By THOMAS MOODY
As the dust continues to settle on the women’s U.S. Open Tennis Championship final played at the U.S. Tennis Center at Flushing Meadows Corona Park earlier this month, it has been interesting to follow the various reactions to the match-day behavior of arguably the greatest athlete of the modern era, Serena Williams.
Midway through the match’s second set, Williams broke down in tears after she had been docked a point, and then crucially an entire game, for a series of rather minor code violations. The third and decisive violation was a slight Williams made to chair umpire Carlos Ramos, calling him a “thief” after demanding he apologize for docking a point for in-match coaching.
Williams’ objection was not to losing the point as much as it was the insinuation that she had cheated, something she strenuously pledged she would never do as a new mother, wanting to set the best possible example for her daughter. After the match, which she comfortably lost to first-time grand-slam winner Naomi Osaka, Williams spoke of the double standards to which women players are held in terms of their behavior, in comparison to their male counterparts.
Much editorial space around the globe has been dedicated to the incident. Many commentators have argued that rules are rules and Williams did technically break them, so while perhaps Ramos missed the spirit of the law — its being a grand-slam final — he had stuck to the letter, and the player had no grounds for complaint. Others have agreed with Williams, highlighting the double standards in tennis, and indeed in many professions, that allow men to push the limits of behavior far further than their female colleagues without fear of serious repercussions.
Former tennis great Martina Navratilova struck a middleground, writing eloquently that, while she did sympathize with Williams’ grievances, “I don’t believe it’s a good idea to apply a standard of ‘If men can get away with it, women should be able to, too.’ Rather, I think the question we have to ask ourselves is this: What is the right way to behave to honor our sport and to respect our opponents?”
Navratilova also sagaciously noted that Williams has some “serious scar tissue” when it comes to the U.S. Open, including the horrendous line-calling and umpiring in a match against Jennifer Capriati in 2004; being ducked a point for yelling “Come on!” after a winning point in the 2011 final; and that Williams, because of her skin color, will always be an outsider in the game of tennis. All of this, Navratilova argued, was bound up in Williams’ reaction to Ramos’ censuring.
Other commentators have not been so insightful. A cartoon of Williams in the Australian tabloid the Herald Sun depicting the tennis great jumping up in a fit of anger was blatantly racist, and was accompanied by an equally detestable editorial arguing that Williams was “no feminist hero,” nor was she subject to racism; rather, she was “entitled” and “a fraud.”
One can only marvel at the audacity of ignorance.
The depiction of Serena Williams garnered international attention and widespread condemnation. Instead of apologizing for the cartoon’s insensitivity, however, the paper stood by its cartoonist, Mark Knight, and doubled down on its position. The following day’s cover featured a collage of cartoons of people of power — mainly white men — with exaggerated features, and a headline that read “Welcome to PC World.” The paper’s position was: When it comes to ridicule, it’s open season; anyone who holds any power in our society is susceptible to lampooning.
While this might be a reasonable position for a political cartoonist to adopt, not all power is equal, or achieved in equal ways, and therefore any satire created off the back of it must appreciate its source. Serena Williams has achieved her success in spite of how society regards her race and gender, not because of it. Few, if any, white, male politicians can say the same. To illustrate her features in the exaggerated way Knight did in his cartoon not only ignores the tremendous struggles Williams has suffered over nothing more than the color of her skin, but also harks back to a time when men and women of color were represented throughout established media outlets with naked racism.
The question then becomes one of how to respond to the Herald Sun’s position. The condemnation of the tabloid’s cartoon has filled as many column inches as the event the cartoon ridiculed. But sadly, in keeping with contemporary public discourse, these salient and necessary objections and denunciations seem to be speaking past the paper and those people who share in its opinions, not to them.
One way of altering the trajectory of this misfiring dialogue is to present the argument in the form of art — to not merely criticize but to illustrate, not simply censure but to share. Claudia Rankine’s Citizen, winner of the 2015 National Book Critics Circle for poetry, is such a piece of art.
Citizen is part prose-poem, part cultural criticism. It illuminates in fragmented, beautiful and often brutal narratives what it is like to navigate America as a woman of color. Using the second-person pronoun throughout the work, Rankine draws the reader in, to astonishing levels of attachment, to share her diurnal experiences of racism, equal parts devastating and quotidian, blatant and more nuanced — a form of hostility known as a microaggression.
An entire section of the work is dedicated to experiencing the world in the skin of Serena Williams. And as is true of life in general, these microaggressions are heightened to more extreme frequencies and intensity in the environment of professional sport. Rankine associates the tennis champion’s experience with Zora Neale Hurston’s line, “I feel most colored when I am thrown against a sharp white background.” That background is the chair umpire, the Herald Sun cartoonist.
“Yes and the body has memory,” Rankine writes about Williams in one of the most beautifully painful passages of the book. “The body is the threshold across which each objectionable call passes into consciousness — all the unintimidated, unblinking, and unflappable resilience does not erase the moments lived through, even as we are eternally stupid or everlastingly optimistic, so ready to be inside, among, a part of the games.”
“What does a victorious or defeated black woman’s body in a historically white space look like?” Rankine asks. The past two weeks have provided a convincing, if upsetting, answer.