Serena Williams and the Audacity to be a Black Woman or Girl with a Voice
By now, we all know what happened in the women’s final match at the US Open. But what a lot of people don’t realize is that what Serena Williams experienced on the court that day is not only rooted in the same systemic and institutional racism that has left Black people out of tennis, but Black children out of the classroom. Tennis is an institution that has been historically regulated by rules made without people of color in mind. Similarly, schools and the rules that govern them were not created in order to open the doors to opportunity for children of color. The long-term effects of that deliberate exclusion can be seen everywhere from the way students are pushed out of school to the funding gaps that limit the educational opportunities of students of color.
Like Serena, Black girls are punished for not conforming to preconceived ideas of White femininity. Black girls who advocate for themselves or exhibit leadership qualities are often punished for things rooted in racial and gender bias. Instead of being heard, they are disciplined for “talking back” or being “defiant.” In 2015-16 school year, Black girls made up 8 percent of student enrollment but 14 percent of students receiving one or more out-of-school suspensions. In that same year, White girls made up 24 percent of students enrolled and only 8 percent of girls receiving an out-of-school suspension.
Black girls even get suspended for wearing the same clothes that their peers wear and receive no punishment for — an experience all-too-familiar for Serena. Just weeks before the US Open, the French Tennis Federation president banned Serena’s catsuit. It didn’t matter that she wore it for post-pregnancy health reasons. It simply didn’t align with a White man’s ideas about the way tennis should be played — ideas rooted in White tradition.
A recent study with girls in D.C. found that Black girls similarly lose out on opportunities to wear clothing unique to them—losing valuable class time in the process. Overly stringent rules like unreasonable dress codes hurt all students — but they especially hurt Black girls. These rules can create a learning environment where the focus is on following the rules and what is one is wearing instead of learning. Suspensions based on arbitrary dress code violations send Black girls the dangerous message that they must stop “distracting boys” and conform or be sent home.
Combating racial and gender bias on the world stage like Serena is doing is important, but it is even more urgent in schools where thousands of Black girls are losing out on opportunities to learn. Instead of punishing girls for who they are, schools should celebrate expressions of diverse cultures. Schools can do this by permitting students to wear religiously, ethnically, or culturally specific hair styles and head coverings. Schools can also achieve this by engaging students and parents in the process of writing the code of conduct and dress codes. Engaging with families and students can help build community and create an inclusive environment for all students. Advocates and families can also disrupt a long history of exclusion by going beyond one school and asking district and state leaders critical questions.
Serena, like Black girls in classrooms across the country, paid a huge price for having the audacity to be a Black woman with a voice. But she reminded Black girls that it is okay to be an advocate for themselves and speak their truth. And she reminded us adults that we can and should continue to advocate for better school climate for girls who deserve a chance to learn in inclusive, positive, and safe environments. I have seen little Black girls pushed out of the classroom firsthand, so I could not be more proud of Serena for fighting for herself, her daughter, and all of us Black women with a voice.