Serena Williams and the privilege of righteous anger

Serena Williams is the best player in women’s tennis, without question. Over the decades we’ve witnessed her dominance and poise, and Saturday’s final of the US Open felt no different. I was pacing and shouting at my screen, anxiously willing her to pull through. But then longtime tennis umpire Carlos Ramos hit her with a violation that Serena felt challenged her integrity, and I was floored. It felt like a personal attack.

Serena’s ire in response to the call never crossed the line into anything violent or unheard of, given the history of abrasive remarks uttered by men before her. And yet the reaction to Serena expressing her indignation made it clear that the world of tennis — Williams fans included — still struggle to grasp who Serena is as a woman, an athlete, and a champion.

The injustices Serena routinely faces are deeply connected to her simultaneous existence as both black and a woman. Any attempt to unwind the two — to privilege one factor of her identity over another for the sake of making her experiences universal — ends up communicating the same message professional tennis has sent to her for years: we’ll accept you, but only with conditions.

The showdown with Ramos, as usual, triggered the contempt of tennis purists who still can’t stand to see the game dominated by a black woman from Compton. But it also resurrected the separate camps and ideologies of staunch Serena defenders; the first comprises those who have chosen to interpret her showdown with Ramos as an “emotional” or “impassioned” moment, while the second re-imagines the dispute as simply a consequence of a woman advocating for herself within a man’s world.

The former seeks to defend Serena from being subjected to the damaging trope of the “angry black woman.” While a noble aim, the argument actually winds up policing her even more. Black women are allowed to be angry. The double-edged sword of racialized sexism or “misogynoir” cuts deep and often. And when an athlete has dedicated her entire self to her craft only to be diminished due to prejudice, the most human thing possible is to get angry. To deny her of that anger “so the racists won’t win” is to deny her of her full humanity, too.

But to whitewash Serena’s anger as a #YesAllWomen moment is equally unfair. Carlos Ramos did not object to being called a thief (a rather tame remark in the face of what male athletes have screamed at him over the years) simply because it came from a woman in a skirt. To imagine it as something that simple is to erase an entire history of racialized notions of femininity. Ramos might’ve been able to forgive “a skirt” telling him off, but the black body within the skirt threw him a blow that his ego simply could not bear.

In the re-telling of Saturday’s encounter as Serena simply being misunderstood versus Serena standing up to the man, both are well-intentioned. But neither story is fully honest.

Because in that moment the hard truth is that Serena Williams was angry as hell. And not just any type of anger, but one that was borne of and continues to bear the burden of being black and a woman in this country.

No matter what social position black women occupy in America, no matter how heavy the weight of racism and sexism we are forced to carry, our anger remains a threat to society and grounds for dehumanization. The “angry black woman” trope is but one of many tools used to shame black women into suffering in silence, rather than putting an end to the suffering in the first place. One only needs to consider the repulsive cartoon from Australia’s Herald Sun in which Serena is depicted as a grotesque, overweight baby to see how potent our righteous anger remains, and what lengths a racist and patriarchal society is willing to go to avoid dealing with the real injustices and mistreatment that lie at the root.

The world-stopping moments that we crave from an athlete as powerful and skilled as Serena can only manifest if we allow her to bring her full self along for the ride. Whatever exists within her that yields a heartwarming and impassioned moment of victory and pride also has the capacity to produce exasperation and fury during moments of loss and unfavorable calls.

But we know that.

After all, men’s hockey thrives from conflict on the ice between players. Baseball would lose its edge if a player didn’t go toe-to-toe with an umpire. The NBA wouldn’t be the same without Doc Rivers attempting to take down a referee with his bare hands.

Each time we excuse or justify the indignation of male athletes while critiquing the righteous anger of the likes of Serena Williams, a message is sent loud and clear to black women athletes. Despite their dominance in spite of unequal pay, verbal harassment, and outright sexism and racism, there is no country for them in sports, and any toleration of their existence as athletes will only come if they restrict themselves from expressing their full humanity.

“You owe me an apology,” Serena said to Ramos on Saturday, following her second penalty of the match. But the reality is it’ll take more than an apology to make things right.

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