feminism · fitness

Serena Williams and the multiple ways of policing black women’s bodies

I didn’t watch the US Open women’s finals match. Maybe you didn’t either.  But we have all been witnesses to the explosions, accusations, blaming, denials, excuses and dismissals of charges that Serena Williams was unfairly and too severely penalized for her behavior during her match with Naomi Osaka. Osaka won the match, 6-2, 6-4. If you want to read more about the details, that will be easy– you can’t be on the internet without tripping over at least five articles about the match and the reactions to the match.

Full disclosure:  We here at Fit is a Feminist Issue loooove Serena Williams. Why? She’s strong and graceful, arguably the best tennis player in history, and one of the best athletes in living memory. We are in awe of her abilities and accomplishments.

We also love her because she is a woman who not only endures but in fact flourishes, despite constant attacks on her person.  By ‘person’, I mean her actual body.  Some men in charge of tennis in France criticized Serena’s catsuit, claiming that it failed to respect “the game and place”.

Mina blogged about it: Let Women Wear What They Want

I have to show that fabulous catsuit to you, just in case you didn’t see it.  Or even if you did. It is functional as well as fab– it has compression fabric to help prevent blood clots, for which Serena has a susceptibility.

Serena Williams in a black compression catsuit, about to hit a tennis ball, on the clay courts of the French Open.
Serena Williams in a black compression catsuit, about to hit a tennis ball, on the clay courts of the French Open.

Serena’s body has been analyzed, objectified, criticized and condescended to for years. In a New York Times article from 2015, tennis coaches and top female players spoke about how they were glad that Serena was accepting of her body type. Yeah, well, this body type had won Wimbledon 6 times. I blogged about it.

Repeat after me: athleticism is beauty; athleticism is beauty…

This time Serena is being policed for arguing with an umpire and reacting strongly (breaking a racket and calling the umpire a thief for penalizing her one game for a previous code violation). And things have gotten ugly.  I mean really ugly. Australian cartoonist Mark Knight’s racist depiction of Serena brings to mind early 20th century distorted images of African Americans. Here’s the link if by some chance you haven’t seen it.  It’s horrifying and racist and misogynist.

In addition to the racialized misogyny that Serena lives through, there are other aspects of racism that this match highlights.  I cannot speak to them here, but I point you to this article from the Washington post about rules, policing, black people, and Serena.  In short, it says this:

  • Serena broke some rules.
  • Lots of tennis players break rules.
  • How and when and how much of a penalty is meted out is a matter of discretion for authorities.
  • An authority gave out a very harsh set of penalties based on his discretionary choice to Serena, a black woman.
  • Authorities commonly give out very harsh penalties (including death by shooting) based on their discretionary choices to black people.

The article ends this way:

Rather than fool ourselves about the universality of rules, we should question the vast and often unchallenged use of discretion in both sports and criminal justice.

Thinking about the ways our bodies and our behaviors get policed is necessary for finding ways to change the rules and change the unjust ways power and discretion are meted out.

Thanks for reading.

 

 

5 thoughts on “Serena Williams and the multiple ways of policing black women’s bodies

  1. So well said! Discretion in sports officiating is so often the enemy of fairness and justice. I’m thinking of figure skating here too–that notoriously objectifying “sport” where judging is 9 parts discretion and 1 part benchmarks. And the discretionary decision in general is almost always arrived at in secret. At least in the discretion of a court decision the judges generally write an explanation of their line of reasoning, comparing their decision with other similar cases (at least, that’s so in common law countries). I would be interested to see the tennis umpire’s written decision, with the same logic and reasoning. Show us your process.

    Liked by 1 person

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