“Shut Up and Play:” Racism, Sexism and “Unattractive” Realities of American Culture
by David J. Leonard | NewBlackMan
My anger and frustration following yesterday’s tennis match has nothing to do with the match itself. While pulling for Serena Williams and disappointed by her defeat, the surprising loss did little to damper my spirits. What has inspired my ire has been the media’s yet again troubling treatment of Serena Williams.
Following the match and in response to her confrontation with the match umpire (see here for details and video), commentators have taken her to task, deploying racialized and gendered criticism. Described as “petulant,” going “bonkers,” as “a stereotypical Ugly American” and as someone whose “ego” led to a “tirade” the media tone has rendered what appeared to be a tame and minor confrontation into a spectacle that rehashes longstanding stereotypes about black women as childish, emotional, lacking self-control, and otherwise angry. In other instances, Williams has been demonized for her “outburst” and “menacing behavior,” for “losing her cool” during an “Ugly US Open meltdown” and the “the menacing tone of her remarks.” Mary Carillo referred to Serena’s behavior as that of an “ass clown.”
The references to her tone and demeanor as menacing, given the ways in which white supremacist discourse has pathologized and rendered African American as cultural, physical, and economic menaces are particularly revealing. “Racial logic has advanced a link between the legibility of black bodies, and a racial being,” argues Delia Douglas in “To be Young, Gifted, Black and Female: A Meditation on the Cultural Politics at Play in Representations of Venus and Serena Williams.” Noting, “that black bodies have historically been designated as the site and source of pathology,” Douglas makes clear that “behaviour and habits are seen as symptomatic of these racial distinctions.”
The hyperbolic and racially and gendered rhetoric is encapsulated by a column from George Vecesey in The New York Times
As she stormed at the chair umpire during a changeover, Williams was reverting to her vicious outburst at a line official that caused her to be disqualified at match point in a semifinal in 2009, the last time Williams was here.” “But at what point does comportment, sportsmanship, become part of the measure of a great champion?” “The tantrum early in the second set caused many in the crowd to boo the decision, delaying the next point. Stosur kept her cool, and Williams never showed a trace of those couple of hard hits. She could have gone out with dignity on an evening when she did not have her best game. Instead, she called the chair umpire a hater, and later professed not to remember a word of it.
Irrespective of the exaggerating and demonizing rhetoric, Serena Williams’ confrontation of the umpire was tame; while angry with a suspect call and unwilling to capitulate to authority merely because of custom, she was clearly composed, calm, and collective; there was no “outburst;” she did not “lose her cool” nor was anything about her behavior “menacing.”
Even the USTA has concluded that the “controversy” was much ado about nothing, fining Williams $2,000 dollars. Explaining the fine, it announced:
US Open Tournament Referee Brian Earley has fined Serena Williams $2,000 following the code violation issued for verbal abuse during the women’s singles final. This fine is consistent with similar offenses at Grand Slam events. As with all fines at the US Open, the monies levied are provided to the Grand Slam Development Fund which develops tennis programs around the world.
After independently reviewing the incident which served as the basis for the code violation, and taking into account the level of fine imposed by the US Open referee, the Grand Slam Committee Director has determined that Ms. Williams’ conduct, while verbally abusive, does not rise to the level of a major offense under the Grand Slam Code of Conduct.
Noting the existence of “similar offenses” during the course of all Grand Slam events, the USTA acknowledges the banality of the behavior from Serena Williams.
Williams has been positioned as yet another black athlete who may have the athletic talent, but lacks the mental toughness and commitment needed to excel on the biggest stages. More significantly, the post-match commentaries reveal the powerful ways that race and gender operate within American culture. Her blackness and femininity, especially in the context of the white world of tennis, overdetermines her positioning within a sporting context. This moment illustrates the profound impact of both race and gender on Serena Williams, a fact often erased by both popular and academic discourses. According to Delia Douglas, “The failure to consider the ways in which sport is both an engendering and racializing institution has lead to myriad distortions, as well as the marginalization and oversimplification of black women’s experiences in sport.” As such, her stardom, her success, and the specifics of the incident does not insulate her from criticism and condemnation, but in fact contributes to the acceptability in fans and commentators alike symbolically shouting and yelling, “Shut up and play.”