home Commentary, Racism, Society, Sports, Women Is Serena Williams the new Sarah Baartman?

Is Serena Williams the new Sarah Baartman?

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.

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Renee Martin

Renee Martin lives in Canada and writes the famous Womanist Musings blog. She is as interested in socio-political issues as she is in television.

16 thoughts on “Is Serena Williams the new Sarah Baartman?

  1. Great article. 100% truth. I am so happy that she has proud parents that raised their family to be proud. I know that she understands that she doesn’t have to prove anything to anyone. Her record speaks for itself. And she has millions of fans and followers that will go to bat for her in a heart beat. Jason Whitlock is a total and complete idiot. His report speaks for him now since he was ignorant enough to say this publicly. At the end of the day, Serena’s will live forever. GO S!

  2. Jason Whitlock is a notorious blowhard – it’s no wonder he’s employed by Fox News. It’s amazing that Williams’ backside is policed and exoticized while her astounding accomplishments are minimized or dismissed.

    Great article.

  3. To give you an idea of just how thoroughly the Williams sisters have dominated ‘Williams-don’, the only years in this decade a Williams sister failed to win the tournament were 2004 and 2006.

    Serena was upset in the 2004 finals and Venus lost in the 3rd round to Jelena Jankovic.

  4. Who wants to watch top-ranked tennis players that aren’t aggressive etc.? 50 years ago, women were playing a dainty game. No more – power serves, please! I think that it is great that the Williams sisters look like they pump iron and do all-around athletic prep as well as tennis-specific training.

  5. When Serena was due to meet Sharapova in the Wimbledon final some years ago (i think it was 2004) the Sun’s headline was Beauty and the Best. You do the math. However I would say that the Williams sisters are held very dear by the majority in the UK and since 2000 there has only been one Wimbledon final not to feature at least one of them.

  6. To echo RMJ, Whitlock is one of the worst sports “journalists” out there, and offers some of the worst high contrarianism this side of Camille Paglia.

    That said, your article is great, and dead-on.

  7. Threatening and aggressive seem perfectly apt adjectives to describe Serena Williams bullying behavior at the U.S. Open when she spewed curses and threatened to stuff a tennis ball down the throat of a diminutive line judge.

    It’s impossilbe to empathize with the author’s sense of grievance and ideology when she illustrates it by lionizing the thuggish Serena Williams.

  8. Dan, your comment got me wondering…. Have you ever referred to, or even considered John McEnroe (King of the Coutrside Tantrum), or Marat Safin (that beautiful Russian Rager) to be thuggish? Have you ever considered the lovely Maria Sharapova, with all of her grunt filled strokes, and arguments with refs to be ‘threatening or aggressive’? If you haven’t then I think that only emphasizes the point the author is trying to make. Think about it, really.

  9. I was searching the net to see if i buy a copy of a famous statue of saartjie baartman that my mom had and came across this article. I think its ridiculous to compare the occasional racist comment and usual bitchiness about any celebrity to what sarrah baartman went through. Maybe its because I am from South Africa and have been to where her remains were reburied after Nelson Mandela demanded them back. Youre generalising what america, western influence, the entire world’s perception on a few comments and historical references.

  10. Serena has nothing to be ashamed of, her buttox or anything else. As a Black man, I like it. Her build has been handed down to her through the generations. She is what she is, a beautiful young black woman with a very special talent. She will not have anytrouble finding a man, black or white, if she want one.

  11. What amazes me is our constant surprise that we are such an affronted people. Black People WAKE up! We are in this war, yes war, alone. Africa for Africans is not just the ravings of a few Pan African separatists. This has got to be the rally cry of all Black People. We need to quit trying to integrate into white society which is obviously insane and build a united Black African life for ourselves and our future generations.

  12. I most totally disagree with the author on every level. First, Sarah Baartman was a true victim of and in her time. She was totally powerless. Serena and Venus are both wealthy and empowered. Now, Serena does have a magnificent body and men of all races drool for it. Serena is well aware that men crave her, especially Black men, and this gives her power. Almost everything that the author writes is disingenuous. Most Black men I know, would give their right arm, just to kiss Serena’s derriere, and they can’t stand the thought that she prefers ‘white meat’. I’m a Black man who thinks she is drop dead georgeous, but I respect her preference. This is her prerogative. Again, the entire article is disingenuous to the hilt. Come on, this is 2014. Get real.

  13. Similarities and/or differences in the manner in which Sarah Baartman, Michelle Obama, Caster Semenya and Serena Williams have been described/talked about in public space.
    Introduction
    In introducing this discussion on how their exist similarity and difference in the ways in which Sarah Baartman , Michelle Obama, Serena William and Caster Semenya, most people were not aware where this eligible , outstanding African women came from and how they rose till they become very powerful in their fields of expertise. Sarah Baartman was an influential African American woman. These African women passed through injustice of racial disturbances and sexual harassment due to their origin and what they stood for. Research show that African American women were discriminated against because of the way their bodies looked. Learning about Michelle Obama, Sarah Baartman, Serena William, and Caster Semenya illustrate the existence of racial discrimination. disturbances that I have never been made aware of previously. Yes, of course, all four of these women are influential African Americans, but their similar stories are rooted much deeper than the color of their skin. Despite Michelle Obama playing role in the media, Caster Semenya’s public treatment and Sarah Baartman, they both possess similar stories.
    In the film of the life and times of Sarah Baartman, we are able to see how this woman from a small community, Khoisan, was publicly stripped from her Khoi Khoi nomadic tribe. The film exposes most things that lead to my shock. We can generally conclude that the Europeans stripped her of everything she stood for including her representation of a tribal woman of Africa. Baartman, was a strong tribal woman of Africa, but was seen as nothing more than a joke in Europe. (Gordon-Chipembere). European also went ahead and uses social and scientific stereotypes to torture Baartman until the time she died at such a tender age. Europeans proved to be very ignorant about this African woman. People could boldly say that Sarah Baartman was a woman sort of circus act for onlookers to gawk and stare at. Last but not least was the placing of Sarah Baartman “Hottentot Venus” in a cage. (Palgrave Macmillan)
    The article Under Cuvier’s Microscope: The Dissection of Michelle Obama in the Twenty First Century, the similarity on how unfair Michelle Obama and Baartman were treaded comes out clearly. Mitchell Obama was called with very heart breaking names such as “ape-like,” a “bitter, angry black woman,” and even a “terrorist.” . Despite the two African women lived in different times and racial eras, they share similar stories both were racially terrorized at a certain point in time. (Gordon-Chipembere) The article further shows that Michelle was tossed into a culture that does not bare any true imagination. It was almost as if the American culture was so dominated by Caucasians that having Michelle Obama as the first lady was seemingly unaccepted. The same goes for Sara Baartman. She was tossed into the European culture that was completely unaccepting of her nature. Without hesitation, we can say that both Baartman and Obama’s stories are similar in that racial issues arose as soon as they were thrown into a new place with new people. (Palgrave Macmillan).
    When looking and doing analysis on the article of, Is Serena Williams the New Sarah Baartman? the author tells us how Serena Williams undergo challenges which are almost similar to that of Baartman during his time in Europe. Her sister was denied respect due to her gender and race. In Europe, Baartman was made a circus act and was forced to show her genital area to the viewers. In recent news, sports newscasters referred to Serena Williams’ behind as a “back pain.” Although Serena was not brought up on stage in the nude, her story is similar to Baartman. (Martin) It is sad to note that Williams was also called an “underachiever.” Baartman and Williams were both underestimated in their times. Baartman, especially, was a strong tribal woman of Africa, but was seen as nothing more than a joke in Europe. Serena Williams is not seen as a joke necessarily, but faces the same sort of physical appearance pressures that Sara Baartman did in the 1800s in Europe. (Martin)
    In the article “Caster Semenya 21st Century ‘Hottentot Venus’?”, it is illustrated how Caster Semenya a South African Athlete was unfairly treated the same way her counterpart Sara Baartman was. In the case of Caster Semenya, her triumph over rural underdevelopment and poverty, which still is characterized so much of today’s South Africa, even though it is technically an NIC, means that her fate was linked to South Africa’s potential glory in ways that were far more charged than the nearly all-white Springboks. After all, if Semenya managed to outperform her Western competitors, who have the benefit of the best athletic training in the world, imagine what she and countless other Black South Africans could achieve if the playing field was level? No wonder Athletics South Africa (ASA) was in such a rush to have Miss Semenya compete in Berlin. The question, however, is whether they did so knowing that her gender was being questioned and that gender verification tests. It was so unfortunate that Semenya’s health records were not kept private during the investigation. According to most countries constitution, and in accordance to most human rights on privacy, it is invasion of privacy and totally illegal to expose someone’s medical information to media. The most hurting part of it also was that all this were done before Semenya ‘run of her life’. I do compare this Semenya with Baartman because although Baartman was not an athlete but the struggle she did was made public too. None about the two situations was kept private. Later it was found that the “West’s fascination with and disregard for the black body” got both women in a great deal of trouble and misfortune. (Ray)

    The above four African women discussed, they possess many similarity they underwent while they were young as they rose to their popularity, fame and power. However, these women were prominent in history at different times; there is no elimination of facts such as unfair treatment they undergo in the society.
    Conclusion
    Sarah Baartman, Michelle Obama, William and Caster Semenya’s situations and ordeal and the intellectual responses it engendered provide an important opportunity to examine how, even purportedly radical scholarship, can be blind to the specific experiences of African women and, thus, impose a priori categories on their experiences. In his exploration of the genealogy of intersex as gender, David Rubin (2012: 883) asks, “How do contestations over intersex converge and diverge with debates about the politics of difference and struggles for sexual and gender justice in a multicultural, transnational world?” My aim in this paper has been to highlight how racial, national, and cultural assumptions have shaped the notion of intersex identity and citizenship. Questions of race—in particular the formation of notions of “whiteness” and “blackness”—must be understood as a crucial part of the history and representations of intersex as a sexual formation. It is important to pay close attention to how narratives about comparative racial development may go unexamined (and thus assert even more power) in purportedly radical discourses.

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