Serena Williams: ‘Angry’ black women are treated like ‘the bottom of the totem pole’

Kim Kardashian arrives at What Goes Around Comes Around for 25th anniversary party

Serena Williams is GQ’s Woman of the Year and Champion of the Year. We already talked about the stupid Virgil Abloh thing of putting “woman” in quotes, which is still shady. On Thursday, GQ released Serena’s full cover interview and woooo, it’s a good read. Keep in mind that Serena hasn’t played a professional match since the US Open final, a final which I called “the most shambolic sports moment of the year.” There was so much happening in that confined space – racism, sexism, sh-tty umpiring, tennis politics, gender politics, race politics, and more. Serena has spoken since then, and while she’s sounded vaguely apologetic at times, I also get the sense that she’s still just upset about everything that went down, and the chaotic aftermath. This interview was conducted maybe a month after the final, around the time of Brett Kavanaugh’s nomination. You can read the full GQ piece here. Some highlights:

Bad stuff always happens to her at the US Open. “I’ve had a lot of things happen to me at the U.S. Open. I think about three or four different things. Especially in the later rounds. I think a person can be a little bit more sensitive to anything in that moment. You know, it becomes a trigger moment. When you go through a really extreme ordeal not once, not twice, not three times, it becomes a trigger moment.”

On the first violation, the coaching violation: She would like to make one thing clear about Ramos hitting her with the coaching code violation. It wasn’t typical. Usually, if an umpire notices a player’s coach making suspicious movements (in tennis, coaches are not allowed to, well, coach during the match), he’ll simply say something to the player and that’s the end of it. “That was where a lot of people don’t understand. That’s where I was coming from. Like, usually you talk to me, tell me that something’s happening, and I’ll tell my box, like, whatever you’re doing, don’t. First, I can’t see you—I’m clear on the other side of the court. Second, don’t do it. We’re here to win or to lose with dignity, and that’s how I’ve always done my career.” To be accused of cheating, and eventually docked a point for it, was an injustice.

A woman who expresses anger: “Especially a black woman. You do research on how black women, you know, in the workforce are, there’s literally papers about it, how black women are treated if they’re angry, as opposed to white women, white men, black men. It is bottom of the bottom of the totem pole.”

On how Brett Kavanaugh’s “anger” was applauded & rewarded: “Kavanaugh’s a white man. I’m a black woman. His limit is higher. My limit is way lower. And that’s where we stand right now in this world. And it’s a fact. It is literally a fact. If you don’t believe anything I say, just look at those two examples…. You don’t accept it. You talk out about it like I have. You make it better for the next generation.” She talks about the continuum, about Rosa Parks, “or you look at people like Althea Gibson, who had to sleep in her car.” In 1956, Althea Gibson became the first African-American to win a Grand Slam title, and the next year she won two more, despite the fact that hotels and country clubs still excluded blacks and so she was routinely banned from clubhouses. Also she was broke. There was no prize money for women in tennis, no professional tours. That was awful. But that was for her generation, and she bore the burden for someone like me. I have it way better than she does. And then I’m bearing the burden for the next generation, and they’re going to have it way, way better than I do.”

Her self-improvement, what she’s working on: “That is something that I need to personally work on. Everyone has to work on something. I’m still learning to embrace being, for lack of a better word, great. I did buy myself a cake the other day. I never have cake. I went to bed thinking I want a cake, and I want, like, a decorated cake.” She pulls out her phone, swipes, finds the picture, and shows it to me—a mini cake, single serving, white icing, abundant yellow flowers, flowing ribbons of purple sugar. “Maybe it was my celebration to myself? I felt really happy to have that cake and eat it.”

[From GQ]

For the record, I don’t think Serena has been sitting around Palm Beach, stewing 24-7 about what happened with Carlos Ramos. I think she’s been training and spending time with Olympia and preparing for Australia. And I think she’s been reflecting a lot about her career, and yes, what has happened to her throughout her career, and how she’s been treated differently by many different people. She’s not wrong to make the US Open controversy discussion about anger, female anger, and even more specifically, how men react to a justifiably angry black woman. She’s right about all of it, and even in the hours, days, weeks and months that followed, she was still painted as “out of control” and “bratty” and “weak” and a lot worse.

Photo and cover courtesy of GQ.

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23 Responses to “Serena Williams: ‘Angry’ black women are treated like ‘the bottom of the totem pole’”

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  1. Steff says:

    This amount of crap this woman has been through even though she is the GOAT in her sport is crazy. She is a strong soul and I have so much respect for her.

  2. Juls says:

    Pointing out the Kavanaugh comparison was beautiful. Mediocre white male expresses unjustified anger and is rewarded and applauded. GOAT Black woman expresses justified anger and is reamed for it. I also love how she points out how she wants to pave the way for her successors the way her predecessors did for her. We all need to hear this and heed this.

  3. Wow says:

    The statements she makes about the generational problems that black women (and men) face and the barriers that they have to chip away at….. it just leaves me in awe of the the grace, humility and strength it must take

  4. Carol says:

    She’s not wrong. The Kavanaugh comparison is spot on and now I’m off to google the past issues at the US Open, I am only familiar with the incident from this year.

  5. ElleBee says:

    What bothers me about the “Angry Black Woman” stereotype is that it reduces us to one dimensional creatures. Anger is a natural human emotion but that’s not the only emotion or aspect of black womanhood. There are plenty of reasons for black women to be upset btw but they are most often than not ignored because we’re deemed angry and aggressive for no reason.

    • ValiantlyVarnished says:

      THIS. We as black women are not given the space to have the full spectrum human of emotions. And when we do express anger it is weaponized against us. “See, she’s just another ‘angry’ black woman”. It’s a way to silence black women and change the narrative so that the truths we speak aren’t heard.

      • ElleBee says:

        Exactly! I’ve seen scenarios where black women were simply stating an opinion or taking a stance in a non threatening way and were accused of bullying and inappropriate conduct by white counterparts. It’s frustrating.

      • Flying fish says:

        So true.

    • BaeBae says:


  6. Rosalee says:

    I greatly admire Serena Williams, she has grace, beauty, strength, determination. As an athlete she is among the greatest without gender specific titles. I don’t want to start a debate on who is lowest on the totem pole as it is a spiritual position It is assume that the linear representation of the figures places the most importance on the highest figure, an idea that became pervasive in the dominant culture after it entered into mainstream with the phrase “low man on the totem pole”. However, the Haida reject the linear component altogether, or reverse the hierarchy, with the most important representations on the bottom, bearing the weight of all the other figures, or at eye level with the viewer to heighten their significance. Yes, with all respect Serena William is the lowest on the totem pole.

  7. stormsmama says:

    i love her

    i only want to point out that refereeing the totem pole and ignoring native people makes me all the more aware of how invisible native americans truly are to all of us in society…it sucks that in her valid expression of frustration regarding her experiences as a black woman and of other black women she inadvertently reinforced the dismissal of native people

  8. Desolee says:

    Kavanaugh wasn’t rewarded for anger he just wasn’t punished because the ppl who voted him in has their agenda
    DT and white male Fox News ppl are rewarded for showing anger tho

  9. Tania says:

    I love Serena. When she says, “bottom of the totem pole” she doesn’t understand that in most Indigenous cultures even being on the totem pole is an honor and sacred. Being on the bottom is actually a position of power and respect as well so maybe understand that a bit more before using it as an example.

    • eto says:

      Oh wow, I’ve never heard that! It’s a fairly common phrase ( I think) so it seems that most people have been using it incorrectly. Not surprising considering how little respect the Indigenous cultures have historically been given…

    • Elizabeth Rose says:

      I think what she meant was essentially being at the bottom of the hierarchy. I’ve never seen totem pole referenced (not to say that it hasn’t just that I haven’t seen it) but I have read in several academic papers etc. that blacks (and black women specifically) are often deemed to be at the bottom of the social hierarchy.

    • Patty says:

      That may be the case in some cultures but in the culture in which Serena was raised and in the West in general; the phrase has an entirely different meaning and can be used accordingly.

      • Rosalee says:

        Patty, it is a part of west coast Indigenous culture. The use of the term, “low man on the totem pole” became a term in the 1930’s because of a mistaken belief the lowest image was lesser. Are you saying we as Indigenous people are wrong and the incorrect usage can be I am stunned, amused and nauseated at the same time

  10. Reese. says:

    She is spot on. Love her.

  11. DesertReal says:

    She completely nailed what I’ve been trying to explain to my conservative husband- he has such an inability to see double standards, despite buying into them time and time again.
    Anyway, she’s 100% correct, and her strength, grace, and integrity she displays time and time again in these interviews since the match- just continues to show how freaking awesome she is.