Outside the Lines is a new column series that explores the intersection of sports with race and gender, and runs on a biweekly basis. There have long been pioneers in the sports industry who have broken from tradition and overcome adversity, significantly contributing to positive change in our society. This series attempts to continue necessary conversations by highlighting both contemporary and historical individuals, movements and their impact on making sports more socially just.
Growing up, sometimes after introducing myself to someone new, they would ask, “Like Serena Williams?”
I would instinctively smile and respond, “Yes, like Serena Williams,” only sometimes mentioning that it’s spelled differently.
Although my 10-year-old self had a love-hate relationship with playing tennis, especially in the sweltering Sacramento summer heat, I carried a sense of pride when someone connected my name to the great Serena Williams.
Williams won her first professional title the year I was born and by the time I turned 10 years old, she had added another 10 to the list. But despite my natural smile at the mention of the name we share, I had little idea then of just how great she truly is.
After Williams’ appearance in the Australian Open semifinal against Naomi Osaka last week, where Williams vied for her 24th Grand Slam title, I began reflecting on her career thus far, thinking not only about what she has accomplished for herself but for women and Black women across sports and society.
Sports are merely a microcosm of society — progress made in the arena is progress for professional athletes, of course, but it is undoubtedly progress for the public, too. In a similar vein, the injustices observed on the courts of the majors and the racism Williams has encountered from the media, officials and so many others while pursuing a career in a historically elitist and white sport are the product of the systems and structures that have founded and perpetuated racism and sexism throughout society.
The “controversies” that Williams has often been part of have not actually been all that controversial; they have involved Williams being targeted by racist or sexist, or racist and sexist comments.
In 2001, Williams was subject to racial jeering at the Indian Wells Masters tournament that prompted her and her sister Venus Williams to boycott the tournament for 14 years. Her father was heckled by people in the stands, as they made overtly racist and harmful comments while Williams, herself, was welcomed with boos and racist jeers.
In 2003, Williams was booed every time she questioned a call in the French Open semifinal against Justine Henin-Hardenne, even when she had clear grounds for doing so. Later, her missed serves were met with cheers from spectators of a game that supposedly prides itself on tradition, class and dignity.
In 2018, the president of the French Tennis Federation essentially indicated that Williams disrespected “the game and the place” at the French Open with her Black Panther-inspired outfit dedicated to “all the moms out there that had a tough pregnancy.” Williams said another reason she had also chosen the outfit was because she found that wearing pants has helped her blood circulation and limited blood clots, especially following her pregnancy. But that didn’t stop anyone from letting a white male in a position of power change the French Open dress code for women at the tournament.
More recently, a newspaper ran a derogatory caricature of Williams that was reminiscent of colonial messages and displayed just about every awful stereotype, yet was ruled to be ‘non-racist’ by the Australian Press Council.
The countless incidents span time and scope. Williams’s hair, body, attitude and even her skill and excellence have been scrutinized and questioned as her appearance is strikingly different from the blonde white women who have long dominated the sport.
Yet, despite being a target of racist and sexist attacks throughout the entirety of her career, Williams has always unapologetically been herself.
“She shows us her joy, her humor and, yes, her rage,” Claudia Rankine wrote in a New York Times piece on Williams. “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.”
Williams’ rage was perhaps most on display and under scrutiny at the 2018 U.S. Open. She believed calls — and her treatment — were unfair. Williams felt she was wronged and she showed us that. She encountered significant criticism for being outspoken and for displaying her anger, which activist and writer Audre Lorde would argue is a response to racism.
“Women responding to racism means women responding to anger, the anger of exclusion, of unquestioned privilege, of racial distortions, of silence, ill-use, stereotyping, defensiveness, misnaming, betrayal and co-optation,” Lorde said in a 1981 presentation.
When Williams reacts, when she swears at a prestigious tournament or when she shows sadness at a press conference as she did last week, there is always more than the single event at hand. Her actions are the product and accumulation of her upbringing, of her strength, of her accomplishments and failures and, undoubtedly, of the treatment she has received by our society.
Last week’s match put the 23-year-old Osaka, who is certainly amazing yet still young, on the same court as Williams. Whenever Willliams bows out and retires, Osaka will continue to carry Williams’ legacy with her, sparking conversations about race and gender as she dominates the historically white woman’s game of tennis.
Williams has taken a path made possible by those who trekked before her, but she, herself, forged much of that route. As Osaka crafts her own journey, aided by Williams’s footsteps ahead of hers, we should all instinctively smile and be grateful for the legend that is Serena Williams — for her contributions to the sport, for inspiring young girls of color like Osaka, for challenging tradition and for unapologetically showing “the whole range of what it is to be human.”