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.

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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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On Syria & Serbia: Some Thoughts on US Interventions

There’s something—or a few things—I’ve been wanting to say for a while about US interventions abroad.  But because I was already headed to the US Open when things took a turn for the worse in Syria, I didn’t say them because it seemed odd to intermingle tweets about tennis with thoughts on foreign policy.  Since things have slowed down a bit in New York, though, I’ve collected a few thoughts.  Really, they’re questions and concerns.

If you’ve been following the debates over what the US should or shouldn’t do in Syria, you may have noticed that “Kosovo” keeps getting invoked.  Given that, it seemed worthwhile to share this handful of pieces, most of which explicitly compare the intervention in “Kosovo” with plans for similar action in Syria.  I put “Kosovo” in quotation marks to emphasize one thing only: the fact that NATO’s 1999 intervention in the Balkans is known by an inaccurate shorthand.  The target of the bombings was not strictly the (still-disputed) territory of Kosovo, but Serbia itself—then the largest republic of what remained of Yugoslavia.  While I understand the need for a convenient abbreviation for common use, this inaccuracy also irks me because I think it obscures the actual—which is to say, broader—effects of that military action.

I have several motivations for sharing these articles.  First, I’m a fan of information— seeking, considering, and disseminating it.  Second, I think it’s useful to have a historical perspective when considering political decisions, perhaps especially military ones.  Over the past two and a half decades, the US & its NATO allies have been involved in any number of conflicts across the globe.  To my mind, the degree to which the interventions in the Balkans shaped subsequent foreign policy (in Iraq, especially) has been insufficiently explored and understood by the general public.  So, particularly when trying to figure out what we could or should do in Syria, it seems useful to go back and look at other interventions that were also presented to the public as “strategic” or “limited” in scope.  Questions we might ask include: What went right?  What went wrong?  How similar are these two situations?  What are the key differences?  What can we learn from our previous actions?  What are the short- and long-term aims of the current or proposed mission?  And, perhaps most importantly, what happened in those other places we intervened after the military action was (supposedly) successfully concluded?  (Americans over a certain age remember George W. Bush’s “Mission Accomplished” celebration—and how laughable it seemed weeks, months, and years later, when our troops were still fighting in Iraq.)

Third (and related to the last question above), even though I have no idea what anyone should do about Syria, I am very, very skeptical of claims that Operation Allied Force is the “gold standard” for interventions, humanitarian or otherwise, as one of these articles states.  Or, if it is the gold standard, I think that should worry all of us.  The reason I feel this way is quite simple (and doesn’t have anything to do with, say, the legality of that operation): it’s been fourteen years since NATO intervened in the former Yugoslavia and the situation in Kosovo remains both unresolved and fairly dire, politically and economically.

Bottom line: these conflicts don’t end when we stop bombing or when headlines about them cease appearing above the fold in the New York Times.  We simply have to think long-term, no matter how painful or seemingly unbearable the short-term suffering is.  And we (meaning the US and its allies) have to learn something not only from “Kosovo” but also from Bosnia, Iraq, and Afghanistan.  Years—even decades—later, none of these places is a model of stability, despite our best efforts.  Could they have been worse without our military involvement?  Perhaps.  Might they have been better?  We can’t know.

I’ve tried to present a range of views here, from Clinton administration insiders to academic specialists on the region, from Buzzfeed to Foreign Policy magazine.  Those who follow me on Twitter or know me personally are likely aware of both my ties to Serbia and my commitment to reasoned analysis.  While I can’t claim to be neutral, I do try to be fair.  The pieces below are presented in chronological order, with the oldest (from 2008, when Kosovo declared independence) first.  If anyone has a recommendation, I’d gratefully add more articles to the list.

“Welcome to Kosovo, the Next Failed State?” (Washington Post Op-Ed)

“NATO Strikes Over Kosovo Continue to Divide, 10 Years On” (DW)

“The Folly of Protection” (Foreign Affairs)

“Kosovo Offers United States a Roadmap for Syria” (Washington Post editorial)

“Five Inconvenient Truths about Kosovo” (TransConflict)

“Is Syria Anything Like Kosovo?” (Foreign Policy)

“Syria Is Not Kosovo, Balkan Veterans Say” (Buzzfeed)

“Wesley Clark: Syria vs. Kosovo” (USA Today)

“Kosovo is the Model For U.S. War With Syria, Forget about. . . Iraq” (PolicyMic)

“Intervention Lessons from Kosovo for Syria” (Huffington Post)

“Syria Is Not Kosovo” (New York Times Op-Ed)

Those with more time or interest in the subject might check out an essay collection such as Reflections on the Balkan Wars: Ten Years After the Break-up of Yugoslavia.

Why Novak Djoković Matters

This piece from August 2011 is the first thing I ever wrote about tennis—and it’s not even about tennis in the traditional sense.  It was addressed, initially, to a broad American audience, not necessarily tennis fans.  However, as I hope is obvious, the message is meant for anyone without ties to the former Yugoslavia.  What inspired me to post it today is Steve Tignor’s discussion of what distinguishes the fans of tennis’s “Big Three.”  Specifically, I wanted to add a few words about why Djoković’s “strong Serbian following” consists of lots of people who are either relatively new to tennis or not fans of the sport at all.  If, after reading this, you care to hear more on the subject, check out the initial post on this site or the article I wrote for the Tennis Space on what turns out to have been the last Serbia Open.

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Picture this: you’re flipping channels after midnight on a Tuesday.  Suddenly, you come across Jay Leno and Katie Holmes dancing a little jig with a bunch of people in funny outfits.  You pause, bemused.  What are they doing—and who’s that with them?

I can imagine the Tonight Show producers were thinking a couple of things when lining Novak Djoković up for an early August guest spot.  First, it’s the dog days of summer, so viewers will be happy not to be watching a re-run.  Second, Djoković is an attractive, charismatic guy who happens to be having an incredible year, winning his first Wimbledon title and achieving his goal of becoming the #1 men’s tennis player in the world in the same July weekend.

But let’s face it, Djoković still may not pass the “who cares?” threshold for most of Leno’s audience.  Sure, he’s an international sports star on a record-breaking run, but since when do Americans give a damn about tennis players—and foreign ones, with hard-to-pronounce names, at that?  Andy Roddick, the closest thing U.S. men’s tennis has to a household name, recently tweeted after a guy serving him in Panera innocently inquired, “Does someone in your group work for Lacoste?”

So, as a guest on Leno, Nole (pronounced “Noh-leh”), as he is known to friends & fans, faced a hurdle.  Add to the basic one—the marginal status of tennis in the US sports & entertainment industry—the fact that Djoković hails from Serbia.  The obstacle here isn’t simply that most Americans don’t know anything about this small, south-eastern European nation.  It’s that what they do know is likely extremely negative—based on nearly two decades in which Serbia, or the former Yugoslavia to which it once belonged, was associated with little more than ethnic conflict, war, and political corruption.  Before Djoković, the three most “famous” Serbs were strongman Slobodan Milošević and Bosnian Serb leaders Radovan Karadžić and Ratko Mladić (all three of whom ended up in the UN’s war crimes tribunal in the Hague)—not exactly the type of guys who get invited onto the Tonight Show.

Djoković matters—not simply to Leno’s viewers but in a larger sense—for three reasons.  This year, he’s a been a major story, both on the men’s tennis tour (where his record now stands at a remarkable 61-2) and in the world of sports more generally: a May Sports Illustrated cover banner proclaimed him the “most dominant athlete in the world.”  He’s also a big deal because he’s the first player to break the duopoly that Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal have had on the #1 spot for an incredible seven years.  In the long run, of course, it remains to be seen what kind of name Djoković will make for himself—or where he will rank in the history of men’s tennis.  For now, though, he’s on top—and showing little sign of letting up.

Ultimately, Djoković may matter most not as a tennis player but as a cultural figure: a global ambassador for a young nation with a lot to prove.  Serbia has only existed in its current form, as an independent country, since 2006—not incidentally, the same year a nineteen-year-old Djoković broke into the ATP top 20.  In the five subsequent years, Djoković (and, to a lesser degree, his 2010 championship Davis Cup teammates, all of whom were granted diplomatic passports in April) has quickly become Serbia’s top export and most reliable salesman.  While he normally represents his nation in Olympic and Davis Cup competition, you can now add late-night television to his list of venues.  There, he not only talked to Leno about tennis and his love for karaoke but also brought along a troupe of costumed Serbian folk dancers—with whom he proceeded to dance a traditional kolo (or “round”).  “The Djoker” even managed to charm both his host and Tom Cruise’s wife into joining him on the dance floor.  If nothing else, these moves should make it clear that there’s a lot more at stake here than selling a bunch of “Novak” t-shirts or US Open tickets to American consumers.