Like Serena: The Realities of Being a Black Female Athlete

Serena Williams has an ambition and drive that is larger than life. This has helped her become the face of her sport, but she is consistently considered exceptional for a Black woman. The language used to describe her career goes like this:

  • Serena Williams is an excellent tennis player even though she has a big butt.
  • Serena Williams has a grunt that helps her to play better. It is different from other tennis players’ grunts because it is sexual.
  • Serena Williams owes her athletic success to her father. If she had not listened to him growing up, then she may have been another unlucky “16 and pregnant” Black woman.
  • Serena Williams wears make-up and bright colors at her matches in order to atone for her “masculine features” that inevitably help her play better than her more “feminine” opponents.
  • One can find Serena Williams on the red carpet in a dress and high heels, being more “feminine” than she normally is on the tennis court.

In 2001, Serena and Venus Williams were booed by fans at the Indian Wells match who accused them of fixing the match. These unfounded allegations were accompanied by horrific racist comments directed toward their family. Williams has been boycotting the event for the past 13 years. But this year she returned. And she won. Her victory at Indian Wells signifies not only her physical triumph but also her ability to overcome the many obstacles that she faces as a Black female athlete.

Williams has a phenomenal skill set on the court, but what truly makes her “exceptional” is her ability to continue pursuing her dreams while dealing with racist, sexual, gendered, and character debilitating statements like these on a daily basis. The mental tenacity and emotional strength that this woman must have inspires me on a daily basis. It is easy for us to remind ourselves that our people have rights now, and the fact that the media cares enough about a Black female athlete means that we are on the road to re-wiring our social stratospheres to erase the hate that racism fuels within us.

Like Williams, I am a Black female athlete. I am Yale’s current record holder in the indoor and outdoor Shot Put events, and I have more goals and higher expectations for myself than most people know about. When I break my record or score high in the Ivy League, people usually presume that I have reached my potential. I am discouraged from setting new goals and convinced to believe that my athletic achievements are solely based on my race.

Like Williams, I am subject to ridiculous claims about Black athleticism stemming from biological advantages. Allegedly, we have a bone in our feet that helps us to run faster and jump higher. I really wish that this was true, but the only bone that I’ve noticed in my feet are the bunions that poke out on the insides of my feet, causing me to have to wear shoes that are two sizes too big for my natural foot length. Bunions are a very common trait for Black women in the United States to have, and yet Black female athletes are rarely praised for being some of the top athletes in the world despite having them.

Rather than celebrating our feats by recognizing the mental toughness that it takes to put up with pain on a daily basis in order to reach a goal that may feel elusive for months or years at a time, we are reminded that our African heritage somehow helps.

Like Williams, I am approached by reporters who do not respect my intelligence, expecting a cookie-cutter answer speaking to my humility and shock that I succeeded at something that I work for thirty or more hours per week.

Whenever I break a school record, the random Yale Daily News reporter who is assigned to me thinks for a long and hard 30 seconds before asking, “Did you go into this weekend thinking you were going to break it?”

I would really like to know how anyone is going to write a compelling story about me with these questions.

“When you saw your distance, what was your first thought?”

Well, that shit was fire.

I want the reporter to know that the most important part of a competition throw is what happens during the throw itself. Understanding how I train my brain to think throughout my throw, to trigger each muscle in my body to work in synch is the most important part of throwing.

Why, then, would I want to tell the reporter, “When I saw the shot land 48 feet away from me, my first thought was that nobody else in the field was going to throw farther than that.”

Reporters do not like to report that kind of stuff. Reporters do not want athletes to be confident, and when we are, it is distorted as some kind of over zealous and cocky character trait.

Media coverage portrays Serena Williams and other Black female athletes as being both too masculine and too sexual at the same time. Williams is often criticized for wearing makeup, keeping her hairdos fresh and her style on point because she is apparently trying to cover up her masculine features. Commentators frequently comment on her stature as though it is unfair, making it seem as though she is brutish in comparison with her opponents.

But, because of her grunt, she is also too sexual when she plays. People remark that Williams probably has the best mating call and definitely has the best sex grunt. From personal experience, I can tell you that sex is the farthest thing from Williams’s mind when she is at high stakes in a competition and doing everything in her power to calculate and calibrate her next move on the court.

My former coach used to watch my female teammates and I throw and remark that “women are amazing creatures.” On most days I felt like I may as well be on a stripping pole. Dealing with this sexualization was always a painful experience, and it took a lot of fortitude to get through practice on a daily basis. An example of Williams’s fortitude is her personal style when competing. She wears clothes that have been designed by herself and her team of designers, clothes that she feels comfortable in and that flatter her in the way that she desires. Williams is showing people that her body is not exceptional but rather the product of hard work, and that many women who take themselves seriously in the weight room will look like her and require a different style of clothing.

When talking about Indian Wells, it is good to identify the racist actions, and also how the intersectionality of racism and sexism affect Williams. However, what is lacking in this conversation is the support that we owe Williams for her triumphs. Racism and sexism psychologically and emotionally impair people around the world to an extent that they cannot function in a social context. We should celebrate the mental toughness that Williams must have in order to press forward year after year being one of two Black women in her camp.

Athletes are never given the clout that we deserve for the mental and emotional battles that we deal with when training to get to the next level, so we must realize that Williams’s accomplishments are more than athletic and that she has personal attributes that women in our society are convinced to hide. This woman has both a mental capacity and an emotional strength that are immeasurable, and her muscular beauty is a physical embodiment of these powerful character traits.

 by Karléh Wilson