This Friday morning in Vietnam, I’m watching history in the making. On a warm Thursday evening in New York City, four American women fill the draw at the US Open tennis tournament semifinals.
Three of them are black. And only one of them is a Williams sister.
Venus and Serena Williams have dominated American women’s tennis for more than a decade, turning themselves and their families into sporting and fashion icons. While I am rooting for Venus today, in the past I’ve had trouble cheering for her sister Serena.
Given my background growing up in the black neighborhood of Kenilworth in Washington, DC, and with my white family’s life tied more than most to the African American experience, I’ve felt bad about this.
Serena would be playing, and I’d be rooting for her opponent. And then some voice from out of Kenilworth would pop into my head. “Why you cheering for that white girl?”
I think I had trouble cheering for Serena because of her dominance, her in-your-face aggressive style. I’m often more for the underdog, the come-from-behind athlete quietly calming the inner demons to succeed.
But it might have been partly about race, too. I grew up in a country where race matters, and my experiences living in a black ‘hood only accentuated that. It’s possible that I transferred negative feelings from a few instances of aggression toward me by people with black skin onto my experience of watching Serena the tennis professional. I hope not, but negative racial stereotypes are insidious.
Racism ain’t pretty, and it tends to get everywhere.
There’s always opportunities for positive growth, however, and this moment – when three out of the last four women in the US Open are African American – feels like a sporting and cultural opening.
As black Americans become more prominent and successful in many different areas of our culture, it’s a welcome sign that centuries of racist treatment of blacks is in some ways being reversed.
There’s a danger, however, in overstating the progress represented by such front-page successes. It might lead some to mask or overlook the problems that still lie behind the success.
Perhaps this is the mistake made when Obama was elected president. “Well,” the thought went, “because we now have a black man at the head of our government, as presumably the most powerful person in the world, racism must be dead.” Recent events in the United States have made it clear this is not the case.
On her side of the US Open semifinal draw, Venus Williams is playing Sloane Stephens. Here’s a Washington Post article quote from Sloane Stephens’ mom, about having three black women contesting the penultimate matches this year:
“I want people to take a moment and see that each [of the women] got here in a different path… Are you with those three because they’re ‘U-S-A?’ Or are you with those three because they’re the best and fought the hardest to get there?
“I… look at them as individual, exceptional players, without the asterisk of saying ‘African American,’ because that’s really what they want to be known as — as athletes, not ‘African American athletes.’ And so I think any win they have should be a win because of their merit.”
Part of racism is lumping people together by outward characteristics. And so I agree that, as much as we can see each of these three African American women as individual competitors with varied histories, then we are also fighting our natural impulse toward racial stereotyping.
And when American culture gets to the point that a black person wins the US Open and all the talk is about athleticism and grit, and no one needs to mention how wonderful it is that an African American won, then we might start saying we are growing beyond race.
For my part, I’ve learned to appreciate Serena more in the last few years as her confident, aggressive brand of tennis took center stage and Venus faded a little to the background. I’m happy to see Venus in the limelight again, however, and really hoped she would make it into the final.
She didn’t, but there’s still two African Americans – Sloane Stephens and Madison Keys – in the finals of the US Open. On Saturday – well, Sunday here – I’ll be cheering for a black woman playing against a black woman. That’s something to celebrate.
And the voice in my head from out of Kenilworth will be celebrating, too.