It’s not enough for young black women to admire Serena. They need to emulate her will to win.


Her example of consistency and tenacity in the face of adversity is as important — if not more — than her 21 grand slam trophies.

One of America’s greatest champions, Serena Williams, took One of America’s greatest champions, Serena Williams, took the court this week at the U.S. Open. And with 21 grand slam the court this week at the U.S. Open. And with 21 grand slam titles to her name — eight after turning 30; two wins in the titles to her name — eight after turning 30; two wins in the past four days on a quest for 22; and recent profiles in past four days on a quest for 22; and recent profiles in New New York magazine York magazineand the and the New York Times Magazine New York Times Magazine, in which , in which she says, among other things, “I’m just about winning,” she she says, among other things, “I’m just about winning,” she doesn’t need any additional kudos from me. But I’m mindful doesn’t need any additional kudos from me. But I’m mindful of something that goes beyond her sports stardom: She’s an of something that goes beyond her sports stardom: She’s an exemplar of what it takes to win, no matter the game. exemplar of what it takes to win, no matter the game. And we need her example, modeling perseverance in the face And we need her example, modeling perseverance in the face of obstacles, to balance out the negative messaging that of obstacles, to balance out the negative messaging that inundates too many young women — particularly young, inundates too many young women — particularly young, African American women. African American women. As an educator who has spent a substantial part of my career As an educator who has spent a substantial part of my career facilitating the professional development of young women, I facilitating the professional development of young women, I can’t overemphasize the importance of the way she can’t overemphasize the importance of the way she demonstrates what it takes to win, and to keep winning. demonstrates what it takes to win, and to keep winning. Consider Serena’s will to win in the face of what Vox’s Jenée Consider Serena’s will to win in the face of what Vox’s Jenée Desmond-Harris Desmond-Harris catalogues catalogues, and rightly describes, as the , and rightly describes, as the routine and barely-veiled “racism that underlies the routine and barely-veiled “racism that underlies the characterizations of her as hypersexual, aggressive, and characterizations of her as hypersexual, aggressive, and animalistic” to the point that “when she dares to express animalistic” to the point that “when she dares to express frustration” (also known as being human) “she’s stamped frustration” (also known as being human) “she’s stamped with the infamous ‘angry black woman’ stereotype.” with the infamous ‘angry black woman’ stereotype.” Consider the Consider the attempts to diminish attempts to diminish both her beauty and both her beauty and accomplishments that were thankfully accomplishments that were thankfully shut down shut downby another by another woman who knows how to win, Harry Potter creator J.K. woman who knows how to win, Harry Potter creator J.K. Rowling. Too many of the young women I’ve had the honor Rowling. Too many of the young women I’ve had the honor to teach and mentor come to the game of life burdened by to teach and mentor come to the game of life burdened by similar stereotyping. They’ve absorbed the idea that this is a similar stereotyping. They’ve absorbed the idea that this is a world in which they can probably hope to get by, but not world in which they can probably hope to get by, but not reach for their highest aspirations. reach for their highest aspirations. Even in an era of increasing gender equity, there are young Even in an era of increasing gender equity, there are young women with unlimited potential who will still set their sights women with unlimited potential who will still set their sights on becoming nurses — a noble profession in its own right — on becoming nurses — a noble profession in its own right — instead of taking the necessary risk to go for their true goal of instead of taking the necessary risk to go for their true goal of becoming doctors. Others, talented poets and playwrights, becoming doctors. Others, talented poets and playwrights, feel compelled to take the “safe” career path to a government feel compelled to take the “safe” career path to a government job or teaching position. There’s nothing wrong with the jobs job or teaching position. There’s nothing wrong with the jobs they’ve chosen (hey, I’m a teacher), but there are already they’ve chosen (hey, I’m a teacher), but there are already enough real societal challenges facing black women — enough real societal challenges facing black women — in in health outcomes, educational and employment health outcomes, educational and employment opportunities opportunities—that it’s devastating when dreams are —that it’s devastating when dreams are curtailed because of perceived limitations. curtailed because of perceived limitations. What’s missing in many cases is Serena’s single-minded What’s missing in many cases is Serena’s single-minded determination to push past those who would place a ceiling determination to push past those who would place a ceiling on what she’s expected to achieve — an attribute that’s on what she’s expected to achieve — an attribute that’s essential for anyone who wants to succeed, however they essential for anyone who wants to succeed, however they define it. define it. Hard work, of course, is a necessary condition of that success. Hard work, of course, is a necessary condition of that success. There’s no way Serena would dominate tennis as she has There’s no way Serena would dominate tennis as she has without a life spent on the practice court. But it without a life spent on the practice court. But it frequently takes more than that. It takes an embrace of Maya frequently takes more than that. It takes an embrace of Maya Angelou’s lyrical, but deadly serious mantra: “You may write Angelou’s lyrical, but deadly serious mantra: “You may write me down in history with your bitter, twisted lies“ but “ me down in history with your bitter, twisted lies“ but “Still I’ll Still I’ll rise rise.” .” So where did her determination come from? Recall that when So where did her determination come from? Recall that when Serena and sister Venus Williams burst onto the tennis scene Serena and sister Venus Williams burst onto the tennis scene as young girls, with their engaging on-court personalities and as young girls, with their engaging on-court personalities and trademark white beads — that were, believe it or not, trademark white beads — that were, believe it or not, themselves themselves the subject of controversy the subject of controversy—they were regularly —they were regularly derided as derided as ungracious ungraciousbecause because they’ve never bowed they’ve never bowedto the to the tennis establishment. Even John McEnroe — tennis’ original tennis establishment. Even John McEnroe — tennis’ original enfant terrible enfant terrible, once had the audacity to say “ , once had the audacity to say “they have no they have no respect for anyone in the game respect for anyone in the game.” .” They were meant to be taken off course for not offering They were meant to be taken off course for not offering deference that they should have never been expected to give. deference that they should have never been expected to give. But these women have a fortitude that was nurtured by But these women have a fortitude that was nurtured by parents who — initially with limited resources — loved, parents who — initially with limited resources — loved, protected and challenged them. With as much tennis protected and challenged them. With as much tennis knowledge as they could glean as outsiders, on Compton, knowledge as they could glean as outsiders, on Compton, Calif.’s public tennis courts, Oracene Price and Richard Calif.’s public tennis courts, Oracene Price and Richard Williams — themselves targeted by critics over the years — Williams — themselves targeted by critics over the years — molded their children into winners. They instilled, among molded their children into winners. They instilled, among other things, that their daughters “ other things, that their daughters “have to stand for have to stand for something something”and be fully-dimensional individuals, not just ”and be fully-dimensional individuals, not just tennis players. tennis players. With that nurturing, Serena has been able to define herself. With that nurturing, Serena has been able to define herself. And on those occasions where she’s stepped over the line, And on those occasions where she’s stepped over the line, she’s apologized, accepted whatever sanctions have come and she’s apologized, accepted whatever sanctions have come and moved on, but always continued to win. moved on, but always continued to win. In a white man, that same confidence is expected; and in a In a white man, that same confidence is expected; and in a white woman, trailblazing, perhaps. But in an African white woman, trailblazing, perhaps. But in an African American woman, confidence is just as likely to be taken as American woman, confidence is just as likely to be taken as uppity, if not bellicose. Black women with confidence often uppity, if not bellicose. Black women with confidence often implicitly challenge the insecure among us, who then want to implicitly challenge the insecure among us, who then want to put black women in what they perceive as our proper place. put black women in what they perceive as our proper place. Think Michelle Obama. Think — if we’re going to be real Think Michelle Obama. Think — if we’re going to be real about it — about it — Sandra Bland Sandra Bland. . And that’s the rub. In a society that values winning above And that’s the rub. In a society that values winning above almost all else, young black women consistently receive the almost all else, young black women consistently receive the message that they should try to be less Serena-like when, in message that they should try to be less Serena-like when, in order to compete, that’s exactly who they should emulate. order to compete, that’s exactly who they should emulate. Play the game, black women are too often told. Go along to Play the game, black women are too often told. Go along to get along. Don’t rock the boat. Be demure. Don’t swivel your get along. Don’t rock the boat. Be demure. Don’t swivel your neck to react to slights; just put on your friendly face if you neck to react to slights; just put on your friendly face if you want to fit in. But Serena rocks the boat, and wins, and every want to fit in. But Serena rocks the boat, and wins, and every time I see her prevail on the tennis court, I pray she time I see her prevail on the tennis court, I pray she motivates a young woman of color to prevail in every aspect motivates a young woman of color to prevail in every aspect of her life. of her life. Serena reminds young black women that self-confidence is Serena reminds young black women that self-confidence is strength, not a sin. She reminds us that you can win in spite strength, not a sin. She reminds us that you can win in spite of life sometimes being unfair and that you can acknowledge of life sometimes being unfair and that you can acknowledge inequity without letting it throw you off course: Maria inequity without letting it throw you off course: Maria Sharapova has won only a quarter of the grand slams as Sharapova has won only a quarter of the grand slams as Serena, but tops Serena in annual earnings, with $29 million Serena, but tops Serena in annual earnings, with $29 million last year compared to Serena’s $24 million. It’s hard for me last year compared to Serena’s $24 million. It’s hard for me to see this as anything other than sponsors’ genuflection to to see this as anything other than sponsors’ genuflection to the white, slight and blonde beauty ideal. But Serena’s the white, slight and blonde beauty ideal. But Serena’s response to Sharapova’s success — one that I’d say was quite response to Sharapova’s success — one that I’d say was quite gracious — reflects her belief in herself: “I’m happy for her, gracious — reflects her belief in herself: “I’m happy for her, because she worked hard, too. There is enough at the table because she worked hard, too. There is enough at the table for everyone.’’ for everyone.’’ Yes, we should cherish Serena Williams as a sports hero. But Yes, we should cherish Serena Williams as a sports hero. But we need her as a role model who inspires women who look we need her as a role model who inspires women who look like her to step past stereotypes, exceed expectations — like her to step past stereotypes, exceed expectations — and win.

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© 2017 by Dr. J. Malveaux