Serena Williams: The power, and danger, of a single story

Earlier this month, we joined with millions of other sports fans in watching Serena Williams play the final match of her dazzling tennis career at the U.S. Open.

We ooh’d and ahh’d as she served up 11 aces to her opponent’s three, adding to her record stockpile of 4,131 aces since 2008 alone. We cowered in front of the screen as she approached the net to deliver those fearsome smashes that, for 28 years in professional tennis, have never failed to send her opponents scrambling. We marveled at her stamina throughout the grueling three-hour match against a twenty-something foe – no small feat for someone fast approaching 41 after countless injuries and operations.

Finally, we shed a tear as she exited center court for the final time with her trademark twirl and heart-shaped hands held high, thanking her parents and sister Venus for making her into the icon she has become.

NEW YORK, NEW YORK – SEPTEMBER 02: Serena Williams of the United States acknowledges the fans after being defeated by Ajla Tomlijanovic of Australia during their Women’s Singles Third Round match on Day Five of the 2022 US Open at USTA Billie Jean King National Tennis Center on September 02, 2022 in the Flushing neighborhood of the Queens borough of New York City. (Photo by Sarah Stier/Getty Images)

Reflecting on Serena’s stunning journey from the public courts of Compton to the whitewashed, patriarchal peak of professional tennis, our sadness at her exit gives way to celebration at what she has achieved and what she represents for kids like ours. Since arriving on the scene as a 14-year-old pro in 1994, her impact has extended far beyond winning four Olympic golds and 23 Grand Slams – more than any other player in the Open era. Rather than embrace the exclusionary culture of tennis or succumb to racist attacks, she turned it on its head and blazed a new trail for girls and boys who do not quite conform to society’s image of success.

When tennis culture called for white and subdued attire, she chose bright colors and form-fitting fashion instead. When women tennis players were expected to exhibit more finesse than force, both on and off the court, she pioneered a fun and forceful style, and found her voice for social justice. And when societal norms still pressure women to choose between motherhood or career, beauty or strength, grace or bravado, she chose to have it all and more. In the process, she exploded the limits of what was once thought possible for women and people of color, becoming so much more than the sum of her achievements.

For all these reasons, it is right to celebrate Serena’s story of individual sacrifice and success. But there is also danger in dwelling too long on a single story, even one as uplifting as hers. In a society where the average “Black” woman still owns just a penny in wealth for every dollar owned by the average “white” man, thanks to centuries of enslavement and ongoing discrimination, we must balance feel-good fables with a grounded understanding of the external impediments that still stand in the way of women and people of color like Serena.

As one observer noted, “The idea that the Williams sisters succeeded because of their unique work ethic, raw talent and visionary father – a story of the American Dream generously extended to embrace a low-income Black family – conceals a darker notion [that] people of color who remain in disadvantaged circumstances are there due to their own fault.”

Everyone knows Serena the superstar who overcame the odds to become the Greatest Of All Time. Far fewer of us are aware of the litany of racial abuses she endured throughout her career, which kept her from playing certain tournaments for years. Or that she nearly joined the hundreds of African American women who die each year in childbirth, at three to four times the rate of women of European descent. Although she was able afford the best available care, no amount of Olympic gold could protect her from having her deadly symptoms dismissed by a health care system that systematically discriminates against women with darker skin.

Beyond Serena’s own story, we see racism shot through American sports and society at large, as a brief survey of our nation’s favorite pastimes reveals.

Take baseball, long considered an emblem of American progress on so-called “race.” Seventy-five years after segregation finally ended with Jackie Robinson’s ascent to the Major Leagues, African Americans represent less than 8 percent of professional baseball players today, down from 19 percent a generation ago. Not one of the 30 MLB teams has a general manager of African descent and shockingly few have general managers of color, in spite of the soaring numbers of Hispanic baseball stars, who earn proportionately less in compensation. Only one majority owner of a MLB franchise is a person of color and none is of African descent.

Or take America’s top-rated sport, football. Although roughly seven in 10 NFL players are African American, only two general managers and three head coaches spanning 32 teams are the same. Not a single NFL owner is African American. The same dynamic of racial inequality exists on the field, with quarterbacks overwhelmingly selected from the minority of players who are “white” and awarded salaries 2½ times larger than players in other positions.

Meanwhile, the brutality of this full-contact sport on predominantly “black” bodies does not end with the 3½ years of professional play the average athlete receives. In fact, the NFL has denied former players of African descent their share of a $1 billion concussion settlement by claiming, in effect, that their low cognitive scores are more the result of “race” – the biological fiction – than their real-life concussions and resulting early-onset dementia. This “race norming” practice, which assumes that African Americans have a lower baseline intelligence than other so-called “races,” is problematic in the extreme, especially when unaccompanied by a careful examination of the impact of racism on human health and mortality.

Even basketball – historically the most inclusive sport for African Americans, who represent 74 percent of NBA players – only has four head coaches and one franchise owner of African descent in a league of 30 teams. A similar gap exists in the WNBA, where African American women make up roughly 80 percent of players but only three head coaches out of 12 teams. And when it comes to player compensation, the only top-tier sport in which women are allowed to compete rewards a single NBA player – Stephen Curry – with more than twice as much as all 144 women in the WNBA combined. This startling gender pay gap is the result of decades of systematic underinvestment in women’s sports, fueled by the same sexist beliefs Serena has worked hard to smash throughout her storied career.

While extraordinary players of color like Serena have certainly made it big in sports – and made compelling Hollywood plots in the process – the underlying story of man-made inequality along racial and gender lines is undeniable. For all the talk of diversity and inclusion by the leading athletic leagues, can we really hope to achieve racial equity – in sports or society at large – when financial equity, ownership, remains so firmly in the grip of men with lighter skin?

To face these unsettling facts about America’s “original sin” of racism and white supremacy does not diminish the achievements of Serena Williams. In fact, it honors a woman whose work has never been confined to the court. Although we’ll miss Serena’s epic serves and slams, her twirls and curls, we cannot wait to see what lies in store as she finds new ways to expand opportunity and demand equality for girls and boys like ours.

This article was published in New Hampshire Bulletin on September 15, 2022 and other papers.

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