Five Thoughts on “Playing” Serena

This piece was published on the Tennis Space on 14 December 2012, but since that site has been experiencing technical difficulties for a while & I think the points remain relevant, I’m re-posting it here.

Let’s cut to the chase.  Do I think Caroline Wozniacki is a racist or even that her recent imitation of Serena Williams was racist (defined very narrowly to mean a belief in the inferiority of another race of people expressed via bias, bigotry, discrimination, hostility, and so on)?  No.  Do I believe it’s still worth discussing race and gender in the context of such impersonations?  Yes.  At the same time, we’d benefit from shifting the focus of the conversation from the individuals involved to the larger forces shaping the incident’s interpretations and impact.

Since tennis is, first and foremost, a sport, it follows that websites like this focus on matches and players, tournaments and titles.  But tennis is also of the world, not apart from it: it intersects with history as well as culture.  So, when controversies like this arise, to either wish they’d go away immediately or limit discussion of them in a manner that implies tennis exists in a separate dimension from other parts of our lives is to risk missing the opportunities they provide for introspection and growth.

Idle Hands: The incident that sparked this controversy took place during an off-season exhibition match.  This timing and occasion are relevant mostly because they are indicators that tennis writers have little new material to work with and fans, without their favorite pastime, are bored.  And when boredom strikes, watch out: “idle hands are the devil’s workshop,” as the saying goes.  At virtually any other point in the season, Tennis World would not be paying terribly much attention to—not to mention fiercely arguing about—the meaning of a one-minute video.  However, just because we wouldn’t normally be doing so doesn’t mean we shouldn’t do so now.

Us versus Them: Although plenty of people in Tennis World had likely seen videos of (and even developed opinions on) various players imitating Serena, it didn’t become a hot topic until two things happened.  First, the story out of Brazil was picked up—and the word “racist” introduced into it—by the Huffington Post.  Second, Sports Illustrated’s Jon Wertheim, who has one of the biggest audiences in Tennis World, tweeted a link to their article.  Some of the subsequent furor, then, is about the tennis community feeling scrutinized by and wanting to respond to the criticism of outsiders—to people who aren’t following the tennis story closely, and who therefore don’t know the main characters or plot-lines.  It happens so rarely that the sport gets mainstream media coverage in the US, for instance, that fans have reason to be upset that this is the sort of tennis item that gets the attention of . . . actress Whoopi Goldberg, the other hosts of The View, and the wider media universe.  Added to disappointment that the story is being circulated at all is some resentment about how the subject is being framed—especially, but not only, from the Dane’s fans.  With sensational headlines, hasty conclusions about a popular player’s character based on an instance taken out of context, and tension mounting between fans squaring off on the issue, it’s no wonder many dedicated to the sport want this story to disappear.  “Can’t we all get along?” you might be asking.  Yes, we can—but we may actually get along better if we dwell in this discomfort a while longer.

Mixed Messages: Part of the difficulty here is that three overlapping conversations are taking place—sometimes all at once, which only adds to the confusion and increases the likelihood of conflict.  One is mostly about Caroline Wozniacki: her actions, intent, sense of humor, relationship with Serena, judgment, and reputation.  Another is mostly about Serena Williams: her body, self-image, sense of humor, interactions with fellow players, achievements, athletic prowess, physical presence, and power (on court as well as in terms of cultural influence, most notably as a role model for young women of color).  A third and much more abstract conversation links the recent cartoonish representations of Serena to how black women, specifically, and people of African descent, generally, have been and are depicted in white-dominated popular culture—and the negative ramifications thereof—in the US especially.

Just because criticism and outright hostility have been misdirected at Wozniacki, or just because people from beyond the borders of Tennis World have misunderstood other aspects of our complex culture (what’s an exhibition, who does impersonations, which players are friends) doesn’t mean the most significant topic of all isn’t relevant or that discussion of it should be deferred until a more emotionally convenient time.  Contrary to Fox Sports’ Greg Couch, who said that people like Goldberg are “picking the wrong moment” to raise the issue of race, I’d argue that this controversy has created a teachable moment: a perfect opportunity to explore an important issue that might not get our attention in a busier part of the season.

The Exhibition: Despite what this heading suggests, I want to leave aside the tennis event in São Paulo and emphasize two things it has in common with another exhibition some two hundred years ago: a public display featuring a foreign body, with special focus on her breasts and over-sized buttocks.  Without knowing what the so-called “Hottentot Venus” looked like, or that she was an African woman whose body was first put on exhibit in Europe and then (after her early death) dissected in the name of understanding “primitive sexuality,” it is much more difficult to understand why some people are so upset by the light-hearted exaggeration of Serena’s curves.  When Goldberg referred to Wozniacki-as-Williams using the phrase “that visual” and noting “it’s an image that we have seen before,” illustrations of Saarjite Baartman are the sort of thing she had in mind.  (At the risk of sounding smug, I’d encourage anyone whose response to this claim—that people could leap in one or two short moves from a silly moment on a tennis court to the history of race relations from colonialism onward—is disbelief to read more widely, perhaps starting with William Faulkner, who famously wrote, “The past is never dead.  It’s not even past.”)

Popular culture in the West—from the Hottentot Venus to title characters in ‘70s blaxploitation films like Coffy and Foxy Brown to the “bitches” and “‘hos” of contemporary hip hop—is rife with such images of black women.  They’re so common, in fact, that there’s a name for the promiscuous black female stereotype: the Jezebel.  These depictions, which often include body parts exaggerated and meant to suggest sexual appetite and availability, are not simply bad for black women’s “body image” (which commentators like Couch, speaking of Serena’s “bootylicious” body type, have acknowledged).  The strong reaction to these images, in other words, concerns more than black women’s frequent representation as out of shape or fat (on the negative end of the spectrum), curvy or voluptuous (on the positive end).  Rather, for those with the requisite historical knowledge, such imagery is virtually impossible to disentangle from the racist ideologies underpinning much of European and American slave-trading and colonial enterprises (including those in Brazil, by the way).  To put the finest point on it possible: if Europeans and their American counterparts did not think Africans were inferior to whites and, in many cases, less than human, they would not have been able to justify buying, selling, and treating them as property.  Further, as few likely need reminding, being perceived as chattel led not only to physical cruelty such as whippings but also, in the case of black women, to rape and other forms of sexual exploitation.  Stereotyped images of blacks were part and parcel of other, more brutal, types of oppression.  Thus, to ascribe all of the pain and anger about negative representations of black bodies in general and black women’s bodies in particular to “cultural insecurities” (as ESPN’s Jamele Hill does) or to refer to “prevailing sensibilities” of political correctness (as The Telegraph’s Oliver Brown does) is to put the matter mildly—even inaccurately.

Performing Race: It’s no surprise that Charles Caleb Colton, the writer who coined the phrase “imitation is the sincerest form of flattery” died before minstrel shows—and performances in blackface—became a popular form of entertainment in the mid-nineteenth century.  It’s hard to imagine how anyone witnessing such mimicry of blacks by whites could be confused enough to think the former group were admired or being complimented by the people on stage.  Although it may seem counter-intuitive, lampooning blacks became more, not less, common in the US in the years following the Emancipation Proclamation.  Those needing a primer on common stereotypes could do worse than watching The Birth of a Nation (1915), Gone with the Wind (1939), Amos ‘n Andy (the first television show featuring black actors, 1951), Hollywood Shuffle (1987), or Spike Lee’s Bamboozled (2000).  The latter’s conclusion, a three-minute montage of blackface imagery from film and television, is a short but powerful reminder of how prevalent and insidious such racist depictions have been.

So, what does this have to do with impersonations of Serena Williams?  Almost certainly nothing, if we only consider the knowledge and intent of her peers putting on these acts.  There’s no doubt in my mind that none of them deliberately set out to mock, demean, or dehumanize one of the most accomplished players of the modern era—a respected colleague and, to differing degrees, friend to Roddick, Wozniacki, and Djoković.  Nevertheless, the legacy of blackface, which today includes everything from white performers appropriating black cultural forms to ignorant &/or insensitive undergraduates who don inappropriate Halloween costumes every fall, is relevant to the interpretation of performances in which white athletes attempt to embody some essential aspect of Serena.  That these imitations remind some people of racist imagery from the past is not something that can be prevented with a warning or undone after the fact by patiently noting, “No, that’s not what they mean” or even forcefully insisting, “That’s got nothing to do with it!”  The power of association—so central to individual and collective imagination, memory, and meaning-making—simply doesn’t work that way.  Indeed, for our small community to suggest that others are misinterpreting these impersonations because they don’t know enough about tennis, rather than the other way around (that the tennis community is missing something about such performances because it is not paying enough attention to the world), seems myopic.

***

Tennis, once an almost exclusively white sport, is increasingly diverse in terms of the race, ethnicity, and nationality of its participants.  With shifting demographics among the pros and the fact that ATP and WTA tournaments are now scattered across the globe, tennis is played and watched by people from all walks of life.  One of the benefits of the rapid internationalization of the game is that players, umpires, lines-people, members of the media, and even fans travel the globe, learning about different cultures, eating exotic foods (Donkey-milk cheese, anyone?), attempting to master at least a few words of a foreign language, and forging new friendships, in person and online, through a common love of tennis.  The United States, long the host of major events and home to many a tennis champion, is familiar tennis terrain.  Given the extent of American economic, cultural, and political influence, and the fact that Ashe, Connors, McEnroe, Evert, Navratilova, Sampras, Agassi, and, yes, Williams are tennis’s equivalent of household names, it may seem odd to suggest that the US is one of the distant lands we need to learn more about in order to understand the game of tennis, the people who play it, and even our own reactions to it.  Occasionally, though, we just might.

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