Talking Cultural Diversity

a discussion board for cultural and diversity issues by Thomas Kochman and Jean Mavrelis

Serena, Foot Faults and Culture

By Thomas Kochman - 09.16.2009

Serena William’s reaction to the foot fault called by a line judge at a critical juncture in the semifinal match with Kim Clister’s at the 2009 U.S. Open has been covered extensively by the media. One issue under discussion is whether the call should have been made given the situation regardless of whether the foot fault actually occurred or not.  

 “One philosophy is that it is a rule, and you call it when you see it,” Cox said. “The second way of thinking is more in line with a good N.B.A. official: You don’t make a call that can decide a match unless it’s flagrant.”

John McEnroe had a similar view to the N.B.A. comparison when he was commenting on the CBS broadcast on Saturday night. “You can’t call that there,” he said.

These different views of the situation have one thing in common: they assume that the line judge had discretionary authority in the matter: that in the final analysis it was a matter of individual choice: the line judge could just have easily decided not to call the foot fault as to call it.

Let me offer a different take on what was going on. It has to do with culture and personality and that the line judge was an East Asian woman.

Individuals coming from cultures that are position and role driven –hierarchical cultures around the world: Asian, Hispanic, Middle Eastern, etc. — are very careful not to behave in ways that their role or position has not authorized. As Confucius said, “If you know your position, you know your role. And if you know your role you know how to behave.”

Acting at one\’s own discretion without authorization or regard to role and position –yours or others– is a violation of the established social order in those cultures and simply not done. This applies to both men and women in those cultures, but women especially.

Individuals from cultures that promote individual freedom, self-determination and self reliance, like mainstream U.S. culture, –exemplified by U.S. white men — give individuals license to act in ways that other cultures disallow.

A key pattern of difference here is the degree of freedom (and with that discretionary authority) individuals from different cultural backgrounds have to act on their own and how that affects the kinds of decisions they can readily or easily make.

And what was culturally and socially going on behind the way Serena Williams reacted to the call?

Culturally for African Americans rules are applied at the personal discretion of those in charge. In addition, the social experience of African Americans has been that when rules have been applied at the discretion of those in charge, more often than not, black people got the short end of the stick.

These cultural and social underpinnings may well have entered into Serena’s sense of injustice at the line call –that a rule that should not have been applied, was — which may have also led her to question the line judge’s motive for doing so.

My sense is that the motive of the East Asian line judge had little or nothing to do with her decision. She was simply following established rules and did not feel she had discretionary authority to do otherwise.

What do you think?

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