About a year and a half ago, I wrote a piece for my college’s only feminist publication ranting about the ways in which people police, invalidate, and deny the humanity of Black women when they reduce our feelings of frustration to mere unprecedented “anger.” At the time I was responding to an ex-coworker’s assertion that he couldn’t have conversations with Black women because of our “attitudes.” Today I’m writing because after this weekend’s U.S. Open match, people of all races and identities are gaslighting Serena Williams and encouraging antiquated (my favorite word as of late) racist and sexist stereotypes teeming with respectability politics.
I’ve never been one for reactionary writing, but something about the way the media is covering this story is bothering me. Many publications are reducing Williams’ frustration to a meltdown, which is not only debasing but it posits asshole Carlos Ramos as the rational and righteous antithesis to Serena, instead of what he is: an entitled white man who, for the first time in his life, was challenged by someone he’d long-since deemed less than him. Since Saturday, media publications have published a mass of [shitty] articles that write off Serena’s rightful frustration as an outburst and wrongly blame her for the cloud shadowing Naomi Osaka’s win. Again, instead of shining a light on the dickhead who inserted himself in ways he shouldn’t have and allowed personal bigotry and insecurity to play too significant a role in the way this historical match played out. Fucking white men *insert eye-roll emoji*.
Equally frustrating as the misplaced blame placed on Serena are the non-Black folk who keep writing about this shitshow without acknowledging that this great disservice happened to two Black women. Yes, our critiques should be predicated on the fact that Carlos Ramos has a history of ignoring the “outbursts” of male tennis players—who’ve done far more egregious things directly to him than sling a few measly words his direction—but if that is our only lens for understanding this bullshit, we ignore a great deal of necessary analysis.
Perhaps because my ancestors used it as a tool of survival for decades, white people as a whole have become so used to demurred, placated versions of Black folks that any display of emotions—especially ones that directly challenge hierarchies—is abnormal to them. To many of them, Serena’s response to a wrongful accusation, an attack on her character, and the latest of power abuses by the USTA was “ugly and emotionally exhausting.”
Fuck that, though, ‘cus for me it was empowering. When I watched the clip of Serena demanding an apology from the umpire—demanding that he see her as an equal—I felt a surge of power go through my chest. Suddenly, bravery seemed so possible.
In spaces where my voice is ignored, my humanity denied in microaggressive ways, and my character attacked, it can be hard to overcome the lump of fear in my chest and speak up for myself. It can be hard to shake the decades-old teaching that in public [read: white] spaces, I must swallow my tongue because what’s at risk isn’t merely destruction of antiquated power structures, but also my income, my job-security, my livelihood. I watched in real time as similar injustices played out on national TV, then watched as Serena Williams refused to be belittled and disrespected. A lot of shit felt possible in that moment.
When Serena held Naomi Osaka during the award ceremony, I was reminded that nobody has my back like Black women do. In every walk of life, they extend to me compassion and alliance, and like Black women are doing for Serena, support me when white supremacist institutions and ideologists forbid me from human expression.
In short, the only pieces covering this fiasco that analyze race, gender, and the sociopolitical ramifications of dismissing Williams’ demand for respect as a mere outburst, are by Black people. Others have tried to force Williams to accept blame for the actions of a white man (on whose employment termination we are waiting), and the world is watching as publications release racist and sexist hot-takes (of which we are all fucking tired).
In all this I am reminded that even in 2018, intersectionality is gravely lacking in many people’s liberation politics. No-more-hot-takes-that-deny-the-many-ways-that-people-experience-this-world challenge, 2018.
P.S., this white man literally wrote Naomi Osaka as a demure opposite to an indignant Serena. (Careful, sir, your fucking misogyny is showing.) Also it’s telling of the ways people are trying hard to erase Osaka’s Blackness. But, other folks are writing on this. Read what they’re saying.
© Ama Akoto (2018)