All Hands Needed To Stop The Racial Animosity Towards Serena Williams:
An Appeal To The Media, The Tennis Hierarchy and The US Attorney General:
In less than three weeks time, the top 256 tennis players will congregate at Queens, New York to take part in the 2015 US Open Championship. Despite the involvement of players like Roger Federer, Maria Sharapova, Rafa Nadal, Novak Djokovic and Petra Kvitova in the competition, the spotlight will be on one player — Serena Jameka Williams. Millions of people around the world will be tuned to their TV screens to see whether Ms. Williams would be able to complete a Calendar Grand Slam and match Steffi Graf’s twenty-two Grand Slam titles.
Ever since Ms. Williams turned professional 20 years ago, she has been in the business of overcoming barriers and obstacles thrown her way. As a person of color competing in a lily- white sport, she first had to overcome the anthropology of low expectation. When her father Richard Williams predicted that his daughters would the best tennis players in the world, many thought he was out of his mind. Early in her career, a journalist once wrote that Serena Williams would only amount to a footnote in her sister’s (Venus Williams) story. In 2007, when an out of form Ms. Williams said that she will once again dominate tennis, Pat Cash, the 1987 Wimbledon Champion wrote that Williams was a “lost case” and “deluded” for making such a statement. Nowadays, in the days leading up to any Grand Slam event, journalists engage in a race to the bottom to analyze three, five or seven reasons why Ms. Williams will not prevail.
In addition to dealing with the anthropology of low expectation, she had to and continues to deal with the three “isms” of racism, sexism and classism. Unlike other players in the ladies tour who usually face sexism, Ms. Williams is administered a fixed dose combination of racism, sexism and classism. Despite all her achievements, Williams is probably the most dismissed, disregarded and despised tennis player of all time. Never in the history of tennis has a player been hated by many and loved by few.
Since she picked her first racquet, Ms. Williams has faced various hostile environments; however, the level of hatred now displayed by her detractors has reached unprecedented levels ever since she reached the semi final of the 2015 French Open. In short, there is an unhealthy toxic level of racial hostility towards Williams.
If wishes were horses, there is no doubt that some would rewrite Williams’s story. When Williams had 10 Grand Slam titles, there were questions as to whether she would be able to surpass her idol Billie Jean King’s Grand Slam haul of twelve titles. When Williams exceeded it at Wimbledon 2010, the bar was raised with Chris Evert and Martina Navratilova’s 18 Grand Slam titles becoming the standard to downplay Williams’s accomplishment. When Williams joined the “Elite Club of 18” after her US Open triumph in 2014, Steffi Graf’s 22 Grand Slam titles became the new benchmark. Against all expectations, Williams like a skilled high jumper scaled the horizontal bars in the next three Grand Slam tournaments. Now that she is within striking distance of equaling Graf’s Open Era record, once again, the bar has been raised, only this time around, Margaret Court’s previously disregarded 24 Grand Slam titles (13 of which were achieved prior to the Open Era) is the latest golden standard to be used to deny Williams her place as the Greatest Of All Times.
With Williams scaling all these “horizontal bars”, her detractors have reached the realization that she is about to enter uncharted territory. This has resulted in the current bile directed at her. With each Grand Slam victory, the racial hatred increases in geometric proportions. The hate has become more toxic than ever, the writings of journalists have become more acerbic than ever and the online comments about her have become more vitriolic than ever. Her gender has been questioned, she has been accused of doping and racial expletives have been posted on social media. Unraveling before our eyes is the dehumanization of the Greatest tennis player of all times. Due to Williams’s dominion over the quintessential white sports, some bigots view her as a threat to white supremacy, after all as they like to believe, “A black person cannot dominate a sports that epitomes grace and intelligence.”
One cannot talk about this toxic environment of racial animosity towards Williams without discussing the role of the media. The media when functioning properly is supposed to inform. As the fourth pillar in an effective democracy, the media plays a crucial role in not only shaping public opinion, but it also helps to strengthen society. However, when it comes to Ms. Williams, a cross section of the Western media in general and the US media in particular appear to have abandoned its responsibility. The media has become a willing participant and cheerleader in the dehumanization of Serena Williams through the use of racial stereotypes and innuendos, which strip Williams of every form of her humanity. Williams has not only been racialized and sexualized, she has also been vilified and objectified. In response, the reading public, which live on every poison word that proceedeth out of the keyboard of these so-called journalists, increase their resentment towards Williams.
The tennis hierarchy fare no better. It has done little or nothing to address the hate-fest directed at Williams. Just like the Biblical Saul, the tennis authorities have been a passive bystander as tennis fans, tennis players and tennis pundits take turns to throw racially coated stones at Williams. When Shamil Tarpischev called the Williams Sisters — brothers, the tennis establishment was initially reluctant to take a stand until pressure mounted from social media. As at today, Tarpischev is yet to be reprimanded for his actions by some of the tennis bodies. As Martin Luther King rightly put it, “The ultimate tragedy is not the oppression and cruelty by the bad people, but the silence over that by the good people.”
Why should we be bothered by this racial hatred towards Ms. Williams? The history book tells us that when a person is stripped of his or her humanity, it often serves as a signal for some to act in an irrational manner towards the “dehumanized party.” The USA has a long history of bigots and racists attacking those who they see as a threat the white supremacy. I am therefore compelled to appeal to all of you to use your good office to help detoxify the racial animosity towards Williams. I appeal to the media to tone down its acerbic attitude towards Williams. I am not saying that the media cannot be critical of her; however journalists need to be responsible and ensure that their writing does not stir up unnecessary hatred towards Williams. I appeal to the tennis hierarchy to snap out of its denial of the non-existence of racism in tennis and work towards making tennis a racist free zone. I would also like to make a special appeal to the US Attorney General to be prepared to step in if the racial hatred gets out of hand.
I know some may dismiss my fear as that of a paranoid tennis fan. But if you sit back and reflect, you will appreciate that the combination of a black female player on the threshold of tennis immortality in a quintessential white sport which is reported by a biased media accustomed to making vitriolic statements that is absorbed by a prejudiced public as an apathetic tennis establishment looks on — is a very toxic mix. You need and must do everything within your area of influence to shield our Black, American, female and global icon from bigots, racists and haters.
For and on behalf of Alatenumo
Ahmed Olayinka Sule, CFA
Attorney General Loretta Lynch
Color of Change
Fédération Française de Tennis
For The Win
International Olympic Committee
International Tennis Federation
Katrina M. Adams
Merlisa Lawrence Corbett
New York Magazine
New York Times
Operation Black Vote
Tournament Director: AEGON International
Tournament Director: Bank of the West Classic — Stanford
Tournament Director: BNP Paribas Open
Tournament Director: BNP Paribas Open — Indian Wells
Tournament Director: Brisbane International
Tournament Director: Family Circle Cup — Charleston
Tournament Director: Mutua Madrid Open
Tournament Director: Rogers Cup
Tournament Director: Sony Ericsson Open
Tournament Director: Western & Southern Open
US Tennis Association
Writers of Colour