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.