When Yomi Adegoke and Elizabeth Uviebinené released their debut book Slay In Your Lane: The Black Girl Bible, earlier this year, it quite rightly caused waves in and outside of the publishing industry.
The two authors wrote about their personal experiences growing up black and female and interviewed a plethora of successful black British women to discuss their personal trials and triumphs for the book. One story, in particular, stuck with me. Dawn Butler MP explained that at 12 years old she watched her white classmate continuously get As in all her work. This motivated her to study hard and turn in an outstanding piece of work, only to receive a D. She challenged her teacher about the grade, as she saw no difference between her work and her classmate’s, and the teacher said that Butler must have cheated to produce an essay of such a high calibre.
This story resonates with me because something similar happened to me during my primary school years – a teacher also couldn’t believe I could produce work of a high standard without cheating. And yesterday, the greatest athlete of all time, Serena Williams, was accused by chair umpire Carlos Ramos of cheating in order to win the US Open.
Ramos gave Williams a first code violation when he saw that her coach Patrick Mouratoglou was making hand gestures (Mouratoglou later admitted that he was coaching from the box) but the 23-time Grand Slam winner did not see the gestures. The conversation between Williams and Ramos soon became heated as Williams defended herself against Ramos’s suggestion that she would cheat, stating that she would rather lose.
Later, Williams received a point penalty and game penalty for breaking her racquet and calling Ramos a thief for taking a point from her.
The idea that Williams would indeed look towards her coaching team for help seems far-fetched as she has never accepted the option of on-court coaching. However, what is unsurprising is the chair umpire’s reaction to frame Williams as a cheater. His quickness to insinuate the trait of cheat wasn’t just because of Mouratoglou’s behaviour, but because there is still an unfair assumption that black people and black women in particular can’t achieve greatness. And when we do, our talents are treated with unfair suspicion.
Some have been quick to say that Williams’ confrontation with Ramos was because she is a sore loser and a bully; typical knee-jerk criticism that comes from the stereotype of the angry black woman. However, this lazy assumption ignores the fact that Williams is drug tested more than any other tennis player. This unfair discrimination she faces in terms of her drug testing, considering she has never tested positive for drugs, only illustrates that the sport treats Williams’ excellence with suspicion. Despite winning more Grand Slams than any other player in the Open era of tennis, those at the top clearly believe that Williams’ superior status isn’t due to her hard work and determination, but the result of unfair aid.
This isn’t the first time a black female tennis player has been accused of cheating: Venus Williams was also accused of cheating in the 2016 French Open, by none other than Ramos. This suspicious attitude that tennis has predominantly towards Serena was reflected in Ramos’s actions towards both William sisters, and illustrates how black women’s talents are routinely called into question.
Yesterday’s US Open women’s final showcased tennis and the world’s unrelenting misogynoir (the combination of racism and sexism that unfairly targets black women) through Ramos unfairly questioning Williams’ character, and people on social media using language to dehumanise Williams and her emotions.
Similarly disturbing was the fact that Naomi Osaka took responsibility for the outcome of the match and the upset feelings of the crowd. When Osaka made her winning speech, it was to the sound of boos. She apologised for how the match went and ended – despite just playing a terrific game that led to her first Grand Slam. For centuries women have been apologising for actions beyond their control, especially in the workplace. It is as though women have been intrinsically taught since birth that saying sorry when it isn’t our fault makes us look more gracious and will also prompt the person in the wrong (in this case, Ramos) to apologise for their actions.
Osaka was a gracious and deserving winner. If women keep apologising when they have clearly done nothing wrong, men like Ramos will never shoulder the responsibility of the fact that his irrational stereotyping and sexist attitude towards Williams was the reason the match and Osaka’s historic win were tarnished.
The truth is that it was stereotypes and not Williams that ruined the US Open women’s final. Ramos’s refusal to give a woman in a tense situation the benefit of the doubt and to look past her upset comments revealed an ego that had been bruised because a woman stuck up for herself. Williams was right; male tennis players have said a lot worse in the moment and never suffered such backlash from an umpire.
Like Dawn Butler’s teacher and my primary school teacher, Ramos still can’t believe that a black woman can be excellent. Instead, he likely took the opportunity to abuse his position of authority in the hope that he could discredit Williams’ career and character.
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