When it takes a male athlete to elevate Serena's long-standing voice on Black Lives Matter
Serena Williams made waves recently with a Facebook post denouncing police brutality, which was met with an expectedly high level of resistance.
What was surprising were those who said Williams was trying to capitalize on this moment -- those who wondered why she chose now, when Colin Kaepernick has been the catalyzing image of this issue.
Here's what she posted:
Her perspective is a sobering look into the existence of Black America, including, but not limited to, a black woman who experiences those fears while being one of the most prominent athletes in the world.
Despite the public's selective memory, Williams is not capitalizing on Kaepernick's protest. She has made it a point to speak out about the Black Lives Matter movement in the past few years.
In November 2015, she wrote for Wired on this very issue: "I'm a black woman, and I am in a sport that wasn't really meant for black people. ...So to those of you involved in equality movements like Black Lives Matter, I say this: Keep it up. Don't let those trolls stop you. We've been through so much for so many centuries, and we shall overcome this too (see "Get Up, Stand Up"). To other people, I say: When someone's harassing someone else, speak up!"
Serena also spoke about this in July, after she raised her fist in pride and later won Wimbledon, having just tied Steffi Graf with the most major wins of any tennis player, and mirroring John Carlos and Tommie Smith at the 1968 Olympics. After she gave us that powerful image, she spoke about the spate of murders of unarmed black men, such as Alton Sterling and Philando Castile, while denouncing the then-recent shootings of policemen in Dallas, expressing the fear she had for her nephews. She told reporters:
I feel anyone in my color in particular is of concern. I do have nephews that I'm thinking, 'Do I have to call them and tell them, don't go outside. If you get in your car, it might be the last time I see you?' That is something that I think is of great concern because it will be devastating. They're very good kids. I don't think that the answer is to continue to shoot our young black men in the United States. It's just unfortunate. Also, obviously violence is not the answer of solving it. The shooting in Dallas was very sad. No one deserves to lose their life, doesn't matter what color they are, where they're from. We're all human.
Perhaps the fact that you're only hearing her now indicates the effectiveness of the broader protest in amplifying her voice. But with all the evidence that Williams has spoken up about Black Lives Matters in the past, it's quite an incredible spectacle to see a movement spurred by Kaepernick (a "backup quarterback," as the least vitriolic critics refer to him) elevating the voice of the highest-profile woman in sports. It took a "backup quarterback" -- and a man -- for the general public to listen to her.
Of course, this isn't the first time women's activism has taken a backseat to men's. In July, a group of prominent NBA players including LeBron James, Dwyane Wade, Chris Paul and Carmelo Anthony opened the ESPYS with an impassioned speech on Black Lives Matter. But, just a few days before the award ceremony, members of the Minnesota Lynx wore warm-up T-shirts declaring that "Black Lives Matter" and calling for "Change and Accountability."
The next day the New York Liberty followed suit, also donning shirts reading #Dallas5 to honor the slain officers, and in the ensuing weeks several other teams joined in. A week after the ESPYS, the WNBA tried to fine a few of these teams, but ultimately decided not to after several pointed out that the men had not been similarly punished for wearing "I Can't Breathe" shirts following the death of Eric Garner.
You could easily say that the platform of the ESPYS combined with the much higher profile of the NBA players accounts for them making bigger headlines than their WNBA counterparts. But it's pretty telling that Serena, whose every move down to her manicure choices is endlessly scrutinized, went largely unheard on this issue until now, until Kaepernick focused everyone's attention.
Her sister Venus, also among the most prominent women in sports, unfortunately made headlines by saying "all lives matter" after being asked about her Serena's post, which she said she hadn't read. This isn't the space to go into why those words are hurtful and unhelpful -- here and here are some links to help you with that -- but her use of those words is disappointing in their dismissiveness nonetheless.
That said, the vitriol leveled against Venus in response -- disparaging her as the lesser sister, tearing down her successful campaign for equal pay, even questioning her athletic achievements -- only displays the ways in which the fight for equality often comes in terms of contradiction rather than necessary intersectionality, and even perhaps reluctant compromise.
It's true that the feminist movement has often, if mostly, manifested in white terms, leaving behind racial equality among women in the name of furthering some nebulous, homogeneous sense of "womanhood." But we don't need to bring down women in order to raise up the cause for civil rights, and if anybody knows that truth, it's women of color, particularly black women. If anyone has been at the forefront of furthering both causes simultaneously, it's the Williams sisters -- both of them.
Venus has had to endure every argument of female athletic inferiority in her fight for equal pay. Meanwhile, Serena has been projected with every negative aspect of not only athletic inferiority, but of feminine inferiority, body image, achievement, success, "etiquette," high expectations, low expectations, celebrity, fame, dating -- all of which have been informed by notions of race.
That extends to her voice, which she has used in the past but is only being heard now.
That doesn't stop with Serena. As The Undefeated's Mark J. Spears covered extensively this weekend, Warriors power forward David West has also publicly protested the national anthem for years. As West said, his stance is about much more than police brutality against the black community -- it's about the various ways he sees his community being subjugated, far beyond issues of civics.
"What about education? What about infant mortality? How about how we die younger and our babies die sooner?" West said. "We die. [Black men] have the shortest life expectancy. C'mon, man. The health care system? There are so many [issues]. ...I can't start talking about civic issues. I can't start talking about civility and being a citizen if m--f-- don't even think I'm a human being. How can you talk about progress and how humans interrelate with one another when you don't even recognize our humanity?"
West told Spears he doesn't see Kaepernick, et al's, protests having a lasting impact. It's an understandable perspective from one of many voices who have gone unheard for so long -- until now.