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Responses to Serena Williams’ Pregnancy Are Steeped in the Racism and Sexism She’s Long Faced

Shireen Ahmed

"The public loves policing mothers, and it loves policing Serena."

Serena Williams is the best tennis player—and arguably the best athlete—in the world. Her passion and determination make her a standout on the court, and her charisma constantly delights millions of fans. Last week, three months after winning the Australian Open, Williams announced via Snapchat that she is 20 weeks pregnant.

Williams’ post—which she said was actually accidental during a Tuesday night TedTalk in Vancouver—was met with widespread joy. At the same time, however, it has sparked a number of discussions about her identity as an athlete and a mother. And while there is definitely precedent for athlete-mothers, many of the conversations about Williams continue to be steeped in the misogynoir she has long faced as a Black woman.

Some of these conversations tried to undercut Williams’ recent professional success. After doing the math, for example, media commentators realized that Williams had won her 23rd Grand Slam tournament while pregnant. In response, New Scientist initially put out a now-deleted tweet that raised the question: “Could Pregnancy have helped Serena Williams win the Australian Open?”

As Furaha Asani, a PhD candidate and a Black woman biochemist, wrote on Medium, “Black joy seems to catalyze a reaction in which those always willing to manifest their unscrupulous agenda break into hives if they cannot have at trying to drag these women down.”

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Asani continued that the video clip posted by New Scientist “begins with how pregnancy ‘could’ help, and only in the second half does it become clear that it probably didn’t help. So in conclusion, the [greatest of all time (GOAT)] won because she is the GOAT. They should have made that clear from the start.”

“Serena is stellar, and irresponsible scientific communication sucks. Casual racism and sensationalism should never be welcome in science,” Asani concluded.

As a woman who has been pregnant four times, I can assure you that pregnancy is a phenomenal experience and every experience is unique. I can also attest that simply being able to tie my shoelaces and drink water without vomiting—because I was growing a human inside me—was a victory. I can not fathom competing in an international tennis tournament. To be so critical of Williams that only a far-reaching theory is possible to explain her greatness is wretchedly racist and sexist.

Additional jabs have come from Williams’ fellow athletes. Along with a host of sexist behavior aimed at other female athletes, former tennis player Ilie Nastase made racist remarks about the possible color of Williams’ baby’s skin. (Williams’ fiancé, Alexis Ohanian, with whom she is having the child, is white.) Nastase has not yet apologized for his comments. And although he was suspended from the International Tennis Federation (ITF) for his other actions, at the time of writing this piece, he has not faced any specific consequences for flaunting his bigotry.

About the incident and the others like it that Williams has been enduring since she was 17, Complex Sports‘ Dria Roland asked: “When has anyone actually been punished for mocking Serena? In her two decades of dominance, it’s hard to find an instance of any governing body ever offering Serena any concrete measure of protection or justice.”

Williams herself addressed this incident in a powerful Instagram post that included parts of Maya Angelou’s magnificent poem “Still I Rise.”

“It disappoints me that we live in a society where people like Ilie Nastase can make such racist comments toward myself and my unborn child, and sexist comments toward my peers,” Williams wrote. “I humbly thank the ITF for any consideration given to the facts in this case. They will have my full support.”

As Roland and others have pointed out, Williams has been subject to extreme, disproportionate criticism because she is a powerful Black female athlete. “Especially in the post-Civil Rights era, black female athletes representing the U.S. have been held up as examples of our progress,” said Lou Moore, a history professor at Grand Valley University who specializes in African-American studies, gender history, and sport, in an interview with the Daily Beast. “But in Serena’s case, dominating a traditionally white, middle-class sport hits on American racism and sexism in such a way that it overrides the usual narrative.”

“The public loves policing mothers, and it loves policing Serena,” noted Lindsay Gibbs, an avid tennis fan and ThinkProgress sportswriter who has previously written about the racism and sexism Williams has faced.

Though, thus far, there has been no widespread suggestion that Williams will quit tennis, Gibbs pointed out to me via email, “As we saw most recently with Kim Clijsters, the media does not know how to talk about world-class athletes who are also mothers without pandering to them at every second. So I expect there to be more pandering than direct criticism, though there will be criticism too, of course.”

Williams is certainly not the first athlete to be pregnant while competing. She would certainly not be the first player to return to professional sports after giving birth. There is a phenomenal list of predecessors—including, as Gibbs mentioned, fellow tennis player Clijsters, Lindsay Davenport, and Victoria Azarenka, who was in the first weeks of her pregnancy when she won Indian Wells and Miami last March. It is not hard to expect that Williams would return to training and competing after she has her baby.

Moore recognized, however, that there may be pressure for her to retire. In an interview with me, he said, “I think in the past this is what a lot of people wanted: to reinforce heterosexuality and patriarchy where the women gives up the athletic career to be a mom, because after all, society didn’t really think it was career for a woman to be an athlete, just a mother.”

“Serena, if she chooses to ‘come back,’ will change the narrative” and reinforce the fact that women can be mothers and athletes at the same time, he continued. “This is Serena. This is a whole different level of fame.”

Still, Moore thinks that progress has been made in how we see female athletes and their roles in general. Of Williams’ pregnancy, he said, “not everybody hated on her. I think it’s also important to note that as a society we’ve come a long way from trying to convince women to avoid competitive athletics because naysayers said it would hinder [their] ability to have children, to this public celebration of the top athlete announcing her pregnancy.”

The topic of “naysayers” is a relevant one. According to a 2014 report by the Women’s Media Center, the majority of sports media positions are occupied by white men—hardly a guarantee that writers will hold particularly or personally knowledgeable positions about balancing motherhood and careers as athletes, especially athletes of color. This will likely be reflected in the way many of them write about Williams’ decisions and opine about her career.

“I think if Serena chooses to publicly document this, this will be a big deal: transformative,” Moore added. “But I also think there will be a certain segment of the population upset that she didn’t choose to be a full-time mother. That narrative won’t leave women’s sports.”

Judging by Williams’ heartfelt comments to her “Dearest Baby” in an Instagram post, including the adorable comment “I can’t wait for you to join the players box next year,” Gibbs is correct when she says it is very likely Williams will return as passionate as ever—with her partner and a healthy baby to cheer her on with the rest of us.

But, Gibbs reminded us, “There is no reason why a healthy woman who is willing to put in the work can’t return to the top of her athletic field after having a baby, so treating it like it’s some sort of an exception to a rule is insulting as well.”

“Becoming a mother will always be a part of Serena’s story, and it absolutely should be,” she continued. “But we must be able to appreciate her as an athlete first and foremost when she is competing on the court; she’s earned that respect.”

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