Insecure men try to silence women all the time, but Serena Williams and Kamala Harris are sending a strong message by holding their ground.
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“Women have served all these centuries as looking-glasses possessing the magic and delicious power of reflecting the figure of a man at twice its natural size,” wrote Virginia Woolf in her seminal book-length essay A Room of One’s Own, published in 1929. “For if she begins to tell the truth, the figure in the looking-glass shrinks; his fitness for life is diminished.”
It is common knowledge that our society is structured along the very tangible lived reality that men are in power and women are not. This is patriarchy. It is common knowledge that men are allowed—expected—to take up space, to speak and be heard.
Women are expected to not take up space, to not speak up. And when they do, they are punished. Consider the treatment of Hillary Clinton when running for president against Donald Trump, when she warned us that he was being helped by the Russian government, that he would separate families—all of it. Recall the treatment of lawyer and legal scholar Anita Hill, when she accused her former colleague, then-SCOTUS nominee Clarence Thomas, of sexual harassment. Recall the dismissive treatment of countless female rape victims who speak up; women who are the recipients of domestic violence and sexual assault who are disbelieved, who are silenced, when trying to be heard.
On Saturday’s U.S. Open women’s finals, a year after she almost died on the delivery-room table, tennis champion Serena Williams ran smack dab into one of the proud defenders of the patriarchy so affronted at a Black woman using her voice that he abused his authority to punish her by all the means he had.
In a season when we should be celebrating her triumphant comeback, we’ve instead watched her called out for what she’s wearing (at the French Open, more on that in a bit) and now accused of cheating, with the help of her coach. Saturday night was not the first, or even the second time U.S. Open judges have thrown out bad calls at Serena Williams—it’s practically become something of a Grand Slam tradition. So you can see why tensions were running high. “I have never cheated,” Williams asserted, “I don’t need to cheat to win.”
As the match progressed, Williams expressed frustration and threw her racket on the ground and was docked a set-changing game point by the umpire, Carlos Ramos. Williams defended herself again, telling the umpire he was a thief for stealing the point from her. Ramos then penalized Serena an entire game for being “verbally abusive” to him. Suddenly, the match was over with the crucial 4-3 momentum destroyed. Now Osaka, at set point, 5-3, won the match. And on Sunday, the USTA announced they would additionally fine Williams $17,000.
Osaka played brilliant tennis. Let us not, as Ramos did, take that joy away from her.
But on Saturday, Osaka appeared as unhappy as Williams. By inserting himself into the match to “discipline” a woman whom Ramos felt was “unruly,” whom he felt was challenging his authority as a man, who would not make herself smaller to pander to his ego—a woman who demanded respect and spoke up for herself—Ramos attempted to, and very nearly, destroyed the day for the two women of color, both of Black heritage, battling it out for tennis supremacy in Queens, New York. For, given the nature of sport, to disrespect one opponent and undermine the nature of the contest is to disrespect both opponents.
One wonders if Ramos would have done this if Osaka was not also a woman of color of African descent? We see in Ramos’s actions an echo of the current state of violence against Black women in America, the unacceptability of Black girl joy for a certain kind of white maleness that must remain supreme, and thus must seize that Black girl joy and attempt to destroy it. Just look at the backlash in present-day America, reverting to extreme racism and misogyny after only two short terms in which Michelle Obama and the optics and cultural developments propelled by her presence on the world stage were an embodiment of Black girl/ women’s joy.
Saturday, the story should have been about how the first person from Japan, a biracial woman of Japanese and Haitian (read black) heritage, a 20-year-old star in the making, won her first Grand Slam tournament. Or about what could have happened if Serena Williams, as she often does, rode her surging momentum to a different outcome of the match. Instead we are once again recounting a story about sexism, racism and the double standard that still plagues the tennis world.
As Williams, Billie Jean King, Chris Evert, and other players and fans of the game themselves have all stated, men have done much worse and not been penalized. Those of my generation remember John McEnroe’s famously thrown rackets and cursing, Andre Agassi’s thrown rackets and cursing. Recall 2017’s French Open when Nadal spoke to Ramos exactly as Williams did—and no, Nadal was not penalized a game. He and Kyrgios, are particular perpetrators of venting on umpires without repercussion. Even the gentlemanly Roger Federer has called umps idiots and never has he been penalized like this.
Not one of these men has been docked a game for “verbal abuse”; none of these men has been subjected to the level of disrespect and policing of behavior that Williams has been. We remember the many instances of racism and sexism Williams has dealt with in the past: the policing of her black hair, the ridiculing of her black body, and the clothes she wears; the many inaccurate calls against her; the excessive drug testing (more than any other opponent); the tennis officials and fans who have called her and her sisters “gorillas,” and referred to them as “brothers”—and worse.
There is a necessity to be consistent with the application of the rule of law. But this is what every Black woman knows: There may be rules, but they are unequally applied, based on gender and race.
And for those who say that Williams was too emotional, I say two things:
- Racism and sexism are violent, dehumanizing acts. Who says that the response to such violence should be measured calm? Who among us would not get upset in a high-pressure work situation in front of the entire world in which you were defrauded of fundamental success because of racist and sexist double standards?
- Look at the men, who express as much and more emotion when not dealing with the constant underlying sexism and racism that Williams is, and they are not called emotional, but powerful. Heroic.
What happened Saturday night did not happen in a vacuum. It did not come out of nowhere. This track record of micro and macroaggressions that have happened to Williams in the past may have influenced her understanding of yet more incidents on Saturday: She alluded to them when she said “There’s always something here,” referencing past racist and sexist incidents at the U.S. Open, namely in 2004 during her match with Jennifer Capriati and 2009 with Kim Clijsters.
But the events of Saturday night are bigger than Serena. It is evocative of a culture of misogyny and disrespect for women in sports that tennis perpetuates. The longstanding gap in prize money, unaddressed until her sister Venus, went to bat for women’s equality. The lack of accommodation for maternity leave, emblematic of that larger social issue of how women are expected to have children, but not be given any support for it—often penalized at work and “mommytracked” instead. Another player, Alize Cornet penalized for changing her shirt on-court, when no man has been. Serena’s French Open black bodysuit—which was created for her to address medical issues postpartum—was dismissed by the French Tennis Federation as “disrespectful” and then outlawed. There has been a constant policing of women’s bodies and a wash of respectability politics.
The message is clear to women: Don’t speak up. Your voice, when raised, is simply too loud. And for women of color, it dredges up the old, yet still as prevalent and painful as ever, stereotype of the “angry Black woman.”
I am reminded of a different stage, a different battle surrounding the policing of women’s bodies and not so covert racism against men and women of color is ongoing with the confirmation hearings of Brett Kavanaugh, President Trump’s judicial nominee for the U.S. Supreme Court, who has openly used white supremacist rhetoric and been clear on his stance of the necessity to roll back women’s rights. But Trump, himself well known for rhetoric and behavior that degrades and violates women, has determined to fast-track the nominee through the hearings, withholding key information vital to the proceedings.
Footage of Senator Kamala Harris during the hearings as she presses Kavanaugh to answer basic questions illustrates her prosecutorial mastery. Kavanaugh reacts to her by playing dumb, squirming, and being evasive. At times, Kavanaugh’s smug smile, and Harris’s rather cynical one, both let on that they know the game the SCOTUS nominee is playing. But as long as Kavanaugh chooses to dodge the question, there is little Sen. Harris can do but put the process on record and make the ridiculous horror show visible for us.
What these situations have in common is the complete disrespect shown to the Black women who are front and center in the situation, and the ways in which the white men—Ramos, Kavanaugh—dismiss, disrespect and belittle these women’s power. Against a backdrop, in both situations, of men attempting to control women’s actions and women’s behavior we see men refusing to respect and listen to them.
Consider even the mainstream media, which minimized Harris’s work defending women’s rights as self-serving (Los Angeles Times) and condemned Serena Williams for speaking up for herself (The Telegraph).
“Can you think of any laws that give the government the power to make decisions about a man’s body?” Harris asked Kavanaugh.
In one of his rare direct answers, after Harris had only repeated the question four times and he had only evaded three times, Kavanaugh eventually answered “No.”
“Can you think of a time this has ever happened in tennis?” the pundits asked each other about the accusations, disrespect, and penalties levied on Serena—and what this meant for Osaka’s win.
“No,” they responded.
Kavanaugh, Trump, and others who espouse this new Republican party that gleefully foregrounding blatant racism, white supremacy, and misogyny, these men who are distressed at gains in the arena of racial and gender equity, need to make women small; they need to take away hard-won rights to do so. Ramos, upset with having a woman stand up to him and demand respect, had to make Williams smaller, make Osaka smaller. Kavanaugh, smug in his all-but-certain confirmation, effectively shrunk Harris by refusing to answer her.
Because of course this is not how women are supposed to talk to men.
So she, like Williams, did what she had the power to do: Regardless of whether men were listening, she spoke up. And put all of it on record for those of us watching.
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