Serena Williams: Champion for Change

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Figure 1. A picture of Serena Williams playing tennis.

Seyeon Min and Nora Pierce

 

Serena Williams is a legendary tennis player, thriving as a champion in the field of tennis, but she continues to face the oppressive forces of white supremacy and racism. Even though she experiences this racism, she is not a victim. She is a beacon for change.

 

Serena Williams is especially outspoken about the intersectionality of her race and gender. The term ‘intersectionality,’ coined by lawyer and civil rights advocate Kimberlé Crenchaw, refers to “the interconnected nature of social categorizations such as race, class and, gender as they apply to a given individual or group, regarded as creating overlapping and interdependent systems of discrimination and disadvantage.” 

 

As a woman of color and a celebrity, Williams is in a position to speak out against the bigotry she has faced–and, more importantly, to be a champion for change. In March of 2020, Serena and her sister, Venus, took the lead in a full day of programming on ESPN dedicated to celebrating women’s achievements in sports. There is no one more qualified to speak on women’s success in sports than the 23 Grand Slam-title winner who is also the highest earning female athlete of all time.

 

Born in 1981 in Michigan, Williams is the youngest of five sisters, including fellow tennis star Venus Williams. Her father was a former sharecropper from Louisiana who taught the girls tennis from books and videos. When Serena was ranked first in the 10-and-under division of the United States Tennis Association (USTA) in 1991, her father moved the family to Florida so the girls could have instruction from more experienced coaches. Williams won her first Grand Slam title at the U.S. Open in 1999. She has suffered injuries and setbacks along the way but has maintained her spirit and dedication, and she always enters the court as a fierce opponent.

 

Described as the greatest tennis player of all time by John McEnroe, Williams has faced prejudice and racism along the way. She has heard people shouting the n-word from the stands during a match. The Williams sisters were once called “brothers” by the president of the Russian Tennis Federation. On December 12, 2012, a Danish tennis player, Caroline Wozniacki, mocked Williams by stuffing towels in her clothes to exaggerate her body. Indeed, some people hold racist beliefs that discount Williams’ hard work and dedication as the reason she wins tournaments. 

 

Pingree sophomores in Ms. Poulin’s Literary Forms & Drama Class are reading Citizen (2014) and The White Card (2019). In these books, author Claudia Rankine investigates the constructs of racism when modern-day America has been falsely deemed “post-racial.” 

 

When Ms. Poulin was asked why she had decided to add a lesson about Williams, she answered, “Rankine is particularly interested in what Serena Williams and her public reception reveal about our cultural moment. Much of the commentary made about Williams, specifically remarks about her body and appearance, stem from a specific intersection of racism and sexism. Similarly, the constant criticism of Williams’s emotions on the court exemplifies how white-patriarchal structures (in this case, replicated through the tennis world) police and weaponize Black women’s expression. It’s important for students to understand how systems of oppression intersect and compound, and the public reception of Williams—who should be championed as an American sports icon—is such a hyper-visible example of how deeply misogynoir [misogyny directed towards black women] is embedded in our society.” 

 

Ms. Poulin hopes that people feel compelled to learn more about the work, perspectives, and achievements of Black women. “Black women have always been resisting systems of oppression and shaping the course of our nation even though white Western historiography tries to erase the narratives of folks who hold marginalized identities. And they have organized from an intersectional perspective to ensure that social and political change be liberatory for all.”

 

Check out these links for more information: 

“The Meaning of Serena Williams”: https://www.nytimes.com/2015/08/30/magazine/the-meaning-of-serena-williams.html  

 

The Vox Video: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=VF5OdUTT6Ro 

 

BBC News Article: https://www.bbc.com/news/business-40789379