Earlier this month, we joined millions of other sports fans to watch Serena Williams play the final match of her meteoric tennis career at the US Open.
We have ooh’d and ahh’d as she served 11 aces to her opponent’s three, adding to her record stash of 4,131 aces since 2008 alone. We cowered in front of the screen as she approached the net to deliver those fearsome smashes that, in her 28 years in professional tennis, have never failed to shake her opponents. We marveled at his stamina throughout the grueling three-hour match against an opponent in his twenties – no small feat for someone who is fast approaching 41 after countless injuries and operations.
Finally, we shed a tear as she left center court for the last time with her signature whirlwind and high heart-shaped hands, thanking her parents and sister Venus for making her the icon that she was. ‘she has become.
As we reflect on Serena’s breathtaking journey from the public courts of Compton to the whitewashed and patriarchal pinnacle of professional tennis, our sadness at her exit gives way to celebration of what she has achieved and what she means to children like ours. Since bursting onto the scene as a 14-year-old professional in 1994, her impact has gone far beyond winning four Olympic gold medals and 23 Grand Slams – more than any other player in the Open era. Rather than embracing tennis’ culture of exclusion or succumbing to racist attacks, she turned it on its head and opened a new path for girls and boys who don’t quite conform to the image of success. of the society.
When tennis culture called for understated, white clothing, she instead chose bright colors and tailored fashion. While female tennis players were expected to show more finesse than strength, both on and off the court, she pioneered a fun, high-energy style and found her voice for social justice. And when societal norms still push women to choose between motherhood or career, beauty or strength, grace or bravado, she chose to have it all and more. In doing so, she blasted the boundaries of what was once considered possible for women and people of color, becoming so much more than the sum of her accomplishments.
For all of these reasons, it’s only fitting to celebrate Serena’s story of individual sacrifice and success. But there is also a danger in dwelling too long on a single story, even one as uplifting as his. In a society where the average “black” woman still owns only a penny of wealth for every dollar held by the average “white” man, thanks to centuries of slavery and continued discrimination, we must balance the fables of wellness with a grounded understanding of the external obstacles that still stand in the way of women and people of color like Serena.
As one observer has noted, “The idea that the Williams sisters achieved success through their unique work ethic, raw talent, and visionary father — a story of the American dream generously extended to a low-income black family — belies a darker notion. [that] people of color who remain in disadvantaged circumstances are there through their own fault.
Everyone knows Serena, the superstar who overcame the odds to become the greatest of all time. Far fewer of us are aware of the litany of racial abuse she suffered throughout her career, which kept her out of some tournaments for years. Or that she almost joined the hundreds of African-American women who die every year in childbirth, three to four times more than women of European descent. Although she was able to afford the best care available, no amount of Olympic gold could protect her from having her life-threatening symptoms dismissed by a healthcare system that systematically discriminates against darker-skinned women.
Beyond Serena’s own story, we see racism rife in American sports and society at large, as a brief survey of our country’s favorite pastimes reveals.
Take baseball, long considered an emblem of American progress on the so-called “race.” Seventy-five years after segregation ended with Jackie Robinson’s rise to the big leagues, African Americans now make up less than 8% of professional baseball players, down from 19% a generation ago. None of MLB’s 30 teams have general managers of African descent, and surprisingly few have general managers of color, despite the growing number of Hispanic baseball stars, who earn proportionately less in compensation. Only one majority owner of an MLB franchise is a person of color and none are of African descent.
Or take America’s most beloved sport, football. Although about seven in 10 NFL players are African American, only two general managers and three head coaches covering 32 teams are the same. Not a single NFL owner is African American. The same dynamic of racial inequality exists on the field, with quarterbacks overwhelmingly selected from the minority of “white” players and receiving salaries 2.5 times higher than players in other positions.
Meanwhile, the brutality of this full-contact sport on predominantly “black” bodies doesn’t end with the 3½ years of professional play the average athlete receives. In fact, the NFL has denied former players of African descent their share of a billion dollar concussion settlement claiming, in effect, that their low cognitive scores are more the result of “race” – biological fiction – than their actual concussions. and the resulting dementia praecox. This practice of “racial normalization,” which assumes that African Americans have lower basic intelligence than other so-called “races,” is problematic in the extreme, especially when unaccompanied by a careful examination of the impact of racism on human health and mortality.
Even basketball — historically the most inclusive sport for African Americans, who make up 74% of NBA players — has just four head coaches and one franchise owner of African descent in a 30-team league. . A similar gap exists in the WNBA, where African American women make up about 80% of players but only three head coaches out of 12 teams. And when it comes to player pay, the only top-tier sport in which women are allowed to compete rewards just one NBA player — Stephen Curry — with more than double the 144 WNBA women combined. This startling gender pay gap is the result of decades of systematic underinvestment in women’s sport, fueled by the same sexist beliefs that Serena has worked hard to break throughout her career.
While extraordinary players of color like Serena have certainly made it big in sports – and made some compelling Hollywood storylines in the process – the underlying story of man-made inequality along racial lines and gender is undeniable. Despite all the talk of diversity and inclusion from the major sports leagues, can we really hope to achieve racial equity – in sport or society at large – when financial equity, ownership, remains so firmly between the hands of lighter-skinned men?
Confronting these disturbing facts about America’s “original sin” of racism and white supremacy in no way diminishes Serena Williams’ accomplishments. In fact, it pays homage to a woman whose work was never limited to the court. While we will miss Serena’s epic serves and shots, her twirls and curls, we can’t wait to see what lies ahead as she finds new ways to expand opportunities and demand equality for girls and boys like ours.