By Ellen McGirt
Updated: September 10, 2018 3:53 PM ET

She is a woman. She is black. And that makes her anger unacceptable.

This is the larger conversation that has emerged from a heartbreaking turn at the U.S. Open on Saturday, after Serena Williams confronted the umpire for a series of decisions she deemed unfair and sexist, contributing to an outcome which found her talented young opponent, Naomi Osaka, victorious but in tears.

Osaka, 20, who is of Haitian-Japanese heritage, defeated her hero to become the first woman playing for Japan and first person of Haitian ancestry to win a Grand Slam. “I’m sorry it had to end like this,” she said, crying.

Tennis experts will long debate the escalating drama—first a code violation because her coach gestured from the stands, then a penalty point for smashing her racket, and the kicker, a game penalty for angrily calling umpire Carlos Ramos a “thief.” But as to the likelihood that a man would have received the same penalty at such a high stakes moment, Williams’s peers weighed in quickly.

“I will admit I have said worse and not gotten penalized,” tweeted former professional tennis player James Blake. “It has to be said that she has a point when it comes to gender bias,” John McEnroe said, bringing receipts. And Billie Jean King, a long-time advocate for gender equity was definitive. “Ultimately, a woman was penalized for standing up for herself. A woman faced down sexism, and the match went on,” she wrote in an opinion piece for The Washington Post.

The unpunished antics of Novak Djokovic, Nick Kyrgios, Rafael Nadal, and Andy Murray speak for themselves.

But to focus solely on the intricacies of tennis is to miss the larger issues in play.

Her clothing is policed. She’s drug-tested more frequently. She’s been subjected to racist and sexist hate speech throughout her entire career. And yet she has dominated in a sport that was unprepared to welcome her, her hair, her beauty, her strength. Serena Williams has been unwavering in her call for equal pay for women and has become an unexpected symbol of the trials of working motherhood and black maternal health.

And now she stands for women who dare to stand up for themselves in the workplace.

“I’m here fighting for women’s rights and for women’s equality, and for all kinds of stuff,” Williams said after the match. “For me, to say ‘thief’ and for him to take a game, it made me feel like it was a sexist remark. He’s never taken a game from a man because they said ‘thief.’ ”

Writer Rebecca Traister, who has a well-timed book coming out about women and anger, summed it up beautifully.

But it’s not simply that those who are angry at the kinds of things Serena Williams is angry about are “too inhibited” to disclose their fury. It’s also that they are told all the time — like when they watch a tennis final — that if they do permit themselves to rage, even if that rage pales in comparison to the rage of their male peers, their white predecessors, that they will face reprimand. Women are made to understand, all the time, how their reasonable expression of vexation might cost them the game. Women’s challenge to male authority, and especially black women’s challenge to authority, is automatically understood as a threat, a form of defiance that must be quashed.

So, instead of images of Williams graciously celebrating Osaka’s historic victory, we were immediately bombarded with images of her as enraged. In one hideous cartoon, she is depicted in a style reminiscent of a Jim Crow coon. (Osaka was turned into a leggy blonde, by the way.)

Ultimately, Williams made it about something bigger than herself and reframed the debate.

“I just feel like the fact that I have to go through this is just an example for the next person that has emotions and that wants to express themselves and they want to be a strong woman and they’re going to be allowed to do that because of today,” she said at her post-game presser.

Now, think about the black professional women you know—the executive vice president who doesn’t get developmental assignments, the first-time leader without a mentor, the perennially overlooked engineer, the professor who can’t get near the tenure track, the entrepreneur seeking investment, or, perhaps, your only black direct report. What has their anger, expressed or suppressed, cost them?

If you have this conversation with the women of color in your life, trust me, you will hear some things about theirs. (Especially if you don’t ask their permission, first.)

The conversations are already happening, if you want to listen in.

“I ugly cried during Serena & Naomi’s match and took a day to process,” tweeted journalist Yamiche Alcindor, into a sea of validation. “Serena was every woman I know standing up for themselves, having to point out misogyny, having to get the job done, and then making sure the woman coming behind you is supported despite the discrimination faced.”


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