No, seriously. The very mention of her name incites a championship environment and an integris character. Which is why it’s so disrespectful, and inaccurate, to reduce her act of self-defense at the US Open to a “meltdown” when she called the umpire a “thief” and was subsequently penalized for it. Male counterparts have admitted to saying worse things during a match with little to no penalties, yet Williams, who is the face of her sport, has to continually (re)justify herself through the classiest of comments at award presentations and post-match interviews.
Her grace and eloquence have become a part of her brand and she’s equally as well known for her humble demeanor as she is for winning. Such an esteemed reputation interrogates Mark Knight’s political cartoon without Williams even acknowledging the caricature of what’s supposed to be herself, let alone commenting. And while the artist doesn’t see the racism or sexism in the depiction, the scene is layered with microaggressions and irresponsible representations. For example, 35 years-grown Serena Williams has a pacifier, as if she’s the first player to challenge an umpire’s ruling. Every curve on her body is over exaggerated from her lips, to her breast, to her hips, with the intent of conveying unruliness. And then, just when you think it can’t get any worse, Naomi Osaka, who is phenotypically Black and proudly Haitian and Japanese, is shown as a skinny white women with blonde hair. Clearly, Knight is deploying sex and race in his cartoon against Williams as a way to villainize her behavior.
Knight’s cartoon is dismissive of the events that actually took place and prioritizes the optics of the match instead of a true recount. And while it’s honorable for Williams to continue taking the high road, as she always does, the politics of respectability can only get her so far. And that’s what the aftermath of the US Open demonstrates.
The politics of respectability is a term coined by Harvard Professor Evelyn Higginbotham that draws a parallel between how the outward appearance or behavior of specifically Black women changes how others perceive and receive information from them. For example, Williams’ conversation about accusations of cheating and point disparities with the umpire on the court is being framed as a “meltdown” because its delivery is, apparently, in a temper-tantrum fashion. Which really means that a direct, expressive set of facts presented to a position of power still needs approval according to its standards. And since the umpire perceived Williams’ remarks as weapons against his disposition, he penalized her because he could. So this isn’t just about the point(s) in question, or tennis. This is about the umpire feeling threatened by Williams and what she represents.
Cool, calm, and collected is Williams’ usual stance at… well, pretty much all the time. Fans around the world have grown accustomed to expecting a Serena Slam in the future and the greatest athlete to have fiery comebacks without the flames. In other words, onlookers have prescribed a certain set of actions that have been preapproved for Willians to do.
Competes in Wimbledon, great. Makes it to the US Open Finals, way to go. Stands up for herself against an umpire in a way that they aren’t use to, … she was about to lose anyways.
But the fact of the matter is that the politics of respectability create these differing points of view. To box Williams into socially acceptable ways of challenging authority is not only limiting, but it is also rooted in sexism and racism. Williams, and Black women generally, do not need a rubric or consent on how to assert our intelligence when someone insults our character.
Yet, here Williams is, and so many others, being told, time and time again, the right way to express dissatisfaction. Add this aspect to the many other ways that Williams is already disproportionately scrutinized, and it is clear to see that being “respectable” is not a long term strategy against sexism or racism. The politics of respectability is merely a means to an end that leads to another void that’s in need of being strategized across. Case in point: Williams will bounce back from the 2018 US Open and go on to win more and do what she does best. More than likely, she’ll be presented with another situation where she wants to react as she chooses, whether that be with the classic Williams-type behavior that the world is acclimated to, or not. And it is this rolling tide feature of respectability that changes what society defines it as. Williams pushing the envelope is one thing, but what happens when the envelope is shredded altogether?
Because that is what’s needed against racism and sexism. So while I’m glad that Williams always has iconic comebacks — and I will definitely have my eyes and ears peeled for the next ones — they shouldn’t be necessary or expected because she’s a Black woman trying to communicate when she feels disrespected.
Maybe this is the means to an end: strategy after strategy, constantly reiterating our right to be while being characterized as an angry Black woman throwing yet another fit.
Nobel Laureate and Pulitzer Prize-award winning author Toni Morrison said it best in a 1975 speech in Portland, Oregon, “The function, the very serious function of racism is distraction. It keeps you from doing your work. It keeps you explaining, over and over again, your reason for being. Somebody says you have no language and you spend twenty years proving that you do. Somebody says your head isn’t shaped properly so you have scientists working on the fact that it is. Somebody says you have no art, so you dredge that up. Somebody says you have no kingdoms, so you dredge that up. None of this is necessary. There will always be one more thing.”