(The Root) — It’s ridiculous that we still have to explain this. That with a black woman in the White House, another starring in the TV show everyone’s talking about and another who created said show — plus scores more breaking barriers in politics, business and sports — we still have to explain why certain images simply aren’t OK.
Kerry Washington, the star of ABC’s prime-time political drama Scandal, told Oprah Winfrey recently that her character, Olivia Pope (a fictional version of real-life “fixer” Judy Smith), represented a “new moment”:
For a long time, the only images you saw of black women in media were very stereotypical images, and then we went to this place where all the images of African-American women had to be flawless, perfect — you know, Clair Huxtable — so we could erase that legacy of negativity.
I get what Washington is saying. We’ve come a long way, and one would think that we should be looking forward instead of back. But unfortunately, there are some who still need a history lesson — namely one Caroline Wozniacki, the former No. 1 women’s tennis player in the world.
At a recent exhibition match against Maria Sharapova, Wozniacki decided that it would be fun to stuff her tank top and tennis skirt with towels in order to imitate Olympic gold medalist Serena Williams. When she waddled lopsided to the court and served her first ball as “Serena,” the crowd didn’t gasp or boo or hiss — it laughed.
And she’s done this before, complete with sound effects like Serena’s trademark primal scream. Actually, a few tennis players have. Apparently this is what’s hot on the court in 2012.
In November at a charity exhibition match in Slovakia, Novak Djokovic padded his shirt with towels before his first serve in front of a small crowd sipping champagne. The announcer even got in on the joke: “Serena Williams to serve.” Afterward Djokovic, who is ranked No. 1 in the world, explained, “We wanted to play quality tennis, to entertain crowd, came up with some good shots, good impersonations. I hope you liked it.” Later that same month in Toronto, Andy Roddick stuffed his shorts and then threatened to “stick this ball down” the throat of an official, all in imitation of U.S. Open champion Serena Williams. In every case the crowd roared with laughter.
This seems like an actual thing in tennis. I’ll have to admit that I don’t watch (unless Serena is playing), but making fun of the sport’s stars is apparently an end-of-the-season ritual. At that same match in Toronto, Roddick also impersonated John McEnroe, Sharapova and Djokovic with jerky arm moves, hair fixing and insistent ball bouncing. But when it came to the black woman, her mannerisms and physical quirks weren’t enough, because they never are. Instead the big booty and her temper get center stage.
All this reminded me of a quote I’ve often repeated from Williams herself. During her one-on-one interview for the first volume of HBO’s documentary The Black List, Williams summed up the challenges of her career:
Every article that I do read, it’s like, you know, “She overpowered her opponent.” Meanwhile I’m thinking, “They don’t know how hard I can really hit,” because I’m telling you, I’m not even hitting the ball as hard as I can. It’s a lot more than just hitting the ball as hard as you can. It’s all about strategy and moving your opponent and just really figuring them out. Like, I never get credit for [the] mental, and it’s kind of frustrating.
Yes, it’s frustrating. Frustrating that even in jest, caricatures are caricatures. The big-chested, big-bottomed black woman is an easy punch line that still hurts. It’s still not OK. Despite her grand slam titles, her gold medals and Wimbledon wins, the sum of Serena Williams can still be reduced to her parts. And people will laugh without a clue (or care) that the joke isn’t just tired — it’s offensive, it’s dangerous and it needs to stop.
“It’s an image that we have seen before,” explained Whoopi Goldberg on The View Tuesday during a discussion about Wozniacki’s impression.
Not only have we, as black women, seen it, but we’ve tried to sink it. The meme that our bodies are our only means of distinction gets swatted down every day by women who recognize the figurative and literal catcalls. Williams herself is one of them. If only the women like Wozniacki could get that. But we can’t hold our breaths — or the accomplishments.
“You can make as much fun as you want to,” Goldberg said. “She’s still gonna beat your ass.”