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Serena Williams’ honesty made me face my own prejudices about my personal heroes

This first-person essay, penned by the 39-time Grand Slam superstar herself, felt like reading my own diary

Serena Williams says she is sticking up for women's rights following a heated Umpire Exchange at the US Open

Try as we might, the chasm between celebrity and everyday life for the rest of us can make it difficult to relate – I mean, really relate – to the superstars in our midst, but sometimes, when the curtain of fame is drawn back, we’re given a glimpse into the human experiences that transcend that social divide. It feels, for a fleeting moment, as if we’re living in the same world.

For me Serena Williams’ Harper’s Bazaar interview, published on Tuesday, was such a moment.

Fresh off the back of her mixed doubles second-round success with Andy Murray at Wimbledon, this first-person essay, penned by the 39-time Grand Slam superstar herself, felt like reading my own diary. Breezing through her accolades with an ease that belies a comfort in her continual and hard-earned success, she moved on to discuss an issue that just a few months ago dredged up yet again a debate that has followed her since the moment she entered the world of tennis: her “anger”, and – more specifically – her choice to lean into it at the final of the 2018 US Open.

“This debacle ruined something that should have been amazing and historic,” she wrote. “Not only was a game taken from me but a defining, triumphant moment was taken from another player, something she should remember as one of the happiest memories in her long and successful career.” And then she gave in to a thought that I and many women, and more specifically black women, find themselves turning over in their minds.

“Was I wrong to stand up?”

At the time, the answer to that question – at least for Williams – was a strong “yes”, even if she’d had her reasons for speaking out. She was fined over her remarks to umpire Carlos Ramos. Tennis umpires were even reported to be considering the forming a union over what they perceived as a lack of support for their colleague during the debacle.

But let’s not forget how quickly the coded characterisation of Williams as boundlessly, animalistically aggressive reared its head, particularly when compared to her opponent, Naomi Osaka, who was cast as demure. We all saw that cartoon.

This case is more complex than it first seems. I’ll admit, I am by no means an expert on tennis, but I do think it’s interesting that someone with Williams’ resolve, experience and dedication, and who was standing up for mistreated, underrepresented athletes, felt shaken by this incident to the extent that she didn’t pick up a racket again after it “for a long while”.

Perhaps interesting is the wrong word. Really, it was deeply saddening, in a remarkably relatable sense. Enough to stop me in my tracks.

It’s an experience so many black people have shared, When you’ve fought your way into an industry, profession or sport that has been – and still is – dominated by people who don’t look like you, refuse to understand people like you, and use your differences as a means of trying to push you out altogether, the sense of defeatism must feel inescapable.

But, naively perhaps, I did not think that would be the case with someone like Williams – even after reading interview after interview of her fending off ignorance. That’s because, I now realise, we all need personal heroes to exude the superhuman strength we fail (often for good reason) to summon in our own everyday lives.

The big news many have taken away from Serena’s essay is the fact that she apologised privately to Osaka. I’d argue that Osaka’s response, reiterating that Williams’ approach to challenging the umpire had been necessary, was far more illuminating.

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“People can misunderstand anger for strength because they can’t differentiate between the two,” she reportedly said. “No one has stood up for themselves the way you have and you need to continue trailblazing.”

Speaking up for and believing in yourself, and your intentions, in a world that barely respects your right to be there in the first place is terrifying. We don’t say that enough. Your heart races, your temperature rises, you can’t sleep. Call it imposter syndrome, self-doubt, whatever – too often, we fall into the trap of minimising how difficult taking on the world’s prejudices can be.

I’m so grateful to Williams that on this occasion, she didn’t. And to Osaka too, for her emotional intelligence in understanding that.

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