Sexism at US Open: Serena Williams’s Treatment Lays Bare Double Standard Black Women Face

We look at fallout from the women’s US Open final Saturday, where tennis star Serena Williams lost to 20-year-old Naomi Osaka, after accusing umpire Carlos Ramos of sexism. On Monday the Women’s Tennis Association came out in support of Williams, with chief executive Steve Simon suggesting the umpire showed a different level of tolerance to Williams because she is a woman. During the final, Ramos gave Williams a code violation after he deemed a gesture made towards her by her coach to be “coaching,” which is banned during a game. Ramos then penalized Williams a point after she destroyed her racket in anger, and docked her an entire game after she subsequently called the umpire a “liar” and a “thief” for stealing her point. We speak with Amira Rose Davis, assistant professor of history and women’s, gender and sexuality studies at Penn State University and co-host of the sports podcast, “Burn It All Down.”

TRANSCRIPT

AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now! I’m Amy Goodman. We end the show with sports and politics, and ongoing fallout from the women’s US Open final Saturday where tennis superstar Serena Williams lost to 20-year-old Naomi Osaka after accusing umpire Carlos Ramos of sexism. On Monday, the Women’s Tennis Association came out in support of Williams, with chief executive Steve Simon suggesting the umpire showed a different level of tolerance to Williams because she is a woman. During the final, Ramos gave Williams a code violation after he deemed a gesture made towards her by her coach to be “coaching,” which is banned during a game. Ramos then penalized Williams a point after she destroyed her racket in anger and docked her an entire game after she subsequently called the umpire a liar and a thief for stealing her point. This is an exchange between Williams and Ramos.

SERENA WILLIAMS: You owe me an apology. I have never cheated in my life. I have a daughter, and I stand for what’s right for her, and I’ve never cheated. And you owe me an apology!

SERENA WILLIAMS: You owe me an apology. You will never, ever ever be on another court of mine as long as you live. You are the liar, and you stole a point from me. You are a thief, too.

CARLOS RAMOS: Code violation. Verbal abuse. Game penalty for Mrs. Williams.

AMY GOODMAN: Williams’ opponent, Naomi Osaka, who is of Haitian and Japanese descent, went on to win the match 6-2, 6-4 in her first Grand Slam victory. On Saturday, she became the first Japanese-born player to win a Grand Slam singles tournament. Speaking during a post-match press conference, Serena Williams said her treatment was different than how male tennis players are treated by umpires.

SERENA WILLIAMS: I can’t sit here and say I wouldn’t say he is a thief because I thought he took a game from me, but I’ve seen other men call other umpires several things. And I am here fighting for women’s rights and for women’s equality and for all kinds of stuff. And for me to say “thief” and for him to take a game? It made me feel like it was a sexist remark. I mean like how — he has never took a game from a man because they said “thief.” [laughter] It blows my mind.

AMY GOODMAN: The tournament referee’s office later fined Williams $17,000 for the incident during the match. Well, for more, we go to Penn State University where we’re joined by Amira Rose Davis, Assistant Professor of History and Women’s, Gender and Sexuality Studies, co-host of the sports podcast Burn It All Down. Her forthcoming book, Can’t Eat A Medal: The Lives and Labors of Black Women Athletes in the Age of Jim Crow. Welcome to Democracy Now!

Can you start off by talking about just what happened? I mean, how rare is this? In this extremely white sport of tennis, you have two Black women on the finals court, you’ve got a Spanish umpire, and they’re playing in Arthur Ashe Stadium. And look at this controversy with Serena Williams calling out sexism in US tennis. Amira?

AMIRA ROSE DAVIS: Yeah, it was a real mess. It is the second straight year we have had two black women in the final, and certainly being in Arthur Ashe gives it a certain significance. But I think one of the things here that we’ve seen is that this conversation about sexism in tennis keeps coming up. Just two weeks ago again, we were talking about Serena’s catsuit ban and we were talking about Alize Cornet’s warning for taking off her shirt. And so I think that that’s one of the reasons why all of this came to bear on this match. Now, when I watched it, I thought, oh, what a mess, because not only was it very hard for Serena to navigate the situation, but it really overshadowed dominant and impressive play by Naomi Osaka.

AMY GOODMAN: And that’s also really important, Professor Davis, this issue of who Naomi Osaka is, who ends up crying when she’s presented with her trophy, and people are booing. And yet you have Serena Williams who is then hugging her, understanding exactly what this meant, this moment that has been such a victory for Naomi who said Serena Williams is the reason she is in tennis, that she is so inspired by her. Two black women kind of pitted against each other.

AMIRA ROSE DAVIS: Precisely. And I think one of the things that has happened in the wake of this is there has been a move in certain media headlines to paint Naomi Osaka as against Serena in some way. There’s a particularly vile racist and sexist cartoon in the Herald Sun that depicts Serena Williams as a kind of oversized, full-lipped — reminiscent of a caricature drawing of African Americans in the Jim Crow era, throwing a tantrum. And Naomi Osaka is in the background, and she has very long blonde hair, and it’s almost like she has been whitened, whitewashed. And I think that we can’t lose fact of this point.

One of the reasons that Naomi Osaka was so emotional, as she said, after the match, is she is a Serena fan. She wants Serena to win. So she has to get out of that mindset in order to compete with her, but she said when Serena held me and embraced at the net it was like I was a kid again and I was her big fan. And I think that that is such a strong point. Her father, who is Haitian, got her into the sport after watching the Williams sisters and watching Richard Williams create opportunities for this black child in tennis, and he mimicked that blueprint to get Naomi into the game.

And so very much this is part and parcel the same thing. Naomi Osaka is not against Serena. In fact, one of the things that Serena is advocating for is to really look at the box that is placed around women athletes in terms of what emotions they can express and how tennis matches are adjudicated. That is to the benefit of players like Naomi Osaka and future players to come.

AMY GOODMAN: And just to correct, the umpire Ramos is Portuguese. And finally, the featuring of Serena Williams in Colin Kaepernick’s video, the video of Colin Kaepernick, the Nike video that has come out as the NFL opens and he is not signed to any team, but he is talking about African American women like Serena Williams who are the leaders in sports, breaking every record.

AMIRA ROSE DAVIS: Precisely. I think that that is a huge point. While the conversation has really veered toward sexism in tennis, it is really about Serena as a black woman that has prompted such a visceral reaction for many black women, because Serena symbolizes the feelings of a lot of black women in this country whose bodies are scrutinized, whose parameters for expression seem to be pretty tightened, who have dominated, who are the best of their craft and seemingly still are relegated outsiders to their profession.

So I think that one of the reasons that the reaction was so visceral to this moment is that a lot of people identified with Serena Williams and the struggle that she was manifesting. Which is not to say that it was the frustration; it was rather the fact that — who is allowed to be frustrated? Who is allowed to have outbursts? And as Serena cited and as many male players on the circuit have come out in defense of her and said “I have said far worse things and I have more leeway on that end.” And so I think one of the reasons why we can tie this to Kaepernick is not only about —

AMY GOODMAN: Professor Davis, we have to end it here, but we are doing part two at democracynow.org. Check web exclusives. Professor Amira Rose Davis. I’m Amy Goodman. Thanks so much for joining us.