That’s what Nike anointed Serena Williams at the end of a simple 60-second spot last year. Not the greatest tennis player ever, not the greatest female athlete ever—the greatest ever. And as a dark-skinned black woman from Compton, California dominating the overwhelmingly white space that is tennis, Williams’s path to greatness has always been subject to extreme scrutiny. Her hair, her body, her “attitude,” her C-Walking, and her presence alone have triggered rage among alleged purists desperate to preserve the sport’s pristine whiteness. But of late, Williams has drawn non-tennis-related scrutiny since announcing her engagement to, then pregnancy by, Reddit co-founder Alexis Ohanian.
For every person incensed by Williams and Ohanian’s interracial union, there are probably three who could not find it possible to give any less of a fuck. So why does anyone care at all? Here’s a theory: because Serena Williams has accomplished so much despite the bold, underlined, capital “R” Racism she’s experienced during her 35 years on this planet, some of us—and by “us,” I mean the black community—expected different from her considering all she’s been through.
Inhabiting a world where interracial relationships are simply viewed as relationships and love isn’t dissected or tested for authenticity would be beautiful. Sadly, that’s not the reality we live in. The unprecedented rise of the biggest dickhead in the White House has yanked racism out of its dark crevice, but a bleeding heart liberal variation of it is all the rage right now and equally damaging. Let’s mute every discussion about equality and allyship to remember that being attracted to someone of another race does not disqualify you from harboring racism. White people need to pass written and oral cultural competency exams prior to dating outside of their race, because if they don’t hold some problematic viewpoint, chances are a friend or family member does. Then, of course, there’s the ever-present issue of fetishization.
In its analysis of liberal racism and faux-progressive bullshit, Jordan Peele’s Get Out offered an ambitious take on how the black body is viewed. It’s a vessel to some whites, existing only to give them the ability or pleasure they’ve only dreamed of. So while some interracial relationships exist solely as a “See I’m Not Racist” virtue signal, others are about living out a fantasy. Black men and women being sexual dynamos, fact notwithstanding, is a stereotype continuously perpetuated by society’s ignorance. And although this certainly isn’t true of every interracial relationship, or even every purely sexual interaction, there’s still a 50/50 chance. On the other hand, there are blacks who foolishly believe white is right and marry up in pursuit of validation not even holy matrimony can provide. Serena Williams—whose fist-up display of black power followed her seventh Wimbledon victory and the deaths of Philando Castile and Alton Sterling at the hands of police—is no stranger to these issues or this scrutiny. She’s faced it her entire life.
“My parents always told me, ‘In order to be the best you can be, you have to know your history,’” Williams told The FADER, last fall. Her father, Richard Williams, fled Louisiana during his youth following the lynching of his childhood friend. Knowing what the world demands of black people, he began preparing Serena and her older sister, Venus, for the imminent hate immediately. No one is immune to the toxicity of racism, but both were war ready by the time they turned pro. Tennis is a game of dividers and lines; the biggest one is racial. There’s a degree of privilege required to even play the sport, and Compton product Serena Williams has reigned over a country club pastime for nearly two decades. And, because it’s impossible for black people to ascend without facing backlash for having the sheer audacity to do so, Williams has faced a vicious intersection of racism and misogyny. She and Venus have been referred to as men, crowds have infamously called her and her family “niggers,” and, because of her body, she’s been subject to Sarah Baartman-esque treatment. The bar for excellence meets inferior peers like Maria Sharapova where they’re at, while Williams has always been held to a higher standard—even though she’s the one setting it.
Williams has persevered regardless, amassing records (while pregnant) with no regard for the racists disguised as critics, or those bold enough to be upfront about their hate. (And goddamn, do they hate to see her win.) Unfortunately, this, and good ol’ American history are why she and Ohanian’s relationship will always fall under the microscope. Has she fallen in love with her oppressor? Probably not, but you have to wonder if he’ll be able to understand her struggle. And if we zoom in, will he understand that he’ll never truly understand it? These are things to keep in mind when starting a family.
Serena Williams hasn’t committed racial treason, and her child should never be viewed as the product of that. But she and Ohanian’s offspring will face the same scrutiny Williams has, simply because the child has that Williams DNA. So should people be angry at her for letting a white man “colonize her body,” as a character on the Netflix iteration of Dear White People says? No, but odds are many of them foresaw something else from the woman who read Maya Angelou’s “Still I Rise” during a BBC Wimbledon montage last summer.
They expected different, perhaps more, from this symbol of black power who’s always set the bar higher.