Serena's Anger is a Litmus Test for us All
A lawyer gets labeled a troublemaker because she gives her opinion and asks questions. A professor gets ousted from her department for having too many opinions. I once got written up by a university librarian as being “out of control” and “aggressive” because I was sent to meet with her to discuss changes my department wanted in the Freshman Writing Program library component. What we have in common is that we were labeled as scary or angry because of white and/or male assumptions about people of color. In my case it was a white woman.
Serena Williams is not one of us. She is a powerful, intimidating, and angry athlete. And she is awesome for it.
Facts: Serena Williams hates to lose. She has experienced blatant racism in a sport that is the embodiment of rich white elites of the world. She grew up in Compton. She is the greatest tennis player ever (in my opinion) and she is prone to losing her mind. I’m saying all of this to compare her to some of the greatest athletes of all time. If we can recognize the rage in Serena Williams, we can then understand how much racism and sexism dominate the world we live in.
For those of you not into sports, look up names like Jackie Robinson, Doc Ellis, Albert Belle, Metta World Peace, Milton Bradley, and too many football players to name. These are or were extremely gifted athletes who were also uniquely intelligent and had issues with anger and rage. And they all experienced horrible racism. Their life experiences, coupled with their intellectual and physical abilities, made them unable to abide the injustices they suffered and witnessed in the world. These athletes couldn’t just turn off the world, smile, and play ball. They brought their rage onto the field.
Jackie Robinson tends to get a pass because of his historic life, but everyone who knew him knew he was unpredictable and always angry. And he had every right to be, given what he went through. His rage could erupt at any time, particularly in the heat of intense competition.
In the most recent documentary about his life, the narrator tells the story of a 5 year-old Robinson whose family had just moved to Pasadena, then a white city. When neighbors threw rocks at the family to intimidate them, young Robinson threw the rocks back. We don’t normally admire a 5 year-old throwing rocks at neighbors, but we see how, in this context, the act is heroic. He eventually learned to channel his anger into sports and then politics, but the rage was always there, always alienating him from people. He made a life of throwing “rocks” back at those who stood against him. Outside of his family and closest friends, he was not well-liked as a baseball player. But, he was always Jackie Robinson.
I see the same thing in Serena. Although her sister Venus is more the Jackie Robinson for being the first black woman to dominate the sport (although we also need to shout out to Althea Gibson), Serena has surpassed her sister in tennis greatness while enduring the same vile racism and sexism inherent in the tennis world. The road from Compton to Wimbledon has to be one of the worst roads in sports history. And for someone as gifted and intelligent as Williams, it must have been hell.
So, while I don’t condone her behavior, past or present, I also don’t fault her or resent her for it. And I don’t think we honor her by repackaging her into just another example of a black woman being seen as “unhinged.” She has, in the past, actually been unhinged. In 2009, her own mother was quoted as saying she needed to keep her cool after Williams was fined for threatening a line judge with physical injury. Ignoring moments like this is an insult to the legacy of another great, legendary, and yes, angry black athlete. Williams has been angry for as long as I can remember. She was the smiling kid sister of Venus at first, but she quickly experienced all the indignities any black tennis player would. The world is a racist place, and the tennis world has always been a racist and sexist capital of the world. Williams gets drug tested randomly at an exponentially higher rate than any other player. She has been called racist names, especially in other countries, by fans and opponents. Even her outfits get scrutinized. Every bad or blown call by a line judge or umpire must feel like more of the same. And every penalty given to her in situations men would not be penalized, well, we’ve seen how that ends.
And comparing her behavior to the likes of John McEnroe or Jimmy Connors is also insulting. Those were spoiled, white, rich, pieces of fragile, masculine garbage. Their outbursts were pathetic and grounded in nothing but their frail egos. And yes, they were celebrated because they were white men, but to compare those outbursts with those of Serena Williams is like comparing the anger of Trump and his supporters with the anger of the Black Lives Matter movement. Both are angry but for completely different reasons. To a man entrenched in the world of tennis, it must be terrifying to have Williams shouting at him. Not only is she arguing a call, she’s implying racism and sexism with every word and gesture. Poor, poor little man…can go fuck himself.
Serena Williams gets angry and loses her mind at times. She has been rude to her opponents, her tennis elders, and the media. She is never going to be a Michelle Obama who gets accused of being angry or crazed when she calmly says kids should eat vegetables. She will be who she is as she lashes out at any perceived racist or sexist man or woman who would dare confront her, and she may lose her cool when she’s losing in a big match. We need Michelle Obama and we need Serena Williams. Michelle Obama gives speeches, writes books, and hugs George W Bush. Gross. We need Serena Williams to throw rocks back at racism and sexism. And while her rage can overshadow the likes of Naomi Osaka, we have to let her have it. And we have to recognize how much we need her to do it, even as we recognize the vastly different treatment she gets from umpires compared to men. To try and downplay the anger or cast Williams as some poor, innocent, victim is another side of the prejudiced assumptions about her actual outbursts.
The world may never take the time to understand where the rage comes from. We don’t need to focus on a racist nobody cartoonist from Australia. We have to address Williams as she is and how we respond to her. I am sometimes uncomfortable with Williams’ rage, but I do try to understand it. And today, I salute it. Throw the rocks, Serena.