As a Black Woman, Serena Dared to Stop Playing Nice

Serena Williams TKTK

I don't know much about tennis. What I know is that it’s pretty damn white. Like Salt Lake City, gated-community white. I also know that tennis players are some of the loudest, whiniest, temper tantrum-throwing prima donnas in professional sports. John McEnroe was famous for his meltdowns; he’s built a post-tennis career on playing off that personality, but he wasn’t treated like Serena Williams was last weekend, when she protested against a judge's penalizations — McEnroe even said so on ESPN. Billie Jean King, probably the most famous woman to play in America, said so, too. 

Meanwhile, the tennis judges are so shook Serena called the judge a liar and thief they’re considering unionizing and boycotting her. Remember how I mentioned McEnroe? I’ve seen him cursing and screaming at judges and no one ever unionized or refused to work with him. Yes, Serena's race really does have a role to play in all of this; we all saw that editorial cartoon. I’m not going to spend a paragraph unpacking that thing, it unpacks itself. I guess it really is that scary for some folks to be yelled at by a black woman.

Black people, along with women, LGBTQ folks, and hell, honestly pretty much every minority that’s ever been held down has played nice until playing nice didn’t work anymore. There is a benefit to playing nice most of the time because the person you’re facing is just a cog in the wheel and the thing pissing you off isn’t their fault and they’re often not even aware they’re being awful. However we know that being nice and patient with folks often doesn’t work out and some people are just plain bigots and, well, you gotta get some shouting done. Of course this shocks and horrifies folks, which leads to that wonderfully patronizing and defensive appeal to civility, where civility got thrown out the window the minute they started being a prejudiced goblin to you.

However, what happened here wasn’t an angry Black Lives Matter protest, a pro-choice march, or even a reaction to something someone said that was offensive; this was just Serena losing her temper at the most important tennis game of the year. Yeah, the judge who kept calling penalties on her is one of the strictest in the sport, but at the same time Serena was losing in a fiercely competitive match after weeks of having the media scrutinize everything from her weight to her clothes. She finally snapped and lost her temper. That’s one thing that I learned the hard way during my transition is women aren’t allowed to lose their temper or ever be aggressive.

I know cisgender women have known this for a while, and it’s cliché to point out that men are “outspoken” but women are “hysterical,” but it there’s a difference between knowing something happens and having it happen to you. I’ve always had a bit of the Irish temper to me, and if you’ve known me or even follow my Twitter you know I’m salty enough to sell at an organic food store as an overpriced, “healthy,” “natural” alternative. That was something about my personality from pre-transition I saw no reason to change to fit into a feminine stereotype like a lot of trans women feel forced to do. I curse, I’m cynical; not snarky, but direct and sometimes insulting. I don’t keep my voice down; and if you watch my stand-up comedy, you can see the spittle fly from my mouth when I take a dig at something. Basically put, I transitioned from an average guy into an overly aggressive woman. Without a doubt this has cost me a job at one point.

I lost that job because I had the audacity as a woman to not let guys interrupt me and I spoke bluntly in meetings which helped sour them on me, despite my performance, Serena’s yelling at the judge and the amazingly disproportionate response to that is a big reminder. If anything, this is less about Serena’s temper, or even her blackness, than it is about male fragility.

Serena, like a lot of minorities and women is the first one to truly dominate in a field long ruled by white people or men, and to get there they had to fight like their life depended on it. Now they are at the top of their field and that tenacity to get there doesn’t go away. So when she gets frustrated and angry, she’s not going to be demure and soft-spoken; she’s gonna proverbially take her earrings off and throw down where a lot of people before them have quietly avoided rocking the boat because they were creating a space for people like them to be themselves. She’s earned the right to smash her racket and talk back like the men before her have. Serena is just one of the first to do so as a black woman. It’s not fair for folks to reduce her to the stereotype of an angry black woman, but sometimes it takes being that angry to finally bring about change.

AMANDA KERRI is a writer and comedian based in Oklahoma City. Follow her on Twitter @Amanda_Kerri.

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