“I remember the whole stadium was 99 percent white people and they were all booing. Racial slurs used, it was loud, it was like an echo, it was so loud I could feel it in my chest,” said Serena Williams in an interview recollecting one of the ugliest incidents of racial jeering in tennis history.
It was 2001, during the final of Indian Wells tournament in California.
Serena was just 19.
She was squaring off with Kim Clijsters for the title when the crowd broke in long loud boos directed at her father Richard Williams and her elder sister Venus Williams. The heckling was a reaction to Venus’s decision to withdraw from the semifinals against Serena minutes before the match, owing to an injury.
The ‘N word’ was used, allegations of ‘match-fixing’ flew thick and fast, echoed even by her peers. Upset and shaken, both sisters decided to never come back to Indian Wells ever again.
Sadly, that wasn’t to be the last racially motivated attack on Serena.
One of the Greatest of all Times Deserved Better
Eighteen years since the forgettable incident, Serena has faced countless racist attacks – some subtle, some totally explicit. But they all raised a stink of bias against the former world number one.
During the 2018 US Open Final Serena received a code violation for a hand signal from her coach. A couple of heated exchanges, a smashed racket, two crucial points-penalty later, a young gutsy Naomi Osaka handed a straight-set defeat to Serena. A fine of USD 17,000 was imposed on Serena.
Depicting the incident, Herald Sun, an Australian newspaper carried a cartoon by Mark Knight, which depicted Serena as an enraged, hulky woman jumping over a tennis racket with a pacifier lying on the court.
In the background, the umpire is seen telling a blond, thin, calm player, “Can you just let her win?” Ironically, Osaka is a Japanese-Haitian biracial tennis player, and not a white person.
Many found the depiction racist, and pointed out how players get away with worse court behavior without penalties, much rare at a grand slam final and hardly any end up as a caricature.
Problems With Portrayal
The cartoon inadvertently reminds of Sapphire caricatures that have been used to stereotype black women as rude, loud, stubborn and haughty. Portraying black women as high-pitched naggers with irrational states of anger conforms to the Angry Black Woman (ABW) stereotype popularised in different media.
Apart from court confrontation controversies, discussion about Serena’s athleticism has also been replete with racist overtones. Typecasting black people as ‘animalistic’ with masculine, unattractive and overly sexual bodies – a description that has been ascribed to her often – is another manifestation of racism directed at Serena.
In 2014, the President of Russian Tennis Federation called Serena and Venus “William brothers”– reeking of racism and stressing how black women are indifferentiable from men, and hence less attractive, or ‘not women enough’.
In 2017, Ilie Nastasem a former Grand Slam champion commented on Serena’s then-unborn child: “Let’s see what colour it has, Chocolate with milk?” hinting to the child’s father, Serena’s spouse Alexis Ohanian, who is white.
Now, this is more than wrapped racism, and at the receiving end is an unborn child of a couple that carries significant social, financial clout. But fails to blunt the knife of racism.
In 2019, a Romanian TV host didn’t even try to code his racism. Radu Banciu, on live TV, compared Serena to monkeys at the zoo with red backsides.
"If monkeys wore trousers, they'd look exactly like Serena Williams does on the court," Banciu said. The governing board ruled it as an expression of extreme racism as a comparison to monkeys was one of the parallels pushed to justify slavery of people of colour. Banciu was fined but didn’t lose his job.
Serena’s well-built athletic body and her power game has often drawn scoffs that she should be playing in men’s draw.
She’s been tested for performance-enhancing drugs more than twice as often as her peers.
Serena, the Rights Crusader
Being in the eye of controversy and unwelcome tirades, Serena moulded her experiences into activism. She has been a vocal advocate of the Black Lives Matter movement and has vociferously pushed for equal pay for women in tennis. In one of her interviews she highlighted, “…the fact that black women earn 17% less than their white female counterparts and that black women are paid 63% of the dollar men are paid.”
She has been doing all this while chasing her 24th Grand Slam title. In July last year, Billie Jean King advised her to “stop being a celebrity for a year and stop fighting for equality, and just focus on the tennis.” Serena’s reply to this? “The day I stop fighting for equality... will be the day I’m in my grave.”
An important aspect of her activism that shines through is the way she embraces not just her identity as a black woman but also her ancestry. “I wouldn’t want to be any other colour. There’s no other race, to me, that has such a tough history for hundreds and hundreds of years, and only the strong survive, so we were the strongest and the most mentally tough, and I’m really proud to wear this colour every single day of my life,” she said in a conversation with rapper Common for The Undefeated.
Serena has been giving voice to the BLM movement. From the 2016 killing of Philando Castile to the recent death of George Floyd, and countless in between and earlier, sadly, not much has changed over the years as racism rages as a systemic problem.
The turn in times, however, is palpable in the current wave of global protests and strong show of solidarity.
Alexis Ohanian, Serena’s husband has stepped down from the board of Reddit, which he co-founded to make space for a black candidate. His decision gives a new spark to the ongoing conversations regarding racial equality.
In 2015, Serena buried her self-imposed boycott of Indian Wells and went back to the same place. But the reconciliation will remain incomplete until the reason why the incident took place – racism – is buried for good.
(The writer is an independent journalist based in New Delhi. She can be reached at @ZoyaRasul. This is an opinion piece and the views expressed above are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for the same.)