jason Whitlock once refereed to her as an “unsightly layer of thick, muscled blubber, a byproduct of her unwillingness to commit to a training regimen and diet that would have her at the top of her game year-round”) and the ubiquitous references to her physicality, strength and power.  “Black bodies have long been objects of scrutiny, the recipients of inordinate attention and discussion for over a century.  Black bodies were seen as the site and source of black pathology, as boundaries against which one could determine acceptable sexuality, femininity and morality (Giddings, 1984; Gilman, 1985),” writes Douglas.  “Historically, white supremacist racial logic has long relied on ‘the use of a dichotomous code that creates a chain of correspondences both between the physical and the cultural, and between intellectual and cognitive characteristics’” (Hall, 1997; p. 290). 

 

The rhetorical descriptors long used to describe the Williams sisters and the hyper focus on her “menacing” body following yesterday’s match illustrate the ways in which race and gender operate through the dissection and demonization of Serena’s body. We see it in the dissection, commentary, and surveillance of both their clothing and hair choices.  

 

We see how race and gender matters in the available narratives. We see it with the narrative choices that depict the Williams sisters as “ghetto Cinderellas’” as worthy of celebration because tennis (whiteness) saved them from the “cradle of crack dealers and grunge courts” leading them to compete for championships and millions of dollars. 

 

Race and gender matters.  It is evident in media coverage, fan reactions, and in so many different places all of which illustrates how “sport both reinforces and reproduces the ‘persistent’, ‘resurgent’, and ‘veiled’ forms of white power that permeate society (King, Leonard & Kusz, 2007, p. 4 in McCay and Johnson 2008), What happened at the U.S. Open and what has happened in the hours that followed were just another chapter of this larger history; a history of racism and sexism within the world of tennis. 

 

James McCray and Helen Johnson begin their article, “Pornographic Eroticism and Sexual Grotesquerie in Representations of African American Sportswomen” by drawing a historic parallel between the treatment of Althea Gibson and Serena Williams:

 

“Go Back To The Cotten [sic] Plantation Nigger. (Banner in the stands when Althea Gibson walked on court to defend her US Open title in 1958)

 

That’s the way to do it! Hit the net like any Negro would! (Racist male heckling Serena Williams before she served at the 2007 Sony Ericsson Championships in Miami)

 

While illustrating the continuity of white supremacy and the fallacy of those post-racial celebrations, the shared experienced between Gibson and Williams encapsulates the dehumanizing and violent conditions that both endured and challenged during their careers.   While acknowledging differences, it points to the powerful force of racism and sexism within America life. 

 

Yet, it also points to the ways in which Althea Gibson and Serena Williams (as well as Venus Williams) disrupt the hegemonic whiteness of the tennis world.  To understand Serena’s (as well as Althea’s) place within the history of tennis, including this week’s events, is to understand her willingness to challenge authority and the culture of a normalized whiteness within (and beyond) tennis.   In “Refereeing Serena: Racism, Anger, and U.S. (Women’s) Tennis,” on the Crunk Feminist Collective blog, its author powerfully notes how Serena refuses to accept the confined and controlled by the overdetermining logics of racism and sexism:

 

Yes, I’m aware of all the ways in which her acts in this moment reinforce stereotypes of the Angry Black Woman. However, we cannot use our investment in a respectability politic which demands that Black women never show anger or emotion in the face of injustice to demand Serena’s silence. Resistance is often impolite, and frequently it demands that we skirt the rules. . . .. Serena continues to disrupt tennis spaces with her dark-skinned, powerful body, her flamboyant sartorial choices, her refusal to conform to the professional tennis obstacle course, and her willingness to get angry and show it.  That disruption is necessary—because however “right” or “wrong” it may technically be—it demonstrates that all is not well racially in tennis. Black folks—men and women—are still largely understood within a narrative of brute, undisciplined physical strength—rather than as athletes who bring both physical and intellectual skills to their game.  As long as these issues remain, tennis will continue to be “unattractive” from the inside out.  

 

Agreed.  While others have used this moment to “hate,” demonize, and pass judgment on Serena Williams, for me, it is reminder of the history of resistance and fortitude; yet, it is also a reminder of how my love of sports is so often polluted by the racism, sexism and “unattractive” realities of American culture. 

 

***

 

David J. Leonard is Associate Professor in the Department of Critical Culture, Gender and Race Studies at Washington State University, Pullman. He has written on sport, video games, film, and social movements, appearing in both popular and academic mediums. His work explores the political economy of popular culture, examining the interplay between racism, state violence, and popular representations through contextual, textual, and subtextual analysis. He is the author of Screens Fade to Black: Contemporary African American Cinema and the forthcoming After Artest: Race and the War on Hoop (SUNY Press). Leonard is a regular contributor to NewBlackMan and blogs @ No Tsuris.

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