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It has been said that a picture is worth a thousand words. The recent mocking of Serena Williams, the number three-tennis player in the world, by Caroline Wozniacki, another high-ranked tennis player, is troubling. It speaks volumes to what the Williams sisters have been made to endure throughout their careers in the lily-white elitist sport of tennis. To the casual observer, this is just harmless fun that these players are having with each other. It is what athletes do in the height of competition, whether to get in each other’s heads or simply to blow off steam and enjoy themselves. The world of professional tennis seemingly has a culture in which they often travel the same tennis circuit together and openly mock one another during exhibition games in good sport and amusement as a form of silly expression. In fact, it seems that Wozniacki and Williams might even be friends. For Serena, however, the public mocking of her body, which focuses on her well-endowed assets, have a much deeper and nefarious history of black womanhood grounded in our racial past and the struggle for equality and justice in the sporting world.
In the turbid life of Saartjie Baartman, a South African woman born in 1790, the struggle over the imposition of competing constructions of self was exemplified in how the scientific and lay white community made sense of and interpreted her body. Baartman physically embodied evil and hyper-sexuality while on display with her animal trainer in Paris and London. Alternatively, Baartman’s body was interpreted by the French comparative anatomist Leopold Cuvier, among others, as being “closer to nature” as documented in many of his painstaking notes. In a typical journal entry, Cuvier remarked that he had never seen a head that more resembled a monkey than Baartman’s and that she moved like a monkey as well. Perhaps mercifully, Baartman died at age twenty-five, after which Cuvier excised her genitals, preserved and displayed them for the purpose of “furthering science.” Her display of African-ness signified the direct opposite to the virtues of white womanhood.
Like Baartman, Serena’s looks—her body shape, her hairstyle, and even her clothing—have often been in clear contrast to her white female opponents like, Caroline Wozniacki, described in the media as “smoking hot.” Serena’s blackness and physical style of play in the high stakes world of professional tennis were even scrutinized. She has been described in the media as too masculine, too aggressive and too intimidating, often overwhelming her frail white female opponents with brute force. Interestingly, you will find that Serena is the only player who is mocked (in fun, of course) for her body type; and, furthermore, she seems to not be mocked for anything, but her body. No one pokes fun at her loud yells when hitting the ball, at her exuberant reactions to her wins, or at her occasional and well-covered tirades at the judges. Instead, her “friends” ridicule her for the one thing she has no control over and the one thing that has been used against black women for centuries to marginalize and dehumanize them.
Even if Serena, herself, finds this teasing innocuous because they are all friends (and whether her friends realize this or not), this sends a highly racialized message to the world watching. It sends a message to the historically white audience that its acceptable and even humorous to mock the body of black women (despite the history), and particularly to men, that we can continue to judge women based on their bodies. And furthermore, this sends a message to the young black women (likely watching because of the road the Williams sisters have paved) that that their bodies are deemed “funny-looking” and, thus, less attractive, and it is perfectly tolerable that society (including stadiums filled with hundreds of people, not the mention the thousands and millions online). If you don’t think that black women, themselves, buy into this notion of beauty, recall the Gabby Douglas incident when the Olympic gold medalist was publically criticized over her hair as being less straight, interpreted as less white, and too “nappy” which meant too black. Most of her criticism came directly from black women.
Within this logic, Serena’s appearance and demeanor—despite her stellar accomplishments in the sport—have casted her as “unfeminine”—even animal like—cannon fodder for racialized public displays of stereotypical blackness “on the court” of public opinion. Therefore, when Caroline Wozniacki or Andy Roddick perform exhibitions of mocking Serena’s body in front of hundreds of white spectators, it sends a clear disturbing message to young women of color, which reinforces the hegemonic white supremacist male patriarchal notion of beauty in a persistently racist world. The message is that the more “black” you look, the funnier you look to all of us judging you based on your outward appearance. In other words, look white and we won’t mock you….as much.