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Fear of the Black Girl, Serena Williams

New America Media, Commentary, Jasmyne A. Cannick Posted: Sep 13, 2009

What happened Saturday during the womens semifinals at the U.S. Open between Serena Williams and Kim Clijsters is just another example of how black women are still seen as threatening and hostile.

Serena Williams may be one of the worlds greatest tennis players, but dont get it twisted, shes still a sista who is known to be a very serious and intense player. So if she feels that she is being intentionally targeted with bad calls, shes not going to just take it lying down. This includes challenging foot faults on a match point.

Was Serena intense? Yes. It was an intense moment in the match. After all, this is the U.S. Opens womens semifinals. Under an extreme amount of pressure, maybe it got to her. It can happen to the best of us. After all, a person can only take so much and its not as if the field of tennis rolled out the red carpet for her and her sister Venus. From day one, the Williams sisters have had to fight for everything theyve accomplished in tennis, including the continuing racism that keeps the Williams sisters from the Palm Springs Indian Wells Tournament and allows for commentators to credit the sisters strength and athleticism for their victories while their white counterparts win because they play smart and strategize. Its also the reason that my hometown paper, the Los Angeles Times, can feel confident in reporting this latest news while using a photo of Serena Williams from the back, seemingly towering over the lineswoman, and giving license to every other news outlet to have a field day.

In fact, it wasnt that long ago that Serena Williams wrote on her blog about an incident at the German Open where she lost to Dinara Safina. She wrote that she could hear the entire players lounge all happy and joyous because she had finally lost:

It was funny when I lost I was in the locker room and I could hear the entire players lounge really loud like really happy and joyous. Like down goes the champ! Someone beat her!!! It was like a big hoopla.

What ensued Saturday was nothing more than a few angry curse words that lead Serena to have to defend herself against unmade threats toward the lineswoman who was obviously suffering from a typical case of afraid-of-the-black-girl syndrome. How else do you explain the lineswomans alleged accusations that Serena was threatening to kill her?

Williams could be heard saying to the lineswoman, I didnt say I would kill you. Are you serious?

Yeah, are you serious?

Most black women can relate to what happened to Serena. We get mad like everyone else. The only difference is that for some reason, when white women get angry, theyre not perceived to be as threatening as we are. Maybe its the expression on our face. Maybe its the seriousness with which we address issues when we are upset. Maybe its the tone of our voice. You know that Dont f--- with me today tone that can stop a person dead in their tracks and scares the s--t out of most white people.

Like comedian Dick Gregory said about black peoples hair: when were "relaxed," white people are "relaxed." You could say the same applies in tennis.

Ive said nothing more than good morning to a white person and had that taken the wrong way. Maybe I didnt smile big enough when I said it, I dont know. What I do know is that I can count the many times I have had to explain something I did or said that someone took out of context or found troubling. So I would not be surprised if Serenas outburst on the court to the lineswoman was turned into a death threat.

Serena Williams is a very smart woman. She knew that when she opened her mouth to contest the call and the first curse word rolled off her tongue that there was going to be a price to pay for it. And she did. She lost the match to Kim Clijsters. It was obviously important enough to her at the time to say it.

Whats more of a concern to me as a black woman is that people recognize that we all arent foot-stomping, Aw, heck! kind of girls when we get upset. Some of us are What the f---? kind of girls. But that doesnt mean that our words should be taken out of context, our actions generalized to represent all black women. Because come Monday morning, from Rush Limbaugh to Los Angeles shock jock Bill Handel, thats exactly what is going to happen. And once again, black women are going find themselves the brunt of crude and tasteless jokes meant to further demean and dehumanize Serena Williams and all black women.

Just ask former Congresswoman Cynthia McKinney about her run-in with the Capitol Hill police. Or better yet, ask First Lady Michelle Obama, who endured months of ridicule and scrutiny at the hands of the mainstream media that eventually resulted in an immediate campaign to change her image to a much kinder and gentler Michelle right before the election that catapulted her husband into the presidency. And while many will say that Michelles image-enhancement campaign was a success, I must say that I never did quite understand what was wrong with the old Michelle.

Theres nothing wrong with Serena Williams either. Perhaps when more black women tennis players ascend to the level of the Williams sisters and the Womens Tennis Association has the opportunity to interact with more black women besides Serena and Venus, they wont be so afraid of the black girls. Perhaps.

The author of Ebony Magazines July 2008 cover story on Serena Williams, unexpected and unapologetic, at Jasmyne Cannick, 31, is a critic and commentator based in Los Angeles who writes about the worlds of pop culture, race, class, sexuality, and politics as it relates to the African-American community. She can be reached at www.jasmynecannick.com.

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