Just When We Thought It Was Safe: Serena Williams, The US Open, and the Shortcomings of Black Girl Magic

This is a really difficult one for me to write. But I have to write something. After the shit-show that was the 2018 US Open, in which I feel Serena Williams and Naomi Osaka were robbed of the opportunity to achieve a “clean” win, I am deep in my feelings. Like Drake deep.

For the record, I believe Serena – an absolute vet of the professional tennis circuit – when she says that male players are allowed to demonstrate the same level of anger and aggression toward game officials that she demonstrated in the match against Osaka without being punished the way that she was punished. I also believe Naomi beat Serena fair-and-square and deserved to win, and I am happy for her, but I am also hurt that her first US Open victory had to occur under such ugly circumstances.

And I fault the umpire and his petty calls and violations. Without them, perhaps Serena could’ve stayed focused and triumphed over Naomi in a clean win. Or Naomi could’ve taken Serena just as she did, but without the shroud of controversy over her victory.

I fault that officious non-black man on his very symbolic white wooden pedestal for robbing both of these black women from getting what they both deserved – which was a fair shot at a win that doesn’t call itself into questioning.

His stringency and contrariness were not just products of sexism, either, in my mind. Yes, I am going to say it. They were racist, too. Perhaps it was subtle, but the racism was there.

Because by indulging his ego and abusing his power, he robbed two black women. I can’t help thinking that if Serena and Naomi had both been white, or if they had been, say, Steven and Nathan – two white men – the official would’ve been more lenient or flexible or amenable to what “Steven” had to say about his situation and the fairness of the calls.

But that’s just it. It’s 2018, and even after years of Serena Williams and other highly-talented and high-achieving black women sprinkling their “magic” all over American culture and consciousness – fighting to overcome stereotypes of laziness, stupidity, complacency, slovenliness, and inadequacy – black women at all levels are still vulnerable to mundane, unimaginative racist plays and displays that stunt our lives and splinter our spirits like Serena’s unfortunate tennis racket.

I am not taking anything away from the concept of “black girl magic” – of pushing our collective black-woman brilliance into the faces of those that are blind or blind themselves to all that we are, do, and contribute to society.

But I am saying we need to do more than internet incantations to ensure that the revelation of our awesomeness and importance translates into better actual physical conditions for us.

“Black girl magic” is a whimsical form of rhetorical protest that feels really good, but doesn’t get the job done when it comes to chipping away at the systemic racism we encounter as black women in America.

We saw this sad truth play out right there on the court with Serena. Even in her tutu, with her beautiful skin and unapologetic hair and formidable physique, her unprecedented chain of professional victories, her unabashed determination to be heard and respected, her raw talent and even rawer vulnerability, she was still subjected to a tired double standard that ultimately distracted her from being and doing her best, which is what racism always does to all that are its victim.

And even with her undeniable skill and unrelenting will to play the agonizing match out to its finish, young, impressive Naomi ended up being wronged as well.

Her win was tarnished by what frankly smacked of a white male official’s determination to make Serena pay for her “niggerish” ways.

Even in a scolding New York Times op-ed aimed square at Serena by white tennis great Martina Navratilova (“I don’t believe it’s a good idea to apply a standard of ‘If men can get away with it, women should be able to, too,” she says – the classic, equivocal “disempowered people should seek to be transcendent rather than equal” argument), Navratilova still admits that ” . . . [i]t is common for the umpire to talk to the player first about [illegal] coaching – a sort of ‘soft warning’ before the real warning so that the player has a chance to ‘muzzle’ the coach” and “[Serena] has some serious scar tissue when it comes to this particular tournament.”

“In 2004, she was subjected to some notoriously awful line-calling and umpiring in a match against Jennifer Capriati,” she admits.

She adds that “[i]n 2009, [Serena] suffered a self-inflicted wound when, at match point in a semifinal against Kim Clijsters, she lost her temper at a line judge, leading to a point penalty that resulted in her automatically losing the match.”

And, again, “In 2011, in a final against Samantha Stosur, [Serena] lost a point for yelling, ‘Come on!’ after hitting a forehand that appeared to help her regain her momentum in a game she’d been losing. She went on [to] berate the umpire, calling her ‘unattractive inside,’ and was hit with another code violation.”

“All of this US Open history,’ Navratilova concludes, “combined, perhaps with always feeling like an outsider in the game of tennis . . . goes some way toward explaining why [Serena] the way she did, and most of all, how she just couldn’t let go [of the umpire’s call].”

She assents that professional tennis players and officials “need to take a hard look at our sport . . . and root out any inconsistencies and prejudices that might be there,” even though she also insists that “[tennis] is a very democratic sport,” and ” . . . it is . . . on individual players to conduct themselves with respect,” as if repeated disrespect does not take a natural and almost inevitable toll on someone that has experienced it as regularly and undeservedly as Serena has.

And, yes, I know that there are unavoidable levels of subjectivity, variability, and resultant unfairness in all athletic officiating and legislating, but I also know that black athletes are treated to much more harmful and flagrant demonstrations of that unfairness.

Just think Colin Kaepernick v. Tim Tebow.

( . . . and be real about the quibbling, faulty argument that Tebow knelt in “private prayer” while Kaep knelt in “public protest” – as if choosing to pray on the sidelines of a professional televised football game about abortion isn’t a political act – if it were a purely religious or spiritual act, he would’ve done it at church or at home where people typically pray – no – he knelt on the sideline, on camera, to draw public attention to his pro-life agenda, which is the same thing Kaep did to draw attention to Black Lives Matter – only he knelt during the anthem because police brutality is a contradiction of the idea that America is the “land of the free” – an idea that would’ve undermined Tebow since abortion is a civil liberty granted under the Due Process Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment . . . )

In fact, there are unavoidable levels of subjectivity, variability, and unfairness in all systems in which humans do the adjudicating because a) they are human, and b) balancing out social systems would empower the disempowered, and who in power wants that to happen?

We all know the answer to that. We that are disempowered know that if we want the scales balanced, we are going to have to do the balancing. And that magic isn’t going to do that for us.

It carries very little if any weight in the Muggle (it’s a Harry Potter reference) kyriarchy (it’s not a Harry Potter reference).

So I say to Serena, Naomi, and all the rest of the black girls and women out here in the everyday US open – we need to do more than be enchanting and entertaining and enthusiastic about improving our lives.

We need to do some black girl fighting.

We need to do some black girl revolutionizing.

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