Covering Serena/Covering Black Bodies

during day fourteen of French Open at Roland Garros on June 8, 2013 in Paris, France.


Jenee Desmond-Harris has an interesting discussion of coverage of Serena Williams, in a VOX piece titled “Every Serena Williams victory comes with a side of disgusting racism and sexism” (originally written earlier this year and updated this weekend, after Williams won the French Open, her 20th grand slam title).

Desmond-Harris catalogs some of the explicitly racist and sexist taunts, tweets, commentary and so forth that Serena has endured over the years. Beyond that are the implicit ways that race and sex suffuse discussion of her personality, performance and appearance:

There’s no way around it: the fascination with the size and shape of parts of Williams’s body that have nothing to do with her tennis skills is creepy. It’s also unsurprising. Ms. Magazine‘s Anita Little, writing in 2012, linked the sexualization of Williams’s physique to the legacy of the “Hottentot Venus,” an African woman whose real name was Saartjie Baartman, who was displayed before European audiences as a freak show attraction in the 1800s. “No matter how insanely successful black women like Serena become, the legacy of the Hottentot Venus will always be ready to rear its ugly head at an opportune moment,” she wrote.

The endless focus on Williams’ physique, the notable reliance on animal-like metaphors to describe her play and aggression on the court and the ease with which any expression of frustration on her part elicits complaints about how she’s an “angry black woman” all highlight the very narrow box in which Williams exists in the public eye. She’s an all-time great who receives relatively little credit for her work ethic, perseverance, tenacity or skill. All too often, Serena’s been viewed as just a “natural” with overpowering physical gifts, limited only by her own supposed indifference and lack of motivation.

And I can’t help but connect the particular form that the sexualization and dehumanization of black bodies of which Serena Williams is so emblematic to the bizarre and sickening conduct by a police officer in Texas who manhandled a black teenage girl for the alleged “crime” of unauthorized swimming.

It’s more than the disturbing fact that, in all too many cases, blacks tend to be guilty until proven innocent before the law. It’s that, in the eyes of society, broadly speaking, they’re deemed something other than human until they can demonstrate otherwise.


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