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raceAhead: Serena Williams Talks About Race, Her Daughter and Asks For Help In An Open Letter On Reddit

September 20, 2017, 6:20 PM UTC

Now that Serena Williams has welcomed her first child with her fiance Alexis Ohanian, she’s clearly thinking about the world their daughter, Alexis, Jr., will be joining. It has inspired a beautiful open letter to her own mother, posted on Reddit, in which the superstar mused out loud about the challenges of raising a confident and supported black girl in a world that is not prepared to affirm her.

You are one of the strongest women I know. I was looking at my daughter (OMG, yes, I have a daughter 😳) and she has my arms and legs! My exact same strong, muscular, powerful, sensational arms and body. I don’t know how I would react if she has to go through what I’ve gone through since I was a 15 year old and even to this day.

I’ve been called man because I appeared outwardly strong. It has been said that that I use drugs (No, I have always had far too much integrity to behave dishonestly in order to gain an advantage). It has been said I don’t belong in Women’s sports — that I belong in Men’s — because I look stronger than many other women do. (No, I just work hard and I was born with this badass body and proud of it).

But mom, I’m not sure how you did not go off on every single reporter, person, announcer and quite frankly, hater, who was too ignorant to understand the power of a black woman.

In a detailed (and must-read) analysis of the constant scrutiny Serena has had to endure — criticized for her body and choices, the cruel comparisons to other female athletes, the literal price she’s paid in terms of endorsements — writer Bijan Bayne makes it clear that race is central to this conversation:

What distinguishes Serena from other popular women athletes such as Patrick, Raisman and Sharapova is not accomplishment, controversy, the public stature of their respective sports or abilities as a spokesperson,” he writes. “Serena is Black, which carries the historical baggage of being invariably “othered,” hyper-sexualized, masculinized, demonized as “angry” or cast as unappealing to the mainstream.” In short, “The tiara of “America’s Sweetheart,” assumed by figure skaters Peggy Fleming and Dorothy Hamill, as well as gymnast Mary Lou Retton, has never rested on Serena’s head.”

And it won’t anytime soon.

In this, Serena is not alone. In a recent conversation about the difficulties that black women face in the professional sphere, Ibram X. Kendi, author of Stamped From The Beginning, The Definitive History of Racist Ideas in America, pointed to the ugly mix of race and misogyny that affects the way black women are often perceived.

“The way black women, in particular, have been constructed due to racist ideas, puts them in a very precarious position in the work environment, particularly as they try to ascend the ladder,” he told Fortune. “It’s based on the sexist idea that women are fundamentally weak. So strong black women aren’t really ‘women,’ which makes them more like men.”

If they are “aggressive” they are judged for stepping outside of a feminine norm, and become directly threatening to white men. If they are “passive,” they are the subject of gender discrimination. The double whammy they experience “is different from other groups of people in the same space,” he says.

As a new parent, Serena now faces a bigger challenge than demanding equal pay for black women. She is facing a gauntlet shared by black mothers, one that is in many ways far different than those that white mothers of white children must endure. As Serena contemplates her Junior, a perfect creation with strong muscles and a unique burden, her poignant act of publicly summoning up her own mother is a unique opportunity for everyone to consider the distinct terrors of mothering in black and white.

Serena ends with gratitude, and by asking for help.

“Thank you for being the role model I needed to endure all the hardships that I now regard as challenges—ones that I enjoy. I hope to teach my baby Alexis Olympia the same and have the same fortitude you have had.

Promise me, Mom, that you will continue to help. I’m not sure if I am as meek and strong as you are yet. I hope to get there one day. I love you dearly.”

On Point

Policy changes can fix the wealth gap in the U.S.Josh Hoxie is the director of the Project on Opportunity and Taxation at the Institute for Policy Studies and co-editor of, a publisher of news related to inequality. In this essay, he digs deep into his reporting on the vast gulf in household wealth between black and Latinx families and white families in the U.S. “By 2053, just 10 years after the country is projected to become majority non-white, black median families will own zero wealth if current trends continue. Twenty years later, Latino median families will follow suit. White median families will continue to own six figures.” What will help? Changing tax incentives (yes, the mortgage deduction) and new programs like Children's Savings AccountsFortune

How the Hispanic population is changing
New research from Pew is worth digging into, especially as the Latinx population in the U.S. has hit some 58 million people, a new high. But while the demographic's growth has slowed somewhat, Latinx immigrants are coming from an increasingly diverse mix of countries. While Mexico is still number one, a growing number of Salvadorans, Cubans, Dominicans, Guatemalans, and Colombians are coming to the U.S. Click through for college rates, English proficiency and more.
Pew Research

Interfaith tensions on the rise in the Air Force
A U.S. Air Force chaplain is under fire for saying that Christian people in the armed forces both “serve Satan” and are “grossly in error” if they support fellow service members who practice other faiths. Captain Sonny Hernandez, an Air Force Reserve Chaplain in Ohio, had published an article criticizing service members who serve the Constitution instead of Christ, among other shocking things. The Military Religious Freedom Foundation has asked for Hernandez to be investigated after receiving numerous complaints about his ministry. A spokesman for the MRFF blamed Trump’s increasing tolerance of fringe Christian groups.

A Swedish researcher went undercover with the alt-right
You’re going to want to bookmark this piece, which tells the incredible story of Patrik Hermansson, a 25-year-old graduate student from Sweden, who posed as a grad student studying the suppression of right-wing speech and was subsequently welcomed into the alt-right. There are incredible insights into the personalities of the members who seem to love a spectacle – there was some mead drinking – but also brag about their connections to the White House. They also practice "racism light": “If we don’t appear like angry misfits, then we will end up making friendships with people who don’t agree with us,” one told Hermansson.
New York Times

The Woke Leader

Vann R. Newkirk II speaks truth to Harvard
I read and link to Vann R. Newkirk II's writing often, and I’ve learned a lot from his work as staff writer at The Atlantic. He recently spent time at Harvard’s Shorenstein Center on Media, Politics and Public Policy, and from the looks of this transcript, was characteristically on point. Click through for his analysis of healthcare policy, Black Lives Matter, Jemele Hill, and more. On the difficulty of talking about race, he calls nonsense. “[W]hy is it so difficult to talk about?.... It’s because when you really start getting into discussion…you start going into the realm of culpability, of responsibility, and nobody wants to be responsible for black people being pushed out of a town, nobody wants to be responsible for a racial inequality gap where white people make about 28 times the average black family. Nobody wants to be responsible for fixing that.”
Shorenstein Center

Let Seung Hyun Lee take you to church
So, I haven’t been able to find too much on Seung Hyun Lee for you, and then I realized it didn’t really matter – everything we needed to know, at least for now, is on his Instagram. If you want a moment of brightness in your day, start here, and then click around. Really.

Understanding intersectionality at work
It’s a tough concept to grasp, and one that has real workplace and legal implications. But heightened awareness of race, gender, ethnic identity, religion and social class means managers need to better understand how intersecting identities play out for people in their lives. Consider a black Muslim woman who wears hijab, for example, and the ways her identities overlap and are connected. The Financial Times’s Isabel Berwick has written an essential primer. “The discriminations that can stem from those identities — such as sexism and racism — can combine to create multiple, self-reinforcing layers of disadvantage for those affected.”
Financial Times


Jezebel was diametrically opposed to the prevailing vision of the True Woman, who was chaste, pure, and white. As an unidentified Southern white woman wrote in 'The Independent' in 1904, “I cannot imagine such a creature as a virtuous black woman.” This construct of the licentious temptress served to justify white men’s sexual abuse of Black women. The stereotype of Black women as sexually promiscuous also defined them as bad mothers. 
—Dorothy Roberts