“You act whiter than me.”
I’ve been told this a lot, either as an alleged compliment of my quiet personality or as a way to deride my taste in music. To some, being a black woman means being angry and aggressive, and right now, no woman embodies this anger more purely than Serena Williams. After accusing an umpire of penalizing her unfairly during the U.S. Open Tennis Championship, Williams was called a sore loser and was portrayed as an apeish baby in a political cartoon drawn by Mark Knight. This cartoon would better fit the 1930s than 2018. Naomi Osaka, her Haitian-Japanese opponent, was portrayed as a blonde white woman placidly speaking to the umpire while the artist portrays Williams having a temper tantrum in the foreground. Nearly every commentator on this issue has acknowledged Osaka as either the victim or a victim, and according to Knight, Osaka’s victimhood cast her as white.
In this mindset, black women can only be the aggressors. They can’t be the victims –– even of other women.
Williams was angry, and she is allowed to be. Millions of dollars were on the line, and she felt she was cheated. Anger is the logical emotion to feel in this situation. Yet Williams’ anger was used to dehumanize her and invalidate her suffering. She is not alone — due to decades of the “angry black woman” stereotype, it is common for black women to try their best to remain as composed as possible unless they wish to have people call them scary, brattish or ungrateful.
Osaka, on the other hand, is in an interesting position in the eyes of Williams’ critics. While Williams was angry, Osaka tearfully apologized about her victory and, in general, is known for being a humble player who does not “excessively show her joy.” One theme throughout this tournament is how different reports have erased Osaka’s Haitian ethnicity. Osaka has stated that she’s proud of being Japanese and proud of being Haitian and has corrected reporters who want to misrepresent her.
If you believe Osaka is a victim (which I do), then why can’t she be a black victim? Why does she have to be only the Japanese player or the blonde damsel to Williams’ King Kong? Many times when her blackness is brought up, it’s to excuse racism towards Williams. “How can I be racist if I support a black woman? If Osaka can be humble and not make waves, why can’t Williams?”
If Williams’ critics want Osaka to be black, then it’s because they don’t have to acknowledge her emotions the way you have to with Williams. Her demeanor has seemingly invited people to project whatever they want onto her. After her win, a reporter asked if Osaka stopped idolizing Williams, despite Osaka never saying anything of the sort. Knight’s cartoon implied that Osaka was also critical of WIlliams. Critics want to pit the two against each other in order to dehumanize Williams.
My demeanor has been used to invalidate the anger of black students in my class. If I didn’t say anything about a controversial incident, then people would question why another black student was offended. I relate to Osaka. I am either called “white” for my personality or have my personality weaponized to be whatever someone wants it to be. I’m either an example for others to follow, or I’m meant to automatically jump on the bandwagon of popular opinion at the time.
This mentality is harmful to everyone involved.
Naomi Osaka and Serena Williams both had one of the most emotional moments of their careers and were robbed of their agency and of a happy victory. And no cartoon or tweet can change that.