Thoughts On My Denial of Entry To The US Open For Wearing A “Serena Rocks Racists Suck” T-Shirt
The Board of Directors
United States Tennis Association
70 West Red Oak Lane
New York 10604
I had everything ready for my trip to New York. Plane ticket — box ticked; match tickets — box ticked; time off work- box ticked; packed t-shirts to wear for each of the four days at the US Open (Appendix A) — box ticked. But what I did not prepare for was the incident that took place on Thursday 10th of September 2015, when I passed through the security gates at the US Open.
To recap, on that eventful day, I left Manhattan for Queens to watch the US Open ladies semi final featuring Serena Williams vs. Roberta Vinci. I wore a white t-shirt (Appendix B), which had the inscription “Serena Rocks Racists Suck.” As I passed through the security check around 2:05pm, I was stopped by Ron Hale, a white security personnel working for the United States Tennis Association (USTA) who told me that I could not enter the grounds because the t-shirt that I was wearing was “derogatory.” He asked me to take the shirt off and replace it with another one before I could enter. I initially thought Mr. Hale was joking, but after seeing the fierce look in his eyes, I realized that he was serious. I told Mr. Hale that I didn’t find the words on the t-shirt derogatory. As we were discussing, one of Mr. Hale’s colleagues called Karim Selkridge joined the conversation. As Hale was insisting that the T-shirt was derogatory, Mr. Selkridge, an African American told Hale that the shirt was not derogatory but “negative”. Mr. Hale said he had an issue with the t-shirt because it highlighted racism, which shouldn’t be displayed on the grounds. When I saw that our discussion was leading nowhere, I asked to speak to Mr. Hale boss.
A couple of minutes later, a white lady called Lisa Golden — the Area Director approached us and after I explained what had happened she also insisted that I could not enter the grounds because the t-shirt was derogatory. When I asked her why it was offensive, she pointed to the word “suck” and said that word was derogatory. I told her that I was getting three different messages from three different USTA officials — Hale was telling me that highlighting racism was derogatory, Selkridge was telling me that the t-shirt was not derogatory but negative and she was telling me that the word “suck” was derogatory. I told her I was surprised I was being denied the right to express my views in the United States, a country known as the land of the free. I said my denial of entry was similar to when Rosa Park was asked to get up off her bus seat. Ms. Golden became defensive and said I should not raise such matters as it was history and she was not born when the Rosa Park incident happened. She said I was on US Open grounds and issues of freedom of expression or constitutional matters I was raising didn’t apply.
As we were talking, a stern looking security officer approached us and briefly stood near me. I am still not sure whether he came to intimidate me or not. I told Ms. Golden that I had another t-shirt with the inscription “Love Serena Hate Racism” (Appendix C) which I planned wearing the following day and she told me that I would not be allowed into the grounds with the t-shirt because the word “hate is derogatory.” I told her I had worn the same t-shirt at the French Open and Wimbledon and asked her to confirm from her boss if the t-shirt could be worn. After she left to confirm I began speaking to Mr. Selkridge who unlike Hale was friendlier. He told that the word hate was negative, but I explained that when hate is combined with racism, it is a not a negative message. He said that anything political was not allowed and that is the reason why flags are not allowed on the grounds.
While waiting outside, I logged onto my twitter account and typed,
My tweet seemed to have caught the attention of “Black Twitter” and a number of people began to retweet my message. Mr. Hale who saw me typing approached me and asked for my name because he needed to “defend” himself. I refused to give him my name and told him that I did not mention his name in any of my tweets. Later on, David Accardi from the Guest Service Department came to the gates and told me that the t-shirt I was wearing was okay and that I could come into the grounds. As he took me through the gates, Ron Hale blocked us and told Mr. Accardi that I couldn’t enter because of the t-shirt. Accardi responded saying he had already got authorization from Chris (I can’t remember the surname). Hale then backed off and I finally entered the grounds nearly an hour after I was prevented from entering.
I would therefore like to use this medium to express my displeasure at my treatment by the USTA. The reason why I decided to wear the shirt was to highlight the overt and subtle racism directed at one of America’s greatest athlete — Serena Williams. Ever since Williams turned professional twenty years ago, tennis players, tennis fans, tennis pundits and senior tennis officials have subjected her to racial taunts. A simple Google search of the terms “Serena gorilla”, “Serena nigger”, “Serena is ugly”, “Serena is a man”, “Serena is an animal,” in addition to the comments section of the various articles written about her reveals a disturbing pattern of racial animosity toward her. According to the Merriam Webster Dictionary, the word derogatory means “Showing a lack of respect to something or someone,” while Oxford dictionary defines it as, “Showing a critical or disrespectful attitude.” So why does the USTA believe that a t-shirt with the inscriptions “Love Serena Hate Racism” and “Serena Rocks Racists Suck” is derogatory? Is it because it feels that US Open guests would be offended by my criticism of racism and racists?
Contrary to the USTA’s fear that my T-shirt would offend US Open guests, the reverse was the case. When I finally entered the grounds, a lot of people were interested in the t-shirt. Both white and black people stopped me to tell me that they liked the t-shirt and expressed their disgust at the racism directed towards Serena. Some people asked to take a picture of my shirt (Appendix D), while others including some US Open officials told me that the inscription on my t-shirt was true. Others told me that they were unaware that Serena was subjected to racism and wanted to know more.
When I set off from London, I was apprehensive about my freedom being curtailed by trigger-happy US police officers, but never in my widest dream did I believe that I would be denied my freedom of expression by USTA officials. When I was growing up as a child I learnt about the First Amendment to the United States Constitution, which codified the freedom of speech as a constitutional right. I recollect watching the news and seeing US politicians castigate leaders of other countries for not abiding by the values of freedom of speech; I also recollect watching the Olympics and seeing US gold winning Olympic athletes’ belt out from the victory podium, “O’er the land of the free and the home of the brave.” But it now seems to me that the US does not practice what it preaches. In short the US suffers from what Martin Luther King once described as a, “High blood pressure of creeds and anemia of deeds.”
The US Open is one to the greatest sporting spectacles in the world, which also serves as a pseudo embassy of the United States. When one enters the ground, one cannot but notice the Stars and Stripes especially during the award presentation ceremonies where the ball boys and girls proudly hold the American flag. So it is reasonable for one to expect the USTA to uphold those values, which the United States proudly boasts about. Furthermore, the US Open loves to associate itself with Arthur Ashe, the humanitarian, civil rights activist and 1968 US Open Champion. Besides the Centre Court which is named after Arthur Ashe, there is also an Arthur Ashe Commemorative Garden and Monument. The monument contains a sculptured image of a naked man in the position of a tennis serve. When the statue was unveiled in 2000, the then USTA President Judy Levering said of the image, “It’s provocative, but that was Arthur Ashe.” Arthur Ashe was very outspoken on the issue of racism especially in South Africa and the United States. So I find it very hypocritical of the USTA to celebrate a man who was renowned for his “provocative” stance against racism, yet it denied me entry into the Arthur Ashe stadium because I wore a “provocative” t-shirt highlighting the racism targeted at a black tennis player. The USTA needs to realize that the best way to eliminate racism from tennis is not to avoid it but to expose it. As Martin Luther King eloquently put it, “Like a boil that can never be cured so long as it is covered up but must be opened with all its ugliness to the natural medicines of air and light, injustice must be exposed, with all the tension its exposure creates, to the light of human conscience and the air of national opinion before it can be cured.”
It is unfortunate that the global tennis establishment in general and the USTA in particular are in denial of the existence of racism in tennis. I have written several letters to the USTA asking it to take a stance on the racism targeted against the Williams sisters and it hardly acknowledges my letter not to talk of dealing with racism in the sports. While the USTA was willing to kick me out for being critical of racism, it has done nothing to kick out racism in tennis. If the USTA could apply the same energy in tackling racism as it uses in genuflecting at the altar of corporate America to attract funds, I am sure that racism in tennis would be confined to the dustbin of history. The USTA’s current trickle-down approach to racial justice only conjures an image of Frantz Fanon’s Black Skin, White Masks. Rather than focusing mainly on the token symbolism of naming a court after a black icon, employing a black TV presenter to host the ladies trophy ceremony and appointing a black CEO and black chairman of its foundation, the USTA should and must monitor, address and punish instances of racism in tennis.