Tuesday night, the amorphous cultural entity coined “Black Twitter” by people who are neither Black nor on Twitter, converged to collectively watch Serena Williams face her sister, Venus Williams, in the quarterfinals of the U.S. Open. (Also there to watch the Williamses? Oprah, Kim Kardashian, and Donald Trump. Which sounds like the first line of an amazing joke I’m not clever enough to make.)
That Black Twitter watched and covered this event en masse is not a surprise. If there’s a cultural occurrence featuring Black people — i.e.: an awards show, an Obama speech, the Scandal premiere, etc — you can count on it to produce the most insightful commentary, the snarkiest jokes, and the pithiest racial observations. But something different happened last night. Something that, to my knowledge, is completely unique to Serena-related happenings.
We’ve reached the point where the question of whether Serena is great is no longer a legitimate debate. She’s so accomplished, so dominant that the only conversation left about her place in the athletic universe is her degree of greatness. She, like a Lebron James or a Usain Bolt, has transcended current intra-sport comparison. You don’t compare her to any of her tennis contemporaries. Because you can’t. You compare her to Tom Brady. Or Michael Jordan.
Unfortunately, a consistent undercurrent of criticism has followed Serena throughout her career; critiques on her looks and aggression and playing style and attitude that vacillate between thinly-veiled racism and “I don’t give a damn about no veil” racism. It’s unnerving, ridiculous, bizarre, and disgusting. It’s also revealing. For those who believe we’ve somehow transcended racism and for those needing just a tiny bit of evidence to refute the idiots who believe we’ve somehow transcended racism.
These factors have congealed to influence the way we (Black people on Twitter) consume Serena. Instead of the usual snark, silliness, satire, and shit talking, we turn…protective. Overprotective, actually. Yes, we’re also protective of Beyonce and President Obama and most other iconic cultural figures who happen to be Black, but it’s different with Serena. We are so hypersensitive to the racially-tinged criticism she often receives, that we basically collectively turn into soccer moms. Everything Serena does — positive or negative — is met with exclamation. (“OMG, did you see that double fault!!! No one double faults like Serena!!! Yaaaaaaaaaaaas!!!) And any criticism, justified or not, is met with the Iron Fist of Twitter Fury. (Tennis commentator: “Serena was a little slow with that backhand.” Twitter person: “Wait…did he just call Serena fat?”) So naturally, when Serena and Venus — two brown-skinned Black girls from Compton — happened to face each other, the hypersensitivity went from “soccer mom” to “grandma at a school play.”
And it was amazing.
Sometimes overprotection and hypersensitivity are the right reactions. And in Serena’s case, a circling of the wagons to let punks know that if they dare jump up, they will get beat down, isn’t just justified. It’s necessary. Because she deserves it. And also because while it’s Serena (and Venus) out there battling and competing and winning and receiving the criticism with grace, we all were little brown girls and boys from Compton (and St. Louis and Pittsburgh and Chicago and Baltimore and Gary and Savannah) just like she was. And the criticism of her perfectly Black background and her perfectly Black features are a criticism of our’s. Tuesday night, like many nights before it, was us fighting back. For Serena; for Venus; for ourselves.
And I can’t wait to do it again.