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  • Serena Williams celebrates after defeating her sister Venus Williams in their quarterfinals match at the U.S. Open Championships.

    Serena Williams celebrates after defeating her sister Venus Williams in their quarterfinals match at the U.S. Open Championships. | Photo: Reuters

Published 28 September 2015
Serena and Venus reflect back entirely new possibilities for the future of sports and of black girls.

"You guys know about vampires?" Dominican American writer Junot Diaz asked. "You know, vampires have no reflections in a mirror? There's this idea that monsters don't have reflections in a mirror. And what I've always thought it isn't that monsters don't have reflections in a mirror. It's that if you want to make a human being into a monster, deny them, at the cultural level, any reflection of themselves.”

That process of ongoing dehumanization through an absence of representation or tokenizing ones at best has been plaguing the career of Serena Williams. Coming from humble beginnings out of Compton, she has had a career unmatched in length, skill and success. Despite this, over the years Williams has been described by online commenters and journalists alike as a "gorilla," as “manly", "savage” “aggressively off-putting” even in articles praising her accomplishments. These comments are indicative of the racialized sexism that Serena has encountered throughout her career and an industry that is ill prepared to challenge it.

Saturday, Sept. 26, 2015, marks the 34th birthday of Serena Williams. She is 21-time Grand Slam winner, two-time Serena Slam crown holder —a Serena Slam is when Williams wins the four major tournament championships, the Australian Open, the French Open, Wimbledon and the U.S. Open, in consecutive fashion, a title she first claimed when she was only 21. Her 16-year run is, in the words of Sports Illustrated, “one of the most sustained careers of excellence in the history of athletics.” After winning her first Grand Slam at age 17, she has collected 20 in the last 17 years. She is thrilling to watch on and off court and has the respect and admiration of fellow tennis greats including John McEnroe and Roger Federer. Instead of receiving acclaim in line with her incredible accomplishments, the Williams sisters, together with their father, are subjected to a steady stream of criticism and innuendo. They are deemed to have an unfair advantage because of their physique, uncommon to the court of Wimbledon, but entirely reflective of many black women in our community.

The exceptional language use immediately reminded me of another string of racist jargon this time couched in science. While blogging for psychology today, evolutionary psychologist Satoshi Kanazawa at the London School of Economics argues that black women are less physically attractive than other women. He justifies this claim by asserting that Black women have exceptionally high levels of testosterone and as a result also have more ‘masculine features’ and are therefore less physically attractive.

South African runner Caster Semenya, was subject to humiliating gender verification investigation tests.

Eventually, the International Association of Athletics Federations, the governing body for all international athletic competitions outside the Olympics, cleared her to run. Due to the historic racist nature of sports and the limited concepts around gender, the standards these women are consistently held up against are against white women.

This was the case when Caroline Wozniacki donned her best impression of Serena Williams.

Caroline Wozniacki impersonates Serena Williams. | Photos Reuters/AFP

Although Serena herself denied that she felt any racist intentions, racism isn’t only about intentions, it is also about impact and also the larger context of how she has been targeted for having a body that is not thin, waify and blonde.

Perhaps most explicitly, in the semi-finals at the Indian Wells tournament, when the family returned to the court for Serena’s match against the big-hitting Belgian Kim Clijsters, the crowd began to boo and call her “n*gger’.” The booing continued throughout the match, which Serena ultimately won.

“I thought, people like Martin Luther King Jr. boycotted things. And this is nothing on that level. Look at Muhammad Ali, he didn’t even play, he went to jail because he didn’t want to go to war. The least I can do is stand up for my people and not go there. That’s the very least I can do. It’s not even that hard of a decision. I get a vacation on those two weeks. It’s like the easiest decision of my career. They can penalize me to death, I’m never going back.”

She went on, talking about how “every year at the Open something happens. Like last year I got a point penalty because of a grunt. Meanwhile, I can name five girls who grunt way louder than I do, and the umpire didn’t even give them a warning.”

Beyond the taunts and the unfounded critiques about her body or demeanor systemic racism has economic results. We know that on average black women in the United States make US$0.64 for every dollar that a white man earns and tennis is no exception when it comes to a substantial pay disparity. Williams has beaten Maria Sharapova 17 times in a row, spanning over a decade. She still makes half of what Sharapova makes off the court in multiple endorsements. Williams is the most dominant U.S. athlete yet, on Forbes’ list of the highest-paid athletes, she ranks only at 47th outpaced by the number four ranked men’s player. There are no other ways to account for this massive gap other than attributing it to rigid expectations about the image of female tennis players.

Outside of the courts, sister Venus has spent much time advocating for equal pay for women. Until 2007, women champions at Wimbledon won a smaller cash prize than the men champions. In an Op-Ed published in The London Times, Williams argued that their prize structure “devalues the principle of meritocracy and diminishes the years of hard work that women on the tour have put into becoming professional tennis players. The message I like to convey to women and girls across the globe is that there is no glass ceiling. My fear is that Wimbledon is loudly and clearly sending the opposite message.” With her efforts successful, filmmaker Ava Duvernay has now set out to make a film about this story.

We know that representation matters. For all of the young kids, and in particular the Black girls growing up in hoods and barrios across the globe, for the first time they can see a mirror of themselves in the Williams sisters. They shatter so many of the stereotypes of age, class, race, gender and an affirmation that the difficult circumstances that they were raised in fortified them to be who they are today. Often the strengths and skills of people who have grown up and navigated economically impoverished ghettos as well as systemically racist institutions are not equally acknowledged or valued. These are both dangerous places in their own depending on who you are. In 2003, Serena said this about about growing up in Compton, California: "If you can keep playing tennis when somebody is shooting a gun down the street, that's concentration. I didn't grow up playing tennis at the country club.”

In their philanthropic efforts, they travel the world to tell that story and to inspire young women of colour to pursue their biggest dreams. It resonates so deeply with the reason that Diaz decided to write.

“And part of what inspired me, was this deep desire that before I died, I would make a couple of mirrors. That I would make some mirrors so that kids like me might seem themselves reflected back and might not feel so monstrous for it."

Serena and Venus reflect back entirely new possibilities for the future of sports and of black girls.

Katrin Milan is a writer, multidisciplinary artist, activist, consultant, and educator. Milan is the co-founder and current executive director of The People Project, a movement of queer and trans folks of color and allies, committed to individual and community empowerment through alternative education, art activism and collaboration.

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