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The complex origin of a black woman's anger

  • 13 September 2018


If there's one thing we can learn from the Serena Williams debacle it is this: never dismiss marginalised people when they insist your interpretation of their experience is wrong.

We can argue relentlessly about whether or not the tennis great had the right to smash her racquet, to dispute the umpire's decision, to rain on opponent Naomi Osaka's parade. (Williams might well have won that match, so it's a moot point as to whether or not she knew she was spoiling the up-and-comer's moment of glory.)

Many before her have unleashed tirades at umpires, and many more will do so in the years to come. No-one is arguing that such behaviour is acceptable; though it must be said that numberless players have hurled ghastlier slurs and have nonetheless been spared the intense, divisive, global examination of their actions for days afterwards. John McEnroe was expected to smash his racquets and verbally abuse everyone in his sphere when he walked onto the court.

So people are entitled to argue that Williams was out of line with her response to cautions and penalties during Saturday's women's finals match at Flushing Meadows — as another female tennis legend, Martina Navratilova, has done. But they have no right to racially slur Williams because of her actions — as News Limited's Herald Sun cartoonist Mark Knight has done.

We can argue about whether or not the caricature produced by Knight is racist and sexist. White people in their swarms have done so already, flooding social media with their opprobrium, casually dismissing the representation of Williams as nothing more than an interpretation of a dummy-spitting sports star. The cartoonist himself is devoid of contrition. The whites have spoken.

But African-Americans (and people of colour and marginalised groups in general) vehemently disagree with Knight and his supporters. And herein lies the lesson: if a marginalised group tells you unequivocally that what you have done is deeply insensitive — and provides reams of literature and historical context with which to support this assertion — it behoves us to listen to them; just as it behoves men to listen to women when they tell — and show — them that the world is a deeply sexist place.

As members of the dominant culture, we have a nasty habit of offending marginalised people then lecturing them on the virtue of not being offended. But there's no longer any excuse for superiority and ignorance, for the voices of reason