In 1772, Phillis Wheatley was tried in the city of Boston for writing poetry. It wasn’t the content of her poems that they objected to; it was the fact that she was a black woman, and a slave (since the North had not yet abolished slavery). The white men who tried her were baffled that a slave with no formal schooling was knowledgeable enough to use words like “redemption,” “sable,” and “diabolic,” as she did in her poem “On Being Brought from Africa to America.”
Wheatley won that trial and became the first black female poet to be published in America, but to the patriarchy, her blackness and femaleness were inseparable from her work. They couldn’t write about or evaluate the talent that she possessed merely as talent; they could only do so within the qualifiers of her identity.
The same goes for Serena Williams. While her fans know that she is one of the greatest living athletes in the world, the personification of a great sportswoman, it’s hard for people to separate prowess from her identity, and all the judgments that come with it. As Anne Branigin writes in The Root:
“We get story after story about “furious rants” and assessments of her character. We get stories about how womanly her body is, and whether or not her mostly white competitors want to emulate it (or vice versa). We must talk about the racist trials she’s endured out of necessity. Because that toxic elixir of sexism and racism commonly referred to as misogynoir—keep bubbling up.”
Williams’s dramatic loss at this weekend’s U.S. Open and the calls made by umpire Carlos Ramos that led to it brings this toxic elixir back to the surface. While it’s possible that without them, she still would have lost to 20-year-old Haitian-Japanese newcomer Naomi Osaka, Ramos’s judgments expressed a shocking double standard in how he treated her, whether he was aware of it or not.
Williams’ first violation came when her coach, Patrick Mouratoglou, flashed her a thumbs up sign from the stands, which Ramos interpreted this as code between trainer and protege. This is not universally accepted as an infraction. Coaches are known to make these gestures to players, and given how far away he was from her, she may not even have seen it. But Ramos, who had previously done the exact same thing to her sister Venus during the 2016 French Open, felt he had to do it again here.
The second violation came when Williams broke her racket after losing a serve and Ramos docked her a point, which he would not have had to if not for the previous violation. This is not the first time Williams has done this – the first was at Wimbledon in 2016, and she was fined $10,000 for it. It’s a fairly standard rule in tennis not to damage the equipment, and while it’s hardly the worst thing an athlete can do, citations for this have more precedent than coach-player communication during game time. However, as soon Ramos made his call, Williams let him have it:
“For you to attack my character is wrong. You owe me an apology. You will never be on a court with me as long as you live. You are the liar. You owe me an apology. Say it. Say you’re sorry. How dare you insinuate that I was cheating? You stole a point from me. You’re a thief too. “
This was a step too far for him, and he punished Williams by docking her an entire game. As a result, he made it almost certain she would lose the title to Osaka, whom he deprived the chance to beat her childhood idol entirely on her own merits. The victory celebration that came afterward should have been the passing of the torch from one generation to another – instead, it was marred by a chorus of angry booers who Serena herself had to quiet down while Osaka cried.
Sports stars and big egos go together like peas and carrots, and tennis is no stranger to them – John McEnroe’s rage was so legendary that it influenced Tom Hulce’s performance as Mozart in Amadeus. But male rage has always been more accepted within sports culture and has not cost male athletes in ways that it cost Serena Williams. For example, in last year’s French Open, Novak Djokovic melted down in front of Ramos during a match and was not punished for it. Roger Federer famously yelled to the umpire, “Don’t fucking talk to me” during the 2009 US Open finals and was not punished either.
Williams had every right to express anger towards Ramos, who inserted his judgment throughout this match in such a way that it ultimately affected the outcome. Many veteran tennis players, including Billie Jean King, have accused him of holding her to an unfair standard. Williams said afterward that Ramos’s sexism “blew [her] mind,” but to me, the most interesting thing she said on the court came after that first violation, when he assumed she had been secretly coordinating with her coach. “I don’t cheat to win,” she told him. “I’d rather lose.” She had interpreted this as an attack on her integrity – and she’s correct to do so.
A black woman whose talent is the result of hours and hours of practice – not of utilizing unfair advantages, or cheating – should have the chance for her talent to be properly appreciated and respected by everyone regardless of the immutability of her identity. But that identity will always result in unfair treatment from people like Ramos, who incorrectly assume that the only reason she got there was that she rigged the system. The next time a conservative complains that affirmative action is wrong, or Bret Easton Ellis complains that a movie by a black director is getting a free pass from the white press, think about Ramos’s calls against Williams – they come from the same place.
Ramos’s attitude would make him a perfect fit with the men who tried Phillis Wheatley. Like him, they were astonished that a black woman could do something as well as any man and assumed that for her to get there, she had to have cheated. The rampant drug tests Williams is subjected to each year are no different than the male patriarchy of Boston asking Wheatley if one of her white owners wrote the poems which made her famous. Williams’ talents, like Wheatley’s, are the result of a lifetime of practice – and the assumption that they only come from utilizing unfair advantages is deeply rooted in patriarchy.
(image via AOL)