Venus and Serena Williams have dominated tennis since their first appearance in the nineties. Despite being champions many times over, they are still not given the respect that their accomplishment should merit, due in large part to their race and gender. Though we labour under the misconception that we have created a post feminist /racist world, the everyday experiences of women of color prove the mendacity of this social myth.
Words like “menacing,” “threatening” and “aggressive” are often associated with Serena. While these may not seem readily damaging, when one considers that Black women have historically been understood as “unwomen”; this language is an indication of a disturbing trend. Additionally, the epithet “tranny” is often used to insult Serena, thereby asserting that she is not a “real woman.” Though the category of woman is understood to be universally oppressed, white womanhood is perceived to subsume all that is good and desirable about femininity. This is a quagmire that women of color must negotiate to form any basis of self respect or agency.
Since the days in which Saartjie “Sarah” Baartman was forced to reveal her buttocks and labia to curious Europeans in a human circus, the bodies of Black women have been scrutinized and uniformly judged as lacking and/or sub-human. While our bodies may no longer be on display, the fixation with the buttocks of Black women reveals that the “The Hottentot Venus” stereotype is still very much a part of social discourse.
Fox News recently ran a story on Serena in which the author, Jason Whitlock, referred to her as an “underachiever” and called her derriere a “back pack.” It would seem that though she is ranked number two in the tennis world, it is acceptable to claim that her athletic frame is little more than “an unsightly layer of thick, muscled blubber,” because her body does not conform to what is understood as the beauty norm. When Topix ran a survey on who was considered the most beautiful woman, white women received 443 votes or 28% and Black women got 185 or 11% of the vote. While this survey is not necessarily scientific, it does suggest that women of color continue to be understood as occupying the bottom of the race and gender hierarchy.
A person of color must be an overachiever to be understood as successful. The fact that there is even a discussion of the possibility that Serena is not fulfilling her potential reveals the very different standards we have for white and black women. For example, summa cum laude Princeton University graduate Michelle Obama, was not considered socially acceptable until she was constructed as a modern-day black Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis. This is particularly jarring when we consider that at the time that Jackie O was First Lady, her only “social achievement” was marrying into the Kennedy family.
Social theorist Patricia Hill Collins explains that,
“At the heart of both racism and sexism are notions of biological deteterminism claiming that people of African descent and women possess immutable biological characteristics marking their inferiority to elite white men.”
In 2007 at the Sony Ericsson Open, a white male fan yelled out, “Hit the ball into the net like any nigger would.” Clearly the use of the N-word is offensive, yet it was up to Serena to demand that this bigot be removed from the event. The referee and the fans had no issue with his abusive behaviour until she stopped the match and demanded his removal. This signals the audience’s willingness to tolerate even the most abusive forms of racism for the sake of entertainment.
Even as Serena continues to dominate the sport of tennis, she remains a problematic figure because of the social constructions of Black womanhood. The meanings which we have created to support our hierarchy of bodies are inescapable, even to those who have proven their worth and ability on multiple occasions. Serena’s body is representative of the ways in which stigmas interact to create diverse oppressions, or what is known as intersectionality. Until we can divorce ourselves from the idea that race and gender provide grounds to demean, or otherwise oppress, we will never achieve a post-racial or post-feminist world.