Claudia Rankine published “Citizen” in 2014, when the Black Lives Matter movement first began to gain a great deal of international recognition, when Charleston and Charlottesville and the election of current U.S. president Donald Trump had not yet occurred. Obviously, “Citizen” was an extremely important book at the time it was written. However, in the four years since the book was published, its message has become exponentially more relevant.
No doubt, both micro and macro aggressions have become much more prominent throughout the U.S. in the years since the book was written. A large portion of “Citizen” focuses on the emotional turmoil created by these daily aggressions, both micro and macro, to which African-Americans are subjected. Specifically, this portion of the book is concerned with the way in which black Americans are forced to repress these emotions in order to fit white expectations of servility and supplication. The discrimination which tennis great Serena Williams has faced throughout her career is the main subject of this section of “Citizen.” Although Rankine focuses on the 2004 and 2009 U.S. Opens, the outcome of Sunday’s U.S. Open makes the book’s passages on Williams even more relevant.
Williams has often been severely punished and looked down upon by the white establishment because she has gained a reputation for publicly speaking out against unfair treatment.
Rankine explains her take on Williams’ so-called “outbursts” during both the 2004 and 2009 U.S. Opens:
“… it is difficult not to applaud her for reacting immediately to being thrown against a sharp white background. It is difficult not to applaud her for existing in the moment, for fighting crazily against the so-called wrongness of her body’s positioning at the service line … Serena’s frustrations, her disappointments, exist within a system you understand not try to understand in any fair-minded way because to do so is to understand the erasure of the self as systemic, as ordinary. For Serena, the daily diminishment is a low flame, a constant drip. Every look, every comment, every bad call blossoms out of history, through her, onto you. To understand is to see Serena as hemmed in as any other black body thrown against our American background” (29-32).
Rankine expertly articulates in the above passage the many instances of discrimination and harsh treatment which lead to her anger.
The fact that Williams has been, yet again, portrayed in a racist and sexist manner with regards to the events of the 2018 U.S. Open is unfortunate yet unsurprising. As Rankine herself implies in “Citizen,” the fact Williams competes in a white-dominated sport which is often judged by white people makes this sort of reaction by sadly almost unavoidable. Strangely, however, I have observed a trend of media outlets labeling Williams’ recent treatment by Carlos Ramos as solely sexist as opposed to both sexist and racist. Perhaps this is due to the fact that Williams herself accused Ramos solely of sexism.
However, the racism inherent in this incident as well as in the reactions it has produced is undeniable. As with the 2004 and 2009 U.S. Opens, Williams was judged by a white person in the 2018 U.S. Open. A now-infamous Australian cartoon portrayed Williams’ reaction in an extremely racist manner. Williams was personally fined $17,000 for arguing her case in a manner which was deemed “too emotional.” All of this points unequivocally to a mix of racism and sexism, of aggressions both micro and macro which Williams has had to deal with for far too long– to aggressions which have not only resulted from this incident, but led to said incident as well.
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