Serena Williams on tennis court at Roland Garros talking with umpire

We See You, Hermana — At All of Your Powerful Intersections! The White Racial Framing of Serena Williams

This article arose from a discussion among Latinx scholars, disillusioned by the treatment and reaction to superstar-tennis-champion, mother and Black woman, Serena Williams, at the U.S. Open on September 8, 2018. It was clear to us that this performance of white racial framing (WRF) (Feagin, 2010) on Serena at this momentous point in the women’s’ championship match was exacerbated by her intersectionality (Crenshaw, 1989) as a Black woman, and as a mother. Because of Williams’ multiple intersections, we offer a counter-narrative to the popular one that went viral on social media — the trope of the angry black woman, waving her finger in dissidence — by highlighting William’s motherhood at the axis of oppression, and the ways Williams defies existing tropes of motherhood.

White Racial Framing

According to Feagin (2010), the white racial frame (WRF) is an analytical tool to better understand the interlocking ideas that help uphold racism and discrimination – images, sounds, stereotypes, etc. are central and interlinking with justifying racism and discrimination. The WRF is deep, pervasive and encompasses numerous sub-frames. There are two major sub-frames within the WRF: 1) virtuous whiteness sub-frame and 2) negative stereotyping of people of color sub-frame (p. 126). The first sub-frame is a pro-white sensibility in which white people view and understand themselves to be “good and decent folk,” unconscious of any actual racist behavior enacted by oneself or by others in one’s white community. As an operative in this sub-frame, white folk own a strong sense of personal and group entitlement to what they have, with a fundamental assumption that this is fair— “while willfully ignoring (intentionally forgetting, remaining ‘invincibly ignorant’ of) the horrific and ongoing injustices that, in fact, produce these things” (Feagin, 2010, p. 147). The belief that in the U.S. we live in a post-racial order where discussions of race are moot, reinforces the virtuous white sub-frame by removing white racism from discussion or consideration. Feagin identifies the WRF as having emerged in the U.S. by 1700 (Feagin, 2013, p. 55) and has been in circulation ever since.

The second major sub-frame within this WRF is the negative stereotyping of people of color sub-frame. Racial stereotypes are important structural pieces of the WRF. They are widely held, somewhat fixed and essentialized beliefs about various racial groups. Negative racial stereotyping of people of color works within the contemporary WRF by promoting what to believe about various groups of people of color. This includes, within it, various anti-people of color sub=frames, including the way that people of color are racialized, sexualized, minimalized and demonized in popular discourse and media. For example, Latinx are framed in the media as responsible for the employment problems of other Americans — taking jobs, increasing crime rates, overpopulating and abusing government services, such as welfare and food stamp programs. In the same vein, the WRF of Black people includes: stereotypes of laziness, lack of gratitude, violence, criminality, hypersexuality and an oppositional orientation (Feagin, 2010).¹ An important foundation of this sub-frame is to understand that many white progressives “know” not to engage in negative stereotyping openly or in “front stage interactions” (Feagin 2010, p. 127) among white strangers or people of color. Instead, white folks “know” to partake in negative racial stereotyping only in settings where all are white, and where one can assume that no serious disapproval will be voiced. Feagin refers to these transactions as “back-stage interactions.” In backstage settings, the expression of the WRF and the lack of objection to that expression provide a “social glue” that creates a sense of shared identity for the white group. These backstage racial performances provide the “images and emotions that generate many forms of racial discrimination by whites within the context of society” (p. 128) and are vital in perpetuating structural racism.

Intersections of Race, Gender and Motherhood

As we see it, Williams has continually been pigeonholed into the popular WRF of the Angry Black Woman, where her particular intersections of race and gender compound experiences of racism, combined with sexism. Certainly, this past U.S. Open on September 8, 2018 was not the first time Serena had experienced over-officiating. What has been overlooked in this inequitable experience on the court between Williams and the male umpire, is her intersection as mother. The complexity of her intersectionality as a Black woman and mother magnified her ill-treatment and the severity of her punishment by the male umpire, Carlos Ramos. Ramos, asserting his male dominance and baiting, asked her, “What would your daughter say?” to underscore his assertion that she was cheating, and behaving badly on the court. It may be implied from his comment, that instead, she should be a role model for her daughter, one that is quiet and that takes any injustice that may come her way. However, we are reclaiming that response and cheering on Williams for being the kind of mother and role model who is demonstrating to her daughter that she should fight for fairness and for her own achievement. If we understand motherhood at another axial point at which Williams experiences oppression, the crux of our argument, it follows that Williams’ response to injustice and to her being baited is essential to her dignity and to reaffirming her vision of motherhood.

Despite being regarded as one of the greatest athletes alive, Williams is still expected to perform at the highest level in her sport and to speak only in what is allowed and acceptable within the WRF and its essentialized and fixed beliefs about Black women. After the interaction with the umpire, Williams was saddled with hefty monetary fines and a deducted point for behavior that is punished less severely in male athletes, if not embraced. In fact, she received a game penalty that put her down by a full loss of a game, which would be much more difficult to overcome to win. Not only did Ramos attack Williams at her intersections of gender and race, but he went in for the closer, probing at her motherhood, another social construct which is commonly overlooked when considering sites of oppression. In fact, he made the hegemonic assumption that mothers should be more focused on training their own children to be obedient to authority rather than demonstrating passion and strength to read their own goals, even if that means that they are not easily compliant with authority. On the court, Williams argued that Ramos treated her differently because of her identity as a woman; we agree and add that due to her intersectionality as a mother also, he attacked her at that specific intersection as well, because he could and because this is historically a site of oppression where women of color are policed, shamed, and stigmatized. In fact, these were some of the responses from media, cartoonists, and the general public upon viewing Williams’ response to the referees. They characterized her response as the angry Black woman, and cartoonists even portrayed her in violent ways. This oppositional orientation was portrayed as problematic, rather than when portrayed by white men in the tennis world, who were presented as passionate and strong, which in no way diminished their representation as a super-star tennis player. Whereas, it has been clear that not only the referee responses, but also the societal responses are serving to minimize the achievements of Williams.

Motherhood Within the White Racial Frame

Within the white racial frame, Black women in particular, are framed as hypersexualized, angry, loud, and masculine (Crenshaw, 1989), and without the capacity for self-determination or self-protection, thus requiring paternalistic care (Feagin, 2010, p. 163). This narrative is further compounded for Black mothers who have historically been undermined in the societal good-bad motherhood trope, a binary that unjustly assumes that all mothers have equal economic and legal resources under the law and should conduct themselves in ways that justify stereotypes of motherhood (Murphy, 1998). Legal representations of motherhood specifically, have material consequences when one considers the policing of pregnant women of color who are criminalized and more harshly persecuted than their white counterparts (Roberts, 1991). In addition to a societal stigmatization of young mothers, existing intersectional work on Black teen mothers specifically, found a lack of evidence to substantiate the universalization of Black teen mothers’ experiences as adverse for young children (Mantovani & Thomas, 2014). Latinx women similarly challenge the good-mother trope and negotiate motherhood through the axial points of race, class, gender but also immigration, often leading to what scholars have called transnational motherhood and alternative systems of caretaking (Hondangneu-Sotelo & Avila, 1997). Thus, we argue that motherhood is another social role that much more than being additive, provides a new layer by which women of color experience domination (Collins, 1990). Despite Williams’ success in tennis, nicknamed the greatest athlete alive, her successful marriage, and her own wealth from a career spanning decades, she was subjected to the oppressive treatment experienced by women of color who share in her identity as a mother.

Williams has been pigeonholed into the WRF for her entire career. From being hyper surveilled and sexualized on what she wears on the court (i.e. banned catsuit at French Open), to being compared physically to a man (Rankine, 2014). As the “angry black woman sub-frame” surfaced about Williams, we were reminded that Feagin (2010) asserts that, within this framing, “the primary emotional message is that Black folk are to be feared” (p. 110). The grotesque cartoonery and inflammatory social media commentary in relation to William’s physique have been incessant for decades, it really was only a matter of time before a “verbal abuse” claim would be pegged onto Williams, not because she has displayed angry or loud behavior, but rather simply because she is a Black woman.

Williams is indeed being “framed” even in a domain in which many believe her to be most dominant, the tennis court. As a supplement to this white racial framing (Feagin, 2010) we suggest that women, specifically mothers, carry an additional intersectional site of vulnerability which is often overlooked — motherhood. This socially constructed site of intersectionality, which is specific to cis women but also to transwomen who may adopt this role, can be aggravated by additional socially constructed identities (race, class, gender, disability, immigration status, etc.) and as such, this site should most certainly be considered when unpacking infractions of injustice on women of color, both on and off of the court.

As a means to take a counterstance against this white racial framing, one that ignores the intersectional identities of women, in particular women of color, we need a counter-narrative. We suggest that that narrative, through our lens as women of color and mothers, is that we see (by which acknowledging) Williams in all her powerful intersectional identities. Moreover, we see her actions to stand up for herself, to call out discrimination as a role model for us and for all women, including her own daughters. We see that she is fighting against injustice for herself on a worldwide stage under a microscope that amplifies all her actions. We argue that this further amplifies the opportunity for women of color to emulate new modes of voicing their opposition and fighting for their rights in the public sphere, to be treated as fully-human in all our sources of intersectionality.

Thus, our reaction to Serena was, “We see you, hermana.” We see you fully as woman, mother, athlete, and Black all at once. We felt as you cried, “this has happened to me too many times, this is unfair, this is because I am a woman.” We felt the jab of the umpire as he tried to quiet your objection by using your motherhood as a means to silence and undermine it and you. However, instead of the angry Black female, what we saw was a role model, someone who showed us how to face down discrimination, racism, sexism, and patriarchy. Serena, in all the athletic and social justice glory of that moment, spoke to our own daily frustrations with societal oppression of our intersectionality as women, as academics, as mothers, as Brown people, and as immigrants.

We see you, hermana!


Photo taken on May 29, 2013 by Flickr user Yann Caradec. CC BY-SA 2.0

¹ In 2009, fans witnessed Serena “become overcome with rage” and slam racket on the court, no doubt in an outward response to years of experiencing injustice on the tennis court (Rankine, 2014, p.25). In 2004, at the U.S. Open, chair umpire, Mariana Alves, was removed from officiated any more matches after making several bad calls against Serena, including foot fault calls, which are rarely called at critical moments in a match: “you don’t make a call that can decide a match unless its flagrant,” states tennis Official, Carol Cox (p.29). In the same vein, former tennis champion, now tennis commentator, John McEnroe expressed his awe given how Serena was able to keep her composure after these stark injustices committed against her, time and time again.


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