As a political symbol and an athletic powerhouse, Serena Williams is “the greatest” in her sport.
by Dave Zirin
July 14, 2015
There are numerous articles—terrific articles—defending Serena Williams against the racism and sexism that have long stalked her career. This will not be one of those articles. As long as gutter invective is hurled at Serena, there will always be a need to defend her—and by extension stand up for everyone who feels the primary sting of these attacks. (J.K. Rowling is even standing up for Serena, adding a new dimension to her #blackgirlmagic.) But, just as I wrote last week about not merely “defending” women’s sports but actually going on “offense,” we need to be similarly aggressive in stating factually just who Serena is becoming before our very eyes. If our eyes remain narrowed in a defensive stance, we could be missing a transcendent chapter in sports and social history beginning to coalesce.
Serena Williams just won her 21st Grand Slam. That’s the same number every other active women’s player has collected combined. In her last 28 matches she is 28-0, and at the US Open this August, Ms. Williams will be favored to win the sport’s first calendar Grand Slam since Steffi Graf did it 27 years ago. At 33, Williams actually seems to be gaining strength, and as John McEnroe said to ESPNW’s Jane McManus, among women, “she could arguably be the greatest athlete of the last 100 years.” I think this even understates her case. She is our Jordan. She is our Jim Brown. She is our Babe Ruth, calling his shots. She is no longer content to dodge bullets, but understands how to stop them. Serena is that rare athlete who has not only mastered her sport. She’s harnessed it.
But Serena Williams is more than just our 21st-century Michael Jordan. If we take a break from defending her, which her detractors do not make easy, it becomes increasingly clear that she is also perhaps our Muhammad Ali. That’s sacrilege in some circles, and understandably so. Ali risked years in federal prison to stand up to an unjust war, becoming the most famous draft resister in history. His very presence at different points inspired the first Pan-Africanist stirrings of Malcolm X, the anti-war evocations of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., and the very mental survival of a prisoner half-way around the world named Nelson Mandela. There is and never will be anyone like Ali, without question. But this is also not the 1960s, and there will also never be anyone like Serena.
Serena Williams is our Ali, and before defending that statement, I want to break down what, in my view, makes Ali “Ali.” To be in Muhammad Ali’s tradition of athletes, there are three basic boxes one would need to check: The first is that the sportsperson in question would need to be amongst “the greatest” in their field. As mentioned above, Serena more than checks that box. Secondly, one would have to be polarizing in a way that speaks to issues beyond the field: thrilling some people politically and enraging others with every triumph. Similarly, a loss would feel like more than “just a game” to their fans: more like a punch to the gut. Lastly, to even be in this conversation, one would have to not just “represent” or symbolize a political yearning but actually stand for something, and risk their commercial appeal by taking such stands. Serena doesn’t only check these boxes. She has, I would argue, confronted—and overcome—more obstacles than even the great Muhammad ever had to face. Her political powers of representation, every time she emerges victorious, is off the meter.
Symbolically, the very audacity of Serena Williams—a black woman from Compton who has owned a country-club sport with style, flair, and the occasional leopard suit, is without comparison. She is “peak Tiger Woods” in skill, but cut with Ali’s transgressive style: the equivalent of the Champ telling the craggy, macho world of boxing that he was “so very pretty.” But not even Ali had to achieve in an atmosphere as inhospitable as Serena’s athletic setting. This is about the very particular intersectional oppression she has faced as a black woman. This iconic body she proudly inhabits—her shape, her curves, her musculatur—has been the subject of scorn, regardless of the results. Even at his most denigrated, Ali’s loudest detractors conceded that his physical body was a work of athletic sculpture. As a man—a black man—he was objectified with a mix of admiration, longing, and envy, in the ways black male athletes have always been seen since the days of plantation sports. It was his mind and mouth that truly made him threatening. People wanted Ali to “shut up and box” for years before finally stripping him of his title. But as that phrase implies, they still wanted him to box. Not Serena. Instead, she has had to face a tennis world that has made it clear in tones polite and vulgar that it would be so nice if she wasn’t there. But she has shut them all up with the same wicked power that defines her game. She, like Martina Navratilova before her, has forced sportswriters and fans to confront what a female athlete’s body can look like, and they have often responded as terribly as we would both expect and fear. While overwhelmingly male sports media and many tennis fans mocked and continue to belittle her appearance, Williams brushes them off—at least publicly—like so much shoulder dust. The greater her stature, the more pathetic they look. The higher her profile, the lower they seem. In Ali’s day, William F. Buckley saw it as his “white man’s burden” to tear him down. Serena has Buckley’s media spawn attempting the same and they look just as small, just as pathetic.
Then there are her explicit politics. This is not the 1960s and there isn’t a mass movement to deify Serena Williams the way there was one to lift Ali, when the world was insistent upon his destruction. But that only makes the stands she has chosen to take all the more remarkable. In 2000, Serena Williams pulled out of the Family Circle Cup in South Carolina in solidarity with the NAACP’s call to boycott over the flying of the Confederate flag atop the state house. After her Wimbledon victory Saturday, she spoke about the recent “Mother Emmanuel” Church murders in Charleston, calling it a “tragedy yet again,” and an “unspeakably sad” moment that takes its “toll.” However, she pledged to “continue to have faith, continue to believe, continue to be positive, continue to help people to the best of [my] ability.”
She has been a voice for women’s pay equity in the sport, backing her sister Venus’s powerful push for economic gender justice in a sport that at one time paid women with bouquets of flowers. Most compellingly, as the Black Lives Matter movement has attempted to focus the nation on both police violence and the injustices that surround our system of mass incarceration, Serena has chosen to partner with the Equal Justice Initiative, an organization that fights for prisoners’ rights amid the racism that pervades our criminal-justicve system. In a move as audacious as it was affecting, she even tied her return to Indian Wells, a tournament she had boycotted after being showered with racist catcalls in 2001, to the raising of money for the organization. Using boxing as a platform for these kinds of politics amidst the 1960s was certainly legendary. But doing it in 2015 in the world of tennis? It’s simply above and beyond, like clearing a hurdle while wearing cement shoes.
If anything, the greatest difference between Serena and Ali is the absence of that mass social movement to elevate her presence and push the non-believers to see what we have in front of us. Muhammad Ali went from despised to beloved because a mass black-freedom struggle and anti-war movement took him as their own. He became more than an athlete: He became a social question. Similarly, a movement fighting for #BlackLivesMatter and gender justice, a movement of struggle that includes the young women of Ferguson, Bree Newsome, and everyone fighting fiercely to reshape this country, has the potential to deliver Serena Williams to even greater heights. She is also becoming a social question, because she represents in so many ways the questions that people are facing in their daily lives. In other words, she poses this very sharp interrogation to the viewer: When you see her serve, her volley, and her physical self; when you hear her words, her concerns, her causes, which side are you on? This remarkable athletic force of nature, or those trying—and failing—to tear her down?
After her Wimbledon victory, Serena Williams was asked which athlete she admired the most. She said that it was Muhammad Ali. Not for his boxing but for “what he stood for” outside the ring. For years people have asked who would be “the next Muhammad Ali.” If we dare to lift our heads, it will be clear that she is right in front of us. In the years to come, we may need to change the question and ask who will be “the next Serena Williams.”
Dave Zirin is the sports editor of The Nation.
Serena Williams speaks to the media following her 6-4, 6-4 victory over Garbine Muguruza.
Q. Must be an unbelievable feeling right now. Can you describe the emotions getting to this point from the start of the day? What do you think of the term 'Serena Slam' now?
SERENA WILLIAMS: Man, it is really a great feeling. Just the moment is still setting in a little bit. I'm just really excited about it because I didn't want to talk about the Serena Slam. I honestly wouldn't have thought last year after winning the US Open I would win the Serena Slam at all.
It's super exciting. I just knew I wanted to win Wimbledon this year. Of all the Grand Slams, it was the one I hadn't won in a while. It was like, I really want to win Wimbledon. It happened. Just amazing. It feels really, really good.
Q. How can you make the mental switch after a tough Roland Garros?
SERENA WILLIAMS: I definitely think the extra week helped. I took a week off after Roland Garros because I wasn't feeling that great. I just kind of trained and practiced and practiced. You know, then the moment happened. Yeah, I really think that week in between helped me a lot.
Q. You come across to us as kind of ageless.
SERENA WILLIAMS: That's a good thing (smiling).
Q. Do you notice any difference in your body or your ability, work ethic, from years ago?
SERENA WILLIAMS: I mean, I feel almost better now. I mean, I do have some aches and pains. But overall physically I feel like I'm better. I feel like I'm more fit. I feel like I can do more than I did 10, 12, whatever years ago. Yeah, I just think, you know, like I said, I just keep reinventing myself in terms of working out, in terms of my game. It's been working.
Q. Can you give us a word on Garbine Muguruza and what you see for her future?
SERENA WILLIAMS: Oh, my gosh. I think she's such a great player. Like I said, she's beaten me before. I think she really stepped up to the plate today. She was determined to do well and to win. She came out there to win. She wasn't out there just to play a final. I think that says a lot about her and her future. She never gave up literally ever.
Q. You've won 88% in the first five rounds, 87% in the last five rounds. You're basically just as good against the best players in semis and finals as earlier. Why do you think that is?
SERENA WILLIAMS: I feel like I'm in the semis, only one more match to go. That's how I think. I may as well give it my all. Obviously, I don't want to lose in the first round or early. I have a lot, but I never really want to. I always try my best. I don't think there's any reason in particular. I just think it kind of happens. I just try to do the best I can for every single match.
Q. I know you stay in the present or do your best to stay in the present...
SERENA WILLIAMS: Oh, gosh.
Q. When did you first think of New York or have you not maybe?
SERENA WILLIAMS: Oh, c'mon (smiling).
You know, it took me a little while. I think when I did my interview for BBC after the match, I did the whole presentation, I did the whole walk around the court. I was peaceful, feeling really good. Maybe a little after that I started thinking about New York.
Q. Could you give us a bit of detail? When you said you reinvented your workouts? I've been reinventing mine for a long time.
SERENA WILLIAMS: You got to get on the Serena plan (laughter). No, because I've never loved working out. When I first started, I would always ride the bike, work on my legs. Then I started doing more running. Then I started doing more sprint work. At one point I was boxing. Every few years I'm always doing something physically wise.
I mean, there's so many sports you can do to stay physically fit. Like if I was still running, I think I would just not want to do it anymore. I wouldn't want to stay fit.
There's so many things you can do to stay fit and it works.
Q. What's the latest you've done?
SERENA WILLIAMS: Right now I'm dancing a lot, so...
Q. Any particular style?
SERENA WILLIAMS: Contemporary.
Q. Describe that a bit to me. I don't do that, I'm too old.
SERENA WILLIAMS: Well, contemporary is like, I don't know how to describe it. It's just lots of movements. It's not like super fast. It's slow, not too slow. Sometimes a lot of floor work, so... Yeah, I'm serious (smiling).
Q. When you were dancing around Centre Court after you won, you thought of New York, what were you thinking?
SERENA WILLIAMS: Well, actually I didn't think about it till the interview. Then I just thought, Oh, man, I've won New York three times in a row. I hope this isn't the year that I go down. I want to do well there. We'll see. I mean, I've won three, so that's not bad.
Q. What's been the key of winning four majors in a row?
SERENA WILLIAMS: I don't know. I know just last year I was just so down because I lost so early in three of the Grand Slams. By the time New York came around, I was like, I just want to get to the quarterfinal of a Grand Slam. When I won my fourth round match, I was elated. I was like, Yeah, finally. I've just been super relaxed. I've been taking time every match. I didn't have an easy go this tournament, but I still just take it one match at a time.
Q. What has this process of the Serena Slam, what has it taught you about yourself?
SERENA WILLIAMS: I've learned a lot. That I'm able to do anything. Anyone's able to do anything they really set their mind to. I also learned it takes teamwork. By the way, it's not me. It's a lot of people behind me, from my coach, who I think does a wonderful job keeping me consistent in not only all the Grand Slams, but all the tournaments in between as well, which I think helps me for the slams. The physical work, the training. So it's a lot of work. You know, I think nowadays, more than anytime before, it's really a team effort.
Q. After the last point of the match, there was a pause. It seemed like there was a little bit of confusion as to what was happening. What did you think was happening in that moment? What did it feel like?
SERENA WILLIAMS: Well, I wasn't sure, 'cause I won the point, but I was looking at the umpire, I was so focused. She had started playing really well. I wasn't sure if I was going to serve again. I was so focused. I was like, Okay, is that the match? Is that it? Plus she didn't say, Game, set, match really loud, so I wasn't sure if there was some type of call or something. I didn't hear her at all say, Game, set, match. So I was just really confused.
Q. There's a lot of aspects to this victory, history made. 21, six Wimbledons, Serena Slam. What speaks loudest to you?
SERENA WILLIAMS: For sure the Serena Slam. I mean, I've been trying to win four in a row for 12 years, and it hasn't happened. I've had a couple injuries. You know, it's been an up and down process. I honestly can't say that last year or two years ago or even five years ago I would have thought that I would have won four in a row. So just starting this journey, having all four trophies at home, is incredible. You know, that for me stands out the most.
Q. With all that you've achieved, with what you might achieve in the future, what do you consider the toughest thing to accomplish?
SERENA WILLIAMS: Uhm, the toughest thing to accomplish is just to stay in the moment. It's easy to go out there and say, I want to win, then try to win. But you have to win seven matches. You have to win each match, you have to win each set, you have to win each point. It's not anything that's super easy, but, you know, you just have to stay in the moment and do your best.
Q. How do you do it?
SERENA WILLIAMS: Just do it (laughter).
Q. Throughout the match today, at any stage did you feel or think, I'm going to lose this?
SERENA WILLIAMS: Yeah, she started out playing really well. But then I knew, okay, I started to understand what she was doing better. I thought, I need to do this. I had to problem solve. My thing was just get up two breaks, just do the best you can. That's all.
Q. Which one was the toughest, this one or Watson?
SERENA WILLIAMS: I don't think you can compare 'em. You know, I think both matches were definitely very interesting. I think one was a third round and one is a final. You really can't compare a final to a third round match.
Q. It's been a long time in tennis, 27 years, since we've had someone going to New York with a chance to win the Grand Slam. A lot of attention and hype. What are you expecting from that?
SERENA WILLIAMS: You know what, I feel like I'll be okay. I feel like if I can do the Serena Slam, I will be okay heading into the Grand Slam. Like I always say, there's 127 other people that don't want to see me win. Nothing personal, they just want to win. So it's just, you know, going to go in there. I had a really tough draw. This gives me confidence that if I had this draw, I can do it again. I'll just do the best I can. You know, I really don't feel like I have anything to lose. I've kind of solidified my place at No. 1. My goal is always to end the year at No. 1. I just want to make sure when I play Australia, I don't have pressure going into that.
Yeah, I feel like I've kind of knocked all that out and we'll just go from there.
Q. In terms of all time great sporting accomplishments, how much are you able to put into perspective what you're in the midst of?
SERENA WILLIAMS: Yeah, it's huge. It's really, really huge. But I haven't done it. I have the Serena Slam now, which is amazing. But, you know, it's different to actually have something and then try to accomplish it.
Of course I'm going to try to do the best I can, but I don't have the Grand Slam in my hands. I can't really feel that if it's not there. You know, hopefully I'll do well at the Open and then I can answer that question.
Q. You mentioned your coach. What has he brought to everything that you do that you didn't have before?
SERENA WILLIAMS: Well, obviously something's working. You can't argue with results. I think he does a really great job with keeping me focused. I have really great strategies when I go out there on the court. I kind of know what to expect, I know what to do. You know, for every match, I'm in it. I'm not halfway there or halfway not there. So I think it's just been consistency and just keeping that for every single match.
Q. Is it difficult to get to that position? Easy to say. How difficult is it to keep that focus all year round?
SERENA WILLIAMS: Yeah, it's actually easier than one would think. Well, it's easier for me because it doesn't matter where I go, I don't necessarily like the loss. But sometimes losses do help me. But, yeah, so it definitely keeps me motivated. But I've always been like that my whole career. I just feel like I have a little more bigger game plan going out there. You know, yeah.
Q. It took you some time before you were finally able to win one more Wimbledon than Venus. I'd like to know to remind you with your age, there will be somebody that tomorrow could be 33 years old and win Wimbledon. Do you think that is probable or difficult?
SERENA WILLIAMS: I don't understand. You think tomorrow there's going to be...
Q. Roger. Another guy who is same age as you. He may win Wimbledon, too. Is it probable?
SERENA WILLIAMS: Absolutely. If I can do it, God knows he can do it. I saw his semifinal match. He was playing unbelievable. I was totally inspired by that.
Q. Favorite or not?
SERENA WILLIAMS: You know, he's playing Novak. He's strong No. 1. He's defending champ. You know, it's tough to say. But I think it's going to be an unbelievable match. I really look forward to watching it. I'm glad I'm not playing either one of them.
Q. You wear very pretty outfits the days after and the parties. When you're choosing the outfit, did you have doubts, if I don't win, I'll wear that outfit someplace else?
SERENA WILLIAMS: Yeah, I always bring a dress just in case, always. I found out the better dresses I bring, I usually win. If I bring a not so nice one, I don't win. I brought a really nice one this time. I'm not sure. Try to think positive, you know. Try to think positive.
Q. 5 1 in the second set, a game away, you wound up serving twice, getting broken. Came to 5 4. What was that like for you? Was it sort of nerves at being that close? What happened there from 5 1 in the second set?
SERENA WILLIAMS: I mean, I think she returned really well today. How many double faults did I hit? I had a lot of double faults. Eight. Oh, my gosh. I hit a lot of double faults, so that doesn't really help you. In warmup today my serve was off. I probably served more than usual because I didn't get it right and I kept going, kept going. I just didn't feel my serve today. I think if I had felt it better during the match, maybe I would have been able to close it out. She also returned really well, so I think that helped her out and helped her get back in it. She also never gave up. She never gave up hope of raising the trophy.
Q. A pretty remarkable week for American sportswomen, you and the soccer team, as well. What is your take on what it all mean in terms of being a female playing sports in America?
SERENA WILLIAMS: Olympics, baby. USA at the Olympics.
I was so happy for the USA women to win the soccer. I was cheering them on. It was great. They always do really well. A little nervous sometimes. It was so wonderful to see the ladies win the soccer. I'm just riding their wave, you know.
Q. Sorry to be blunt. Does being the oldest Grand Slam winner fill you with pride or does it frighten you a little bit?
SERENA WILLIAMS: I'm officially the eldest?
SERENA WILLIAMS: Cool. I mean, no, I feel great. I definitely don't feel old. I think in life I'm still pretty young. You know, I think, like I always say, with new technology, new workouts, all this other stuff, I think the life of an athlete is changing and the longevity is becoming longer.
Q. How many more Wimbledons do you have left in you?
SERENA WILLIAMS: Oh, gosh. I'm just living for the moment. Obviously I'll be here next year, God willing, to try to defend my title. But we'll see.
Q. Can the elder you look back and find deep inside that little girl that had these dreams? Do you think, Wow, look what I've done here?
SERENA WILLIAMS: Not yet. One day, if I ever retire, I'll definitely look back. I'll be like, Oh, I did a good job.
Right now I'm really into just continuing to be the greatest champion that I can be and the best player and the best role model that I can be. I just really try to stay focused on that.
Q. Do you not enjoy the ride as much now, at the end you'll enjoy it later?
SERENA WILLIAMS: I definitely enjoy the ride, but I'm also not looking back. You know, I'll be like, Wow, I did so good.
If you look back, it's so easy to become satisfied and complacent. That's one thing I don't want to have.
Q. Throughout the match you always were focused. You said you tried to kind of stay in the moment. What is your inner voice saying while you're trying to be focused?
SERENA WILLIAMS: I don't know. Usually I'm singing a song in my head. Then if I stop singing it, I usually start losing, then I go back to singing. It's crazy up there. You don't want to be up there (smiling).
For everyone out there who thinks that the only reason Serena Williams has won 21 grand slam singles titles, 13 grand slam doubles titles, 4 Olympic gold medals, and a career Golden Slam is purely because of her "power", think again! While nobody denies that Serena is among the most powerful and athletic women ever to play her sport, these attributes alone do not bring success in a technical sport such as tennis.
There are many other powerful athletes on the tennis tour who haven't even come close to matching Serena's accomplishments. Davenport, Kuznetsova, Petrova, Safina, and Sharapova were all "power" players, while Capriati, Clijsters and Henin can all match the athleticism of Williams. Venus can match Serena in both of these categories. But none of them have been able to consistanly achieve as Serena has. The main reason is the mental edge she has over them.
This video demonstrates the variety of shots that Serena can employ which often goes overlooked when people just assume that she just hits the ball as hard as she can each stroke. It also shows the strategy that she uses against certain players in different situations. Serena rarely ever gets credit for her technical abilities or her ability to out think her opponents. She scores an A in both categories!
When Serena Williams beat Garbine Muguruza 6-4, 6-4 Saturday at Wimbledon to complete her second career Serena Slam, a whole lot of entries had to be rearranged in the record book.
Here's a by-the-numbers look at some of the amazing feats Williams has accomplished.
By The Numbers - Serena Dominance:
The world only has ugliness for black women. That’s why Serena Williams is so important
For two decades, Williams has dominated an overwhelmingly white sport, a powerful statement on black womanhood
On Saturday morning when I dragged myself out of bed to watch Serena Williams compete for her 21st Grand Slam title at Wimbledon, I sent my mother a simple text: “Tennis?” More than a thousand miles away and one time zone behind, Mama texted back, “Yes!”
This has been our ritual since I left home nearly half a lifetime ago, just around the time it became clear that Williams Sisters were a force that would not go away quietly. My mother and I spent many lazy summer weekends watching greats like Steffi Graf, Monica Seles, Andre Agassi, Pete Sampras, Jimmy Connors and John McEnroe. I vaguely remember watching Arthur Ashe play, and my mother always took care to point out Black players like Zina Garrison and Malivai Washington. Unlike basketball, which I also loved back then, in the heyday of Michael Jordan, tennis was an overwhelmingly white sport.
Then came the Black girls—sisters from Compton with beads and braids, playing “power tennis.” That is how sportscasters like Mary Carillo, Pam Shriver and Chris Evert derisively referred to the Sisters’ monster serves and walloping forehand winners down the line way back then. A few months younger than Venus, and a few older than Serena, I was instantly protective and proud of these young sisters the same age as me, who had entered an all-white world and dominated white women with such consistency and force, and so unapologetically, that white women’s heads spun on a regular basis.
It is never a thing Black people would admit in polite company (which is to say, in front of white people), but watching these beautiful, powerful Black girls square up against white girls and win is catharsis. Despite sportscaster commentary which focused heavily on the athleticism of their bodies while giving them no credit for being thoughtful or strategic on the court, the sisters won, and kept on winning.
I’m sure many hoped we would not be here in the middle of the second decade of the 20th century still watching the Williams sisters compete against each other in grand slams. But we are. And while Venus — long my favorite of the two (loyalty to the sister born the same year as me if nothing else) — no longer enjoys the same success and visibility as her sister, the two are still seen as some of the most formidable players in the game.
Some things have changed since we began to call the names of Venus and Serena. Their games have improved. Serena has figured out how to corral all that power into a gorgeous, focused finesse on the court. Watching Venus play at Wimbledon is like watching a Black girl ballet on grass. Because of Venus’ active campaign with Billie Jean King, women now earn equal pay with men at Grand Slam tournaments. And Chris Evert, one of the Williams Sisters’ most ardent critics a decade ago, can now regularly be heard calling Serena the “greatest” to ever play the game. What has not changed, however, is the ugly and virulent racist commentary to which Serena is subjected each and every time she wins.
Media personalities suggest that she’s doping. And racists emboldened by the mouthpiece and anonymity of twitter misgender her, calling her a man and deriding the strength of her body. In a piece at the New York Times, Ben Rothenberg interviews several current women’s tennis players who evince varying levels of anxiety about how playing the sport makes them look “unfeminine.” In the midst of this, Serena says, “I’m really happy with my body type, and I’m really proud of it. Obviously it works out for me. I talk about it all the time, how it was uncomfortable for someone like me to be in my body.”
That kind of body confidence from a dark-skinned, “thick” Black woman, with a round posterior that all my homegirls and I, straight and gay alike, admire, is hard won. This world does not love Black girls or women, and it takes every opportunity to project its own ugliness onto our bodies. We spend a lifetime trying to resurrect our self-esteem from these hastily dug mass graves.
The distortion and devaluing of Black women’s gender identity is a curious feature of what Dr. Moya Bailey has termed “misogynoir,” which refers to the unique hatred of Black women and girls. Female athletes, of all races, are routinely misgendered and harassed in ways that are both misogynist and transphobic. There is nothing wrong with gender-noncomforming, female-bodied people embracing masculinity, but there is something wrong when femininity is viewed as exclusive to white womanhood. There is something wrong when one’s particular “accidents of birth” are more valued, more protected, and more well-compensated. That Maria Sharapova gets more money than Serena is the definition of white privilege. Their shared womanhood does not change that. In fact, the difference in treatment and reception of these two players demonstrates quite clearly the very different ways in which Black and White women in the U.S. experience womanhood.
But the problem is longer and wider than the dimensions of the tennis court. In a series of papers, Emory University business professor Erika V. Hall and her colleagues have found that in everything from business, to dating, to sports, research participants routinely associate gender stereotypes with racial groups. Black people, regardless of gender are perceived to be more masculine. Asian people, regardless of gender, are perceived to be more feminine. Blackness was associated with words like “masculine, vigorous, strong, muscular, and burly,” whereas being Asian was associated with words like “feminine, graceful, gentle, beautiful, and delicate.” These stereotypes affected hiring practices, such that jobs which were perceived as needing feminine qualities, like say a librarian, favored Asian candidates over jobs that seemingly needed masculine qualities, for example a security guard, which favored Black candidates. When it comes to interracial dating, these racial stereotypes show up starkly. The study found that white “men had a romantic preference for Asians over Blacks” and white women “had a romantic preference for Blacks over Asians.”
In the midst of this terrible mix of gendered racial stereotypes, racial animus and jealousy, privilege, and misogynoir, Serena Williams rises as the champion. A few weeks ago, I had the supreme pleasure of watching Serena win her 20th major title at the French Open in person. I will be watching next month as she attempts her 22nd title, her first career grand slam (winning all four majors in the same calendar year) and her opportunity to tie the title record of all time great Steffi Graf. Each match that she plays forces America to reckon with the strength, beauty, ferocity, indefatigability, heart, graciousness, confidence, anger, fierceness and power of Black womanhood. For nearly two full decades now, the Williams sisters have been the emcees of an annual celebration of American athletic dominance — a series of moment singularly spectacular for this one reason: I can think of no other moment when so many Americans of all hues come together to celebrate, or merely acknowledge the power, precision, and panache of Black womanhood.