Serena Williams’ Treatment at the U.S. Open Is About More Than Tennis

“Black women have a right to be angry at how the world mistreats and dehumanizes us.”

In this op-ed, writer Zerlina Maxwell explores how Serena Williams’ mistreatment at the U.S. Open is deeply relatable for black women.

The much anticipated U.S. Open women’s final match Saturday — where Serena Williams played Japan’s Naomi Osaka — ended up on the losing end of two very controversial decisions by umpire Carlos Ramos. The call now heard around the world: Ramos cited Serena with the first code-of-conduct violation for “coaching” after he noticed her coach Patrick Mouratoglou motioning with his hands from her players box. Ramos spotted the hand gesture, but Serena says she did not.

Mouratoglou admitted he was trying to give Serena some coaching advice from the stands as is a coach’s habit; the rule against it is rarely enforced. Any communication between a player and coach may be interpreted a coaching, but the the rule—one that even tennis legend Billie Jean King says needs to be scrapped—is applied inconsistently.

Serena felt the code violation and warning from Ramos as an attack on her integrity and told him, “I don’t cheat to win, I’d rather lose." Moments later, already down a set in a best-of-three-set match, and after losing a crucial service game, Serena forcefully smashed her racket to smithereens. Ramos then penalized her with a second code violation resulting in the loss of a point. The situation then devolved into one of the most hard-to-watch, enraging, and heartbreaking moments in sports history, especially as a black woman.

As I watched Serena repeatedly ask for an apology, I sat up a little straighter, glared at my television and felt a knot slowly forming in the pit of my stomach. I tweeted the words, “Oh no,” and started to cry. In that moment, Serena voiced something that I could relate to so deeply, something that often goes unsaid: the many times in my life as a black women, I have deserved an apology and haven’t gotten it.

As Serena continued to plead with Ramos for an apology and later the tournament referee, she pointed out, “This has happened to me too many times….You know how many other men do much worse than that….There's a lot of men out here that have said a lot of things and because they're a man, that doesn’t happen to them. This is not fair.” I started flashing back to experiences in my own life growing up and working in predominantly white spaces. I know that feeling of trying to stand up for yourself, while trying to maintain your composure, and somehow despite all efforts to conceal your rage or passion, your emotions burst to the surface. I know what it feels like to cry from rage.

I’ve been told to smile more because my resting face looks angry; I’ve been called “hostile” by colleagues even though for the life of me I can’t remember raising my voice in the office. After a Fox Business segment in 2014, I recall Lou Dobbs telling me I was too aggressive because I had the audacity to interrupt him after being interrupted by him. You can judge it for yourself.

Ramos decided Serena’s behavior constituted “verbal abuse,” a decision he notably has not made for some male players who used profanity against him in the past. Verbal abuse usually involves profanity and is penalized in tennis in only the most egregious situations. Serena uttered no profanity. And she barely raised her voice in a very loud and raucous Arthur Ashe stadium. That her comments were perceived by Ramos as abusive is a result of who Serena is. Black women are often seen as “abusive” when we are simply stating an opinion, pointing something out, or advocating for equal treatment.

It is hard to separate Serena’s race and gender with how she has been treated over the course of her tremendous career in the predominantly white sport of tennis. And it illustrates how women of color—particularly Black women—are not allowed to stand up for themselves without being perceived as abusive.

As a black woman, if I speak up too loudly I know I will be perceived as hysterical or aggressive — the stereotype of the Angry Black Woman. I’m not alone; According to an Essence survey of Black Women At Work  , 80 percent of Black women reported to modifying their personalities to make colleagues feel more comfortable, beyond basic professionalism. The message Black women are internalizing is don’t be too Black at work and definitely don’t let yourself get too angry.

Ramos’s decisions don’t exist within the bubble of a tennis stadium; they are an example of how rules are often applied differently to different people. Serena is just the latest example of this common injustice. Black women have a right to be angry at how the world mistreats and dehumanizes us, but we are rarely, if ever, afforded the freedom to express it. And even in those moments where we are right to call out the abuse and our abusers, we are often criticized, rather than, at minimum, listened to. We are never understood. And often, our allies are the ones who wind up being praised for being a catalyst for progress, not us. It is an insult to injury. We deserve better.

The bias experienced by Serena didn’t just upset her game, it also caused pain for another woman of color — her Japanese-Haitian opponent Naomi. She too was robbed of her moment in the spotlight, one which should have been untarnished by controversy. And we were robbed of the opportunity to watch a game between two titans, and to revel in a historic victory either way. Instead, we received yet another ugly reminder that the world doesn’t value even the greatest among us. But Serena said she is not done fighting. Neither am I.

Written By: Zerlina Maxwell for Teen Vogue