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Serena Williams, Naomi Osaka, And The ‘Right Kind Of Woman’

Modified from flickr/ cinnamon_girl

The reaction to Williams’ and Osaka’s U.S. Open match has everything to do with the roles we expect women of color to play.


“That respectful bow that #NaomiOsaka gave to Serena Williams at the presentation ceremony…that’s Japanese culture for you. An athlete and a lady. Maybe it’s time for Serena Williams to take some lessons.”

I blinked in disbelief at this Facebook post from a woman friend in India, but it found an echo across the world, especially here in America, in the wake of Osaka’s win and  Williams’ loss at the U.S. Open. We decided we could tell two of the world’s greatest athletes about the conduct of cultures, the comportment of ladies, and who exactly needs to school whom.

The controversy raging around Williams and Osaka has made many casual observers  think they are experts on tennis, umpiring, and sportsmanship. But we’ve also been weighing in on something we already have down pat—prescribing women’s behavior.

What is more disconcerting this time around is that we’re pitting two women of color against one other. Tennis is a spectator sport, but here the gaze is heightened; what transpired last Saturday was ultimately not just a game, but a spectacle of two brown, female bodies vying for glory in a sport that has been historically white and male. As if on cue, white male Australian cartoonist Mark Knight delivered an image of Serena Williams as a gigantic, fuming baby with an unruly Afro, stamping on her racket while the umpire, Carlos Ramos, asks Naomi Osaka, “ Can you just let her win?” Look closer and you will see that Osaka is drawn as a tall, skinny blonde, looking up at Ramos with both poise and a childlike innocence. Composure, here, is not for brown skin.

It’s easy to think that, because Osaka is a woman of color, racism and sexism are not at play. But when my friend and others refer to Japanese culture, what culture are they comparing it to? What ‘culture’ does that Facebook post conjure up for Serena Williams, one might wonder. What we leave unsaid speaks volumes about our beliefs. Naomi Osaka has a Japanese mother and a black, Haitian father. She holds dual citizenship in America and Japan and is a New Yorker.

Why don’t we credit her Haitian background as making her gracious?

Osaka’s victory has pushed Japan to both redefine and articulate what it means to be Japanese.  “Her soul is Japanese,” a Japanese spectator told The New York Times. “She doesn’t express her joy so excessively. Her playing style is aggressive, but she is always humble in interviews. I like that.”

This isn’t the first time that a Japanese woman has been admired for being “demure,” no matter that here she is being crowned a world class athlete and would be forgiven for whooping it up a bit. As is so often the case with controversies around race and gender, what happened with Serena Williams and Naomi Osaka tells us more about who we are, not them. This year’s U.S. Open tells us who we want our women and people of color to be.

Leslie Jamison—author of The Empathy Examswrote in the New York Times earlier this year: “The sad woman often looks beautiful in her suffering: ennobled, transfigured, elegant. Angry women are messier. Their pain threatens to cause more collateral damage.”

Jamison is white. Her essay went viral, tapping into a growing national female rage—albeit a non-violent one—that’s been swelling since the Trump election and the staggering revelations of #MeToo movement. We can barely come to terms with white women’s anger, so how do we begin to find empathy, let alone support the rageful tears of a black female athlete?

What do we discern from Maria Sharapova’s words in her autobiography for Serena Williams’ behavior in the locker room after she was defeated by Sharapova in the 2004 Wimbledon final? Williams had let go, “guttural sobs, the sort that makes you heave for air, the sort that scares you…I got out as quickly as I could, but she knew I was there,” Sharapova wrote in Unstoppable: My Life So Far. Elsewhere in the book and in interviews, Sharapova has spoken of Williams’ “thick arms and legs,” and refereed to herself as “the skinny kid who beat her.”

Sharapova often spoke of being intimidated by Williams on the court. Fair enough. But the white imagination has an ongoing history of looking at even the most vulnerable moment of a black body (Serena was sobbing in the locker room!) and still feeling like a victim. The #sayhername campaign led by scholar-activist Kimberle Crenshaw is painfully poignant in describing phenomenon; the black female body has been struck dead by the white man’s fear—again and again and again—yet somehow it’s the white man who lives in terror.

Whether or not Sharapova taps into the white imagination in thinking of Williams’ sobs as animalistic, she certainly taps into the collective imaginations of gender and beauty— “thickness” as masculine or unattractive, skinny as feminine, desirable.

When we shrink away from a black woman’s guttural sobs, how could we be expected to lean into her rage?  We can’t, or at least we won’t. Let us not forget that Sandra Bland was pulled out of her car, tased, and arrested to later die in jail because she “mouthed off” to a man in power.

You shouldn’t trust me to explain tennis. I have never played a sport in my life. But I am a brown-skinned woman who has faced the consequences of mouthing off, with my family in India and at my job in the United States. I heard something in the voice and saw something in the body of Texas state trooper Brian Encinia when he dragged Bland out of her car ( “You seem irritated,” he said, clearly warning her that she had no right to be irritated, leave alone angry).

I heard the same coiled anger from the umpire Carlos Ramos on Saturday. Countless women and even more women of color know this man’s voice and feel his body language in our bones: smile, submit, be grateful to be here.

Male tennis players like John McEnroe (the prince of rage on the court),  Blake and Andy Roddick have spoken in support of Williams’ claims of sexism ,and said that they have said and done worse and gotten away with it. Yet, greater in number are those who will protest that all we are demanding from Williams is “sportsmanship,” and that the queen has fallen from grace for her own “childish” and “bratty” (the gentlest terms borrowed from the best of Twitter) behavior. I ask them to consider that racism and sexism do not show up in a vacuum without a complicated and painful history.

The sight of Williams weeping and pleading with a white female and white male referee (“This has happened to me too many times here!”) raises the specter of too many racist images to even count. Williams was crying out against a cumulative history of punitive consequences; we should hear in her cries the silenced voices of history.

For instance, earlier this year, Inside Tennis reporter Bill Simmons asked Williams if she was “intimidated” by Sharapova’s “model good looks.” He said he had waited 14 years to ask her this question, prompted by observations of the two women’s looks made by none other than Donald Trump in 2004 after Sharapova defeated Williams at Wimbledon.

A white man egged on by another white man to ask a black women—one the best athletes on the entire planet—to discuss how her face and body compares to that of a thin white woman. It’s racist, grotesque, predictable. And it adds up. That Serena Williams shows up on the court a whole and graceful athlete after a series of such abuses should leave us in awe. But, ah, Williams was grossly wrong to point to sexism last Saturday.

The New York Times brought in tennis great Martina Navratilova to get us to calm down and examine Williams’ behavior. “What Serena Got Wrong,” said the headline. And the subhead—Just because the guys might be able to get away with it doesn’t mean it’s acceptable.

What Ms. Navratilova—and others who come in with such simplistic rhetoric—should also know is this: as tennis great Billie Jean King pointed out on Twitter and later in the Washington Post, just because penalties are also handed out to male players doesn’t mean they aren’t handed out to women more often. Further, men who misbehave are not just allowed to, but rewarded for it, sometimes being given endearing titles: Andre Agassi was called “l’enfant terrible” of tennis. No such cute French terms bubble up for Ms. Williams.

Williams and Osaka dared to play. But we don’t get to sit back and enjoy that; there is no naked glee for the marginalized. We were given the spectacle of our women in tears. Like millions of women succeeding at the workplace and apologizing for it, Osaka apologized to the crowds for defeating Williams. And Williams did what many women do at the workplace. She recovered from her own disappointment and took care of her young female colleague. Williams asked the crowd to stop the booing; she asked the stadium to celebrate Osaka. She embraced her and looked genuinely happy for her victorious opponent.

But the spectacle demands that we see a black body in rage, not in repose, and a docile, demure woman set against her to make her rage all the more appalling. It doesn’t matter if that’s not who these women are. These are the roles we want them to play.

Writer Damon Young calls this the weight that black Americans carry, which robs them of their big moments. The pictures of both Williams and Osaka in tears reminded me of another moment in which black winners were denied the pure, dazzling moment of celebration in the spotlights, sashaying to center stage, awash in applause and uproarious cheers, the way white victories often are. I thought of the moment at the Oscars two years ago, when Moonlight won for Best Picture and some confusion over cards handed the spotlight for a moment to La La Land. By the time the black stars and filmmakers of Moonlight arrived on stage, the story had shifted, the lustre dulled. Sure, Warren Beatty and Faye Dunaway made a mistake. It could have happened to anyone.

But you see, it happens to some people more often than to others. Some of them stay gracious. Some don’tthey fall from grace.