Neither fame nor achievement can protect Black women, in sports and beyond, from a society that polices every aspect of their self-expression. Serena Williams faces this dynamic yet again as writers, cartoonists and other tennis players denounce her expression of frustration during the U.S. Open women’s singles final match on Saturday (September 8).
Breea Willingham, a criminal justice scholar at the State University of New York Plattsburgh, tells The Associated Press today (September 11) that the characterization of Williams as an “angry Black woman” is a common one.
“So much of what she experiences, we experience in the workplace, too,” Willingham says. “As Black women…we’re expected to stay in our lane, that lane that has been created for us. Any time we step out of that lane, then we become a problem.”
“A woman, period, is always, when we speak up for ourselves, then you have the situation where people are saying, ‘You know, they’re too outspoken,’” former tennis champion Zina Garrison adds. “ ‘They’re acting like a man,’ all of that. But then a Black woman on top of that, the ‘angry Black woman,’ [people say,] ‘Who does she think she is?’”
Journalist and former Essence magazine editor-in-chief Vanessa DeLuca specifically addressed a cartoon by Australian artist Mark Knight that depicts Williams with exaggerated physical features, angrily stomping on a broken racket. She tells The AP that Knight ”completely missed the point of why [Williams] was upset.”
“It was about her integrity, and anybody who doesn’t get that is perpetuating the erasure that so many Black women feel when they are trying to speak up for themselves,” DeLuca continues. “It’s like our opinions don’t matter.”