Serena Williams is Literally Black Women at Work…Everywhere.
Previously published on Dear My People
Black women everywhere felt it. Watching Serena Williams in the final moments of the 2018 US Open was heartbreaking and cringe-worthy. Not because we were watching a coveted win slip through her fingers. Not because she was so consumed with emotion that she destroyed her racket. But because she was accused of cheating. And in the several seconds that she argued back and forth with the male umpire, we were all Serena Williams.
We lived her raw emotions as she explained that she had not cheated, and rested the entire truth on her baby daughter. Now, in the black community, resting something “on my mama” or baby is the ultimate evidence of truth and integrity. As Serena pleaded for an apology, black women everywhere could understand like no other that palpable feeling of accumulated hurt, frustration and fury that manifested in her 3 basic words: “Say you’re sorry.”
But they aren’t sorry.
Of course the umpire didn’t apologize. When it was clear to the rest of us that Serena was telling the truth, he discarded her. He turned the other way and left her to wallow in the aftermath of her truth and fury. Black women know this feeling well, the combination of emotions that often emerge in careers dominated by male umpires (aka managers, directors, CEOs), calling all the shots and making/breaking careers with their unfair manly power.
It’s the feeling of being backed into a corner so far that your emotions come out in the form having to juggle feelings and make quick decisions about how to handle and prove your truth in a man’s world, in front of on-lookers that will never have to experience such a moment.
Our emotions don’t get passes.
Often times, our white counterparts say what they want, when they want. And one of two things happens: either they are taken seriously, or they are given a pass. “Bill/Becky was just having a moment, it’s okay.” But either way, it has no general bearing on consequences for Bill/Becky’s career or future. It doesn’t take a scientist to know that with black women, absolutely zero passes are available, and even fewer are given. We have one time to mess something up, and sometimes we don’t even make it that far.
Even us looking like we are about to “go there” is perceived as a threat and we are labeled as low-key aggressive. I can remember once being upset over something, which must have shown in my expression, and a white stranger next to me placed her hand on mine and said “you better behave, girl.” Gotcha, well excuse me while I fix my face.
Black women are socialized to deescalate our own emotions so as not to be negatively perceived or taken the wrong way. And if we do have a reaction of any kind, our emotions don’t receive second chances. We are done, it’s a wrap. It’s NOT okay.
And yet, black women are no angrier than men or other racial groups. Society expects us to smile harder, look more trustworthy, and be less threatening than everyone else seated around the boardroom, combined. Serena’s boardroom is the tennis court, and she’s expected to simply “fix her face” and play.
We always have to do more.
Tennis history shows that male players have been allowed to say what they wanted during intense tennis matches on the world stage, often using vulgarity or offensive language, and for it to be widely accepted and ignored. These male comments get overlooked, everyone moves on, no penalties are assessed. But the minute Serena opened her mouth everyone knew this was going to end badly because we know this script all too well. $17,000 in fines. We’ve seen it, we’ve lived it, we’ve witnessed similar accusations first-hand.
“I’d rather lose’ than cheat.” -Serena Williams
As Serena pleaded her case for not cheating, although it was an uphill battle because black women are often seen as deceitful and untrustworthy at a baseline, we all watched knowing she was entering into the point of no return and we shared her moment in solidarity. You see, because others see us as angry, aggressive, and untrustworthy, we always have to do more to make people feel safe.
Play extra-fair. Smile more often. Give more frequently. Sit back. Be quiet. Just be agreeable. Often in the workplace, black women have to over-correct and overcompensate to align ourselves with what is deemed professional and appropriate. But Serena pushes that envelope and we love her for it.
And like the true class-act that Serena is, she graciously cleaned it all up and picked up the pieces, knowing that we are working at a deficit from the beginning. After Serena’s display of emotion and words with the umpire, she successfully corrected the situation by comforting Naomi Osaka and doing everything she could to graciously protect that moment. As a natural class-act, she was the real MVP.
We are damned if we do, damned if we don’t.
It’s a familiar fork in the road, a path that others don’t have to travel because they are privileged in their position to… just be. The classic fork black women come to: speak up for what you believe and face the consequences later, or quietly “behave” while suppressing your own words of discontent. They can both suck, because either way we often end up carrying the burden of the emotional aftermath. Either we’ve made everyone uncomfortable with our larger-than-life aggression, or we run the risk of disappointing ourselves and disappearing in our silence, while slowly retreating behind the bushes of this world that wasn’t made for us.
I’m sad Serena lost the championship, but am grateful she won another battle. She took one for the team and moved us a notch closer to equality. During the press-conference, she told everyone that she looks forward to seeing rules that address the double standard for male and female athletes. Yup, she’s the real MVP.