Article by Christelle Mekoh
How is it already November? I mean, in the blink of an eye we went from nice and sunny to rainy and cloudy weather…Next thing you’ll know, it will be Christmas and then 2016: a new year! Are you surprised like me or you saw it coming?!
Anyways, as I was reminiscent of September and how it all seems so far away (October was pretty uneventful for me so not much to reminisce about there!), I started to think about some of the highlights of the month. One of them was Serena on the verge of making tennis history. AGAIN. Yes! I am talking about Serena Williams at the 2015 US Open.
I’m an avid tennis player and enthusiast. I anxiously await each of my weekly tennis lessons, envisioning myself perfecting Serena’s powerful serves and backhands. I’ve played many sports but tennis is one that has always stuck with me. Growing up in Cameroon, and later on in Canada, I can recall the unpopularity of tennis among my mates. In Cameroon people preferred football (soccer) or basketball; and in Canada, hockey was the bomb. I can’t remember when it happened but at some point I stopped playing tennis, perhaps as I grew up I felt a disconnect with the sport. None of the major female players really resonated with me. Until, the Williams sisters arrived and changed the game. Don’t get me wrong, I still enjoyed Monica Seles, among others; in fact she was one of my favourites growing up…but she ain’t no Serena.
Throughout the summer I stumbled across many articles about Serena Williams and it reminded me of the world we live in. Some where positive, others not so much. Many questioned her sheer talent and ability, often attributing it to everything under the sun besides her phenomenal work ethic. This only reinforced my belief that black people have to work 150% harder than their peers in other racial groups to succeed, and even then they still don’t get the recognition they deserve. It’s even harder as a black female.
Now you’re probably thinking, “there she goes… another post about racism.” Not quite. I’m just acknowledging the fact that even in 2015 it’s still hard being a black female.
This past July, the London School of Marketing (L.S.M.) released its list of the most marketable sports stars, which included only two women in its Top 20: Maria Sharapova and Serena Williams. They were ranked 12th and 20th. Despite decisively trailing Serena on the tennis court (Serena leads in their head-to-head match-ups 18-2, and has 21 majors and 247 weeks at No. 1 to Sharapova’s five majors and 21 weeks at number 1), Sharapova has a financial advantage off the court. Months later, Forbes listed her as the highest-paid female athlete, worth more than $29 million to Serena’s $24 million..
In her article, titled “The Meaning of Serena Williams”, Jamaican poet and playright Claudia Rankine explains how black excellence isn’t enough. She spoke with professional tennis player Christine “Chris” Evert who said, ‘‘I think the corporate world still loves the good-looking blond girls.’’ Another example is Eugenie Bouchard, the tall, blond Canadian who has yet to really distinguish herself in the sport, being named the world’s most marketable athlete by the British magazine SportsPro last spring. Are you surprised?
Rankine also added that there is another, perhaps more important, discussion to be had about what it means to be chosen by global corporations. It has to do with who is worthy, who is desirable and who is associated with “the good life”. As long as the white imagination markets itself by equating whiteness and blondness with superior living, stereotypes will remain fixed in place. Even though Serena is the best, even though she wins more Slams than anyone else, she is only superficially allowed to embody that in our culture, at least the marketable one.
TIME columnist Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, a six-time NBA champion and league Most Valuable Player, wrote a powerful article this July. In it he posits that some body shaming of athletic black women is a racist rejection of black women’s bodies that don’t conform to the traditional body shapes of white athletes and dancers. No one questions the beauty of black actresses such as Kerry Washington (Scandal) or Lupita Nyong’o (12 Years a Slave) because they fit the image perpetuated by women’s fashion magazines. The body shaming of Williams is partly because she doesn’t fit the Western ideal of femininity. He also highlights the disrespectful ideal of the feminine body, in general, as another.
I couldn’t believe it when, in 2014, the Russian Tennis Federation President Shamil Tarpischev called Venus and Serena Williams “the Williams Brothers”; he was fined $25,000 but the damage was done. And who can forget South African runner Caster Semenya? She won the women’s 800 metres with ease at the 2009’s world track and field championships in Berlin amid accusations that she was a man. The list goes on and on…
The world we live in continues to build the ideal image of a woman as fragile, vulnerable and defenseless. This beauty standard translates in sports to women being more concerned with a marketable image than athletic ability. This same mentality also effects women in other areas, such as the job market.
In order for us women to be more confident and succeed in what we do, we must not fall into the brainwashing being done by the mainstream media. We can strive for a better world, we can overcome those barriers and reach for our dreams. After all, as the late Harriet Tubman said, every great dream begins with a dreamer. Always remember that within you is the strength, patience and passion to reach for the stars and change the world. Happy November!