Serena Williams: athlete, woman, human

Serena Williams discusses with a tournament official a code violation she received during the women's final of U.S. Open against Naomi Osaka of Japan.

By UM News

Serena Williams discusses with a tournament official a code violation she received during the women's final of U.S. Open against Naomi Osaka of Japan.

Serena Williams: athlete, woman, human

By UM News
Researchers in the UM Women’s and Gender Studies Program provide scholarly context around the actions of Serena Williams and the umpire Carlos Ramos during the U.S. Open women’s singles tennis final.

Serena Williams’s on-court exchange with umpire Carlos Ramos during her U.S. Open championship match on Sept. 8 against Naomi Osaka has created a furor in the world of tennis and beyond. Opinions range from those who view her behavior as unprofessional or childlike to those who see double standards and gender bias in the sport.

News@TheU reached out to UM’s Claire Oueslati-Porter and Sumita Dutt Chatterjee, who study topics of gender and sexuality in populations around the world, for insight on the role Williams’s identity as a successful black female athlete plays in conversations about this highly publicized scuffle. 

Many players in the history of tennis have received penalties for on-court outbursts. How is this scenario different?

There certainly have been countless meltdowns, angry tirades against umpires, and rackets thrown or broken in the past, but the question that begs asking is: Has there been such an outpouring of scrutiny of a player’s behavior before? Why are Williams’s actions being scrutinized on such a deep level when others have gotten away with similar or worse behaviors on and off court?

The most direct answer goes to the heart of who Serena Williams is—a very successful black female athlete in a sports and media world that has been historically, and continues to be, overwhelmingly white and male. Issues of gender and race cannot be sidestepped in this narrative, as women, particularly black women, must abide by certain implicit and explicit norms of behavior or they will be reprimanded with consequences, or made caricatures of themselves, or made to defend or explain their actions and why they did what they did.  

Are there historic perceptions of black women in U.S. society that helped to shape these “implicit and explicit norms”?

The 2018 U.S. Open is but the latest in a string of instances where Williams has contended with caricatures of black women in U.S. society. Since early in their careers, Serena and Venus Williams were subject to the specter of the Sapphire.  

According to sociologist Patricia Hill Collins, the Sapphire image, whose origins date to the Jim Crow era, is a black woman whose anger is comic and ridiculous. Hill Collins explains that the continued popularity of Sapphire caricatures in U.S. culture points to a denial of the reasons for black women’s anger. The recent cartoon of Williams by Mark Knight in Melbourne’s Herald Sun is just one example of the continued proliferation of the Sapphire image. 

When Williams pointed her finger at Ramos as he sat above her in his umpire’s seat and demanded an apology, she faced ridicule. The fact that a woman who has worked tremendously hard to be a superior athlete was accused of being a cheat has not been discussed with nearly enough outrage.  

How will Williams’s decision to assert herself continue to shape perceptions of gender and race?

Especially since she became a mother, Williams has resisted the controlling image of the “super strong black woman.” Having to be super strong and need-less can be life threatening, as when after giving birth, she had to convince the physicians to give her the proper treatment to save her life. The super strong black woman is never supposed to expect help from individuals or institutions.  

It is sad that while a lot is being written about Ms. Williams’s so called “emotional and angry” sparring with the umpire, there is little said about how despite anger and booing from a partisan crowd, she stood by her opponent Naomi Osaka in solidarity, asking all to celebrate Osaka’s victory. Women of color standing for each other does not make for sensational media coverage or attention-grabbing headlines. 

In the press conference following the match—when Williams said tearfully that it “blew her mind” that a game would be taken from her for calling the umpire a thief because men had called umpires far worse and not had a game taken as punishment—she made it clear that she would not accept the discipline that was meted out on her for asserting herself as a human being.  

As poet and professor of English Claudia Rankine says of Williams, “She shows us her joy, her humor and, yes, her rage. She gives us the whole range of what it is to be human, and there are those who can’t bear it, who can’t tolerate the humanity of an ordinary extraordinary person.” (Claudia Rankine, “The Meaning of Serena Williams – On Tennis and Black Excellence ” in New York Times, Aug.25, 2015)