Sunday, December 16, 2012

Serena Williams impersonation triggers stereotypical ideals about black women's bodies

Caroline Wozniacki, former No. 1 tennis player in the world,  decided to make fun of her friend, Serena Williams. Wozniacki stuffed towels into her top and skirt during an exhibition match in Sao Paulo, Brazil in attempt to illustrate Williams' bodily construction. It was supposed to be a well-meaning joke.

But the instance spurred a heated discussion in the U.S.-based media outlets. The question it raised was: Funny or racist?

Here is some context: Tennis players habitually poke fun at each other through imitation. I remember how much my friends and I imitated each other and other players at practice, making fun of our friends' shots, grunts, mannerisms. The pros do it too. Novak Djokovic became the joker of the circuit thanks to his famous impersonation of Maria Sharapova. Shortly thereafter, Andy Roddick took upon himself to make fun of Djokovic. It's all good. They are all friends.

But most of the imitations do not rely upon discriminatory cultural imagery about the bodies of one social group.

Wozniacki's imitation is problematic because it evokes  the image of Saartjie Baartman, the Hottentot Venus, whose body was hypersexualized and objected to the gaze of white Europeans. Baartman was displayed as an oddity, as a freak due to her supposedly disproportionate buttocks and breasts. The exoticization of black women lives on.

That, right there, is the problem of the way in which Wozniacki chose to make fun of Williams.

Anita Little, who wrote a blog post for Ms. Magazine highlighted the issue:

"Our [black women's] bodies are not caricatures. This incident did not happen in a societal vacuum where black women’s bodies haven’t been historically degraded as exotic objects."

But some prefer to see the incident in a vacuum and take the "get over it" approach: It's all just a joke between friends and, really, why can't we just laugh at ourselves and others?

Certainly, Wozniacki did not mean to be malicious, and --- not to make assumptions about her cultural awareness, but--- she probably had no idea how offensive her imitation might be.

"Many people don’t have the cultural awareness to be sensitive of the centuries-old portrayals of black women, so we continue to see bad gestures like this one," Anita Little added. "It’s easy to tell black people to just lighten up when you are never the butt of the joke."

Greg Couch from FoxSports acknowledged that the act evoked caricatures of black women, yet concluded said that proclaiming Wozniacki a "worldwide racist" is "just too much talk." Couch also recommended Wozniacki ask her friend, Williams to determine how racist her actions were.

Jemele Hill from ESPNW wants to "chuckle" at Wozniacki. Hill emphasized that Serena Williams saw her body as a source of empowerment, that surely Wozniacki knew that. And besides, "black women love their curves," Hill wrote.

Williams is certainly proud of her body, as she should be. In 2009, she appeared in the ESPN Body Issue; her cover sold the highest number of copies. Despite Williams' efforts to embrace "beauty inside and out," she has also been a target of discussion for her behavior, her clothing (see catsuit), and her hair.

(On a related note: My colleague, Steve Bien-Aimé recently wrote a post wondering why Olympic gold medalist Gabby Douglas got more attention for her hair than for her athletic accomplishments.)

Herein lies the other problem: In the United States, female athletes overall receive less coverage than male athletes. Black female athletes receive even less coverage than white female athletes. So it is that much more important to examine how the U.S. media engage in instances such as this one.

Precisely because of the lack of visibility of black female athletes, I was glad to see that the Huffington Post invited Swin Cash, a professional women's basketball player, to participate in an online conversation on the issue. The experts on this panel address the cultural and historical implications of such imagery. One panelist pointed out that critics are viewing Wozniacki's action through a U.S.-centric lens and emphasized that the imitation is likely to carry different cultural meanings based upon the context. The conversation is worth a look.

Wozniacki's imitation was plain insensitive. Evaluating her actions by saying "she didn't know" or "she just meant to be funny" reflects a total lack of awareness of the history behind such representations---a lack of awareness of the representations of black women's bodies.

It is important to have this conversation. The instance might take upon different cultural meanings in other countries, but in the U.S. it certainly triggered historically rooted racist ideas. And I'm glad that there is a conversation about this in U.S.-based media. If for no other reason, but to raise awareness of the portrayals that have for so long contributed to the subjugation of black women.

--- Dunja Antunovic

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