The ideology of white supremacy ends lives, as the evidence of hundreds of years attests. But even where it does not actively kill, it commits smaller, more insidious crimes, too. It belittles and dismisses humanity and accomplishment, and it does so by using words that appear to be innocent of illogical animus.
In reading excerpts from Russian tennis player Maria Sharapova’s new memoir, Unstoppable, it would be reasonable to see the reality of her situation: an athlete humiliated and angered by a far superior opponent over the years. But there is also an inescapable undercurrent of bitterness that relies on something more sinister when it comes to discussing the No. 1 player in women’s tennis, Serena Williams.
“First of all,” Sharapova writes, “[Williams’] physical presence is much stronger and bigger than you realize watching TV. She has thick arms and thick legs and is so intimidating and strong.” Focusing on people’s bodies is par for the course in sports — there are inescapable requirements to do what athletes do. And the fact of the matter is that Serena Williams is strong. You have to be, to be perhaps the best athlete in the world, pound for pound. But Sharapova’s description has nothing to do with Serena’s world-straddling skill and ability. It is about setting her up as “other,” as superhuman (but in the detrimental way that curls into itself and reemerges as subhuman) and therefore unfair and unworthy to be in that space, on that court.
Thick arms and thick legs (coded as masculine) in addition to being intimidating (“I felt threatened, officer”) and strong (read: too strong, ergo masculine)? Well, that’s too much. How could I, a slender blonde, be expected to play against this, and win?Never mind that at 6’2”, Maria Sharapova stands a clean 5 inches above Serena Williams’ 5’9″ frame. Sharapova painted a shorthand cultural picture we have come to understand very well, in which a dainty white lady is menaced by a hulking black specter. It’s fake news. Misogynoir both coded and explicit. But the facts are meaningless here, because this narrative is too compelling.