Serena’s return to Indian Wells

By Jean Mavrelis - 03.17.2015

Serena had a lot of guts coming back to the tournament at Indian Wells after she was mercilessly booed here 14 years ago by a white audience that believed her father manipulated the tournament by forcing Venus to withdraw, allegedly because he didn’t want the sisters to compete against each other. That last point makes no sense at all. African American women don’t shy away from competition in contrast to white women, who, outside of sports, generally do.

I was watching a match two days ago, and ended up in conversation with a white woman from Chicago who was sitting next me.  I told her how excited I had been to see Serena the night before.

“I can’t stand her”, said the woman.

White women don’t typically say something like that unless they think they’re likely to get an, “Amen”. She felt sure I shared her view of Serena, because white people react very powerfully to anyone even suggesting that they are racist, and that’s what she believed the Williams’ family had done.

For white folks, if you didn’t consciously intend to be racist, then it is unthinkable for someone to question your moral character, even when the facts illustrate that a Black person was treated differently than a white person would have been treated under similar circumstances.

Her personal indignation around feeling maligned was so powerful that she couldn’t get beyond that to look at the facts.  (Cultural note: when you make general accusations against white people, all whites feel personally implicated).

However, anyone who saw the video would see that Serena was brutally treated, and could further understand that race was an underlying factor in the white crowd’s assumptions of the Williams family alleged unethical behavior.

If one of the McEnroe brothers, or one of the Bryan brothers, had dropped out of a competition against their sibling, no one would have accused them of manipulating the tournament.  There is a deep bias of mistrust of African Americans by white people.

I wanted her to see her bias.  I tried a cultural tactic.  I have discovered through my research that there’s an unwritten rule in white woman culture that you are “mean” if you don’t come to the rescue of someone crying.

So, I used this cultural point to (perhaps unfairly) manipulate her view of Serena.  I said, “You know, Serena was interviewed after the match and she was very emotional, weeping.  Her Mom wept too”.

Black women typically view tears very differently.  They say, “Never let them see you cry” (so as not to show weakness), but these tears were more about the courage to step up and show forgiveness.

In any event, the woman from Chicago whom I was speaking to was on the spot when I said Serena cried, because she couldn’t (culturally) criticize someone who was crying, so she said, “Well, it was always the Dad who was the problem.”

She was inadvertently jumping on the bandwagon to demonize Black men.

I felt sick, and my appearance or my silence must have shown it, because the woman got up and left.

I was left with so many things I wanted to explain to her.

The next night, I was at a dinner with some other white women.  I shared my story.

One of the women said, “I like Venus, I just don’t like Serena”.  My sister chimed in, “That’s because Serena is more culturally ‘Black’ than her sister”: meaning more publicly forthright and likely to speak her mind – something white women aren’t allowed to do within their own cultural circles without risk to their reputation.

The reactions I’ve identified for these white women make sense when you know where they are coming from, but it doesn’t change the fact that they are loaded with bias – unconscious racist or cultural bias even though they were unable to see it.

They thought their views made perfect sense.  However, all of us have to know we have our biases, and be curious enough to want to examine them.

Once we white folks accept that we can’t help but look through our lens of social and cultural bias in analyzing situations such as this one with Serena, we can begin to consider the deeply rooted assumptions that drive our views.

Serena, like everyone, no doubt has her biases and blind spots, too. For example, she probably doesn’t know that white people think it’s worse to accuse them of racism than it is for them to have been inadvertently racist. But even if she didn’t know what was culturally behind the bias, she came to Indian Wells to face it head on anyway and that took the strength and heart of a champion.


Racial Profiling–Revisited

By Thomas Kochman - 12.02.2011

We’re all familiar with stories of black motorists being targeted for special attention by law enforcement agencies, airlines and government agencies.

Stories of racial profiling of whites by blacks, however, also occur, especially in sports –the truism or stereotype being that black athletes are superior to white athletes.

This was made much of in “White Men Can’t Jump” and was the basis of a “con”, or “hustle”, perpetrated by the characters played by Wesley Snipes and Woody Harrelson in the movie.

Green Bay quarterback, Aaron Rodgers, brought this matter up on his talk show recently as a possible reason why wide receiver Jordy Nelson –who is white—continues to get one-on-one coverage compared to Packer black wide receivers.

As is customary when the topic of “race” is offered as a theory or explanation of why something happens, it immediately and automatically gets downplayed, as either being false –it’s dismissively called “playing the race card” by whites at work when blacks bring it up—or, as shown in subsequent media coverage on Rodger’s comment, too provocative to discuss, reflecting the U.S. mainstream cultural orientation that puts “peace before truth”.

This, in contrast to the more forthright African American cultural orientation that puts “truth before peace”, to which our black colleague often adds, “Without truth there can be no peace.”

One could also add, that without “truth” there can also be no further discussion of the topic –a form of putting one’s head in the sand– a rule of  public social etiquette that disallows, by fiat, any opportunity to explore further  what’s “out there,” and “really going on”. Read more »

“My Best Friends are Black”

By Jean Mavrelis - 07.27.2009

When I read the link posted on my blog about Sergeant James Crowley, the arresting officer in the Gates affair, being a diversity trainer, it reminded me of how I used to respond years ago when Black parents would come up to meet me at Douglas Middle School on the west side of Chicago and ask me point blank if I were a racist.  I would immediately begin to go on and on about how I was on the peace and justice committee at my church, and how my best friend was Black, and the more I talked the more the parent would look at me skeptically with an expression that seemed to say, “Yeah, she’s like that!” 

Here’s the issue- Tom Kochman wrote a great chapter in Black and White styles in Conflict called \”Signs of Guilt and Innocence\”. He explained that when Whites feel wrongfully accused they protest and defend their innocence.  Blacks, on the other hand, avoid reacting strongly when wrongly accused – an African American will more likely say simply “I know you’re not talking to me”.  OMG! Think of the implications when white jurors are determining if an African American is guilty or innocence.  If an African American doesn’t protest sufficiently for Anglo cultural expectations, they will likely read the lack of protestation as a sign of guilt rather than innocence. Read more »

Interactional Etiquette

By Thomas Kochman - 07.08.2009

An article in the July 8, 2009 New York Times on Interracial Roommates  focused on the social and prejudicial aspects of sharing a room with someone of a different race but neglected to deal with cultural matters which directly affect willingness to engage or, in many cases, tolerate different preferences and lifestyles. One frequent African American/U.S. mainstream clash around sharing the same room or even same floor at universities before headphones ameliorated the problem was over when and how loud to play their music –African American students generally preferring to play their music louder and later at night than white students. What’s cultural about this are the different standards regulating expressive behavior. Blacks generally prefer more potent, dynamic and forceful expressions whereas mainstream whites prefer and tolerate expressions that are more modest and subdued.

What’s also culturally relevant is who is expected to accommodate whom? Mainstream U.S. cultural etiquette puts the onus on assertors to monitor and regulate the level of their expression to that which receivers can comfortably manage which socially gives receivers control over how loud or forceful expressive behavior can become.  African American cultural etiquette gives assertors much greater latitude and license to set the emotional tone of what goes on thereby placing those on the receiving end in the more accommodating position and role. Read more »

Ethnicity and the Supreme Court

By Thomas Kochman - 06.16.2009

In a post late last week, I explored the question of how Sonia Sotomayor’s ethnicity might influence her judgments or the judgments of other members of the Supreme Court if she is confirmed. It got me thinking more about Thurgood Marshall and his time on the nation’s highest court, and the role his ethnicity played in his judgements.

In addition to the social perspective Marshall brought to the Court, what was also telling, but less obvious, was the cultural perspective he brought as an African American to deliberations. The case where this played out most clearly was  Rankin vs. McPherson.  I have some familiarity with this case because I was called upon to testify as an expert witness on behalf of McPherson in one of the earlier trials. Read more »