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.”