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Monday, September 14, 2009

Serena Williams pulls a Bernie Madoff

I've been feeling really conflicted about the whole Serena Williams affair. On the one hand, she really screwed up in her 2009 US Open semifinal match against Kim Clijsters. What she said to that lineswoman and how she said it were truly wrong (and I'm among those who wonder if it was roid rage, sadly). But on the other hand, the boatload of hypocrisy going around is sickening. Hearing Mary Carillo, whose bias against the Williams sister is well known, going on and on about it makes me want to spit. And then there's McEnroe, who is hardly one to talk. If it weren't so racist sexist sad, it would be hilarious that people seem to be splitting hairs about how Serena's outburst was so much worse than anything McEnroe did. McEnroe made an annoying spectacle of himself every damn time he walked out on a court, demonstrating rudeness not just to officials and fans, but to his opponents by holding up play for extended periods with his tantrums. Serena may have been out of line with the linewoman, but at least she understood that the most important person on that court was her opponent, and she did exactly what she should have done with Clijsters. She didn't have an extended tantrum and steal Clijsters' limelight; she congratulated her graciously and left.

But this morning I realized that the underlying thing making me really uncomfortable is that Serena Williams just pulled a Bernie Madoff. Do I even need to explain what I mean? People who commit high-profile transgressions that give ammo to the haters, "proof" of their worst suspicions. Jews are money-grubbing thieves. Blacks are violent and uncivilized. My knee jerk reaction is that we have to be extra cautious not to throw fuel on those fires.

And then as soon as I think those thoughts, I'm racked with guilt, because I know that they just plays into the notion that the hated minority has to be twice as good to get half as much credit. Growing up, I was explicitly taught that, as a Jew, I must be scrupulous in everything I do because the goyim will always be looking to find fault, and I must never give them cause to justify their anti-semitism. I suspect many people of color were taught similarly. But there comes a time when you recognize that this is just a way of internalizing the racism of the culture -- taking it on yourself to accommodate the prejudice rather than attacking the prejudice directly.

From a piece in the Guardian some years back titled "Tennis Is Racist, It's Time We Did Something About It:

As race courses through the veins of tennis, people pretend it doesn't exist. Instead the Williams sisters, together with their father, are subjected to a steady stream of criticism, denigration, accusation and innuendo: their physique is somehow an unfair advantage (those of Afro descent are built differently), they are arrogant and aloof (they are proud and self-confident), they are not popular with the other players (they come from a very different culture and, let us not forget, there is plenty of evidence of racism among their colleagues: comments made by Martina Hingis spring to mind, not to mention the behaviour of Lleyton Hewitt towards a black linesman in last year's US Open).

And Richard, a man of some genius, is painted as a ridiculous and absurd figure, match-fixer, svengali and the rest of it. Most racism - especially middle-class racism - is neither crude nor explicit but subtle and nuanced, masquerading as fair comment about personal qualities rather than the prejudice it is.


Middle-class racism masquerades as fair comment -- that's exactly right. That's what's so frustrating in these situations -- especially when, as in the case of Serena's outburst during the US Open semifinal, there really was something wrong with her behavior. Pointing out the racism in the responses to her behavior just brings charges that you're a race apologist, because what's worse, Mary Carillo calling Serena's press conference an "Oscar-worthy performance," or Serena threatening to shove a tennis ball down the lineswoman's fucking throat?

The fact is, Mary Carillo is worse, because she's speaking from her position of authority in an affluent white sport, and she never fails to reinforce how unwelcoming she is to people like the Williams sisters, whereas Serena popped off in the heat of the moment.

But sadly, that's a damn hard case to make to those who simply aren't disposed to listen.