We Should All Walk a Mile in Her Nikes

Tennis is a game of binaries, things are very much ‘in or out’. The discourse that has sprung from the final of the US Open was not quite as clear-cut and has proven that the ball still falls very much on either side of the net. In short, Serena Williams accused the umpire, Carlos Ramos of sexism following a heated dispute in the US Open Final after he docked a point after her coach “made a motion” that appeared to offer guidance. A heated argument followed resulting in Williams accusing the umpire of being a thief. He took a game off as a result. Williams argues this was sexism because “[she’s] seen other men call other umpires several things” and  “[he’d] never taken a game from a man because they said ‘thief.’ Williams still claims she was not receiving guidance from her coach.

Responses to Serena Williams’ passionate battle against sexism in the sport have been met with applause and commendation, equally, her views have faced dismissal and even been accused of appropriation of the feminist movement of which she has so often been at the forefront. Regardless of whether Williams was in or out of line, the responses that have sprung from all over the world seem to fall rather too neatly into two categories: those that believe Serena was right are women and those that believe she was wrong are men. Anna Kessel came out in support of Williams, citing occasions in which male players have been admired for breaking their rackets. Similarly, Carys Afoko described the incident as an example of “how hard it is to be a black woman at work.” Chante Joseph views it as proof that “society has a double standard.” Billie Jean King, the former No.1 female tennis player and winner of the infamous 1973 ‘Battle of the Sexes’ match, expressed support for Williams on Twitter.

Alternatively, Bryan Armen Graham described Williams’ “shocking meltdown” as having “burned the house down” in New York. Russell Fuller wrote that the sexism in tennis “doesn’t excuse Serena Williams’ behaviour.” Mark Knight’s News Corp cartoon has been widely condemned for its depiction of Williams and its white-washing of Naomi Osaka. Of course, there are exceptions. Steve Simon, Chief Executive of the Women’s Tennis Association, defended Williams, who is currently the world number sixteen in tennis. Further, observe Caroline Wilson’s suggestion that “people have not stood up to Serena Williams.”

The divide, it seems, is characterised by the limits of empathy. Walking a mile in someone’s shoes will only provide a footprint of their experience and, in this case, the male response to the match, unfortunately, proves that our understanding only goes so far. Russell Fuller’s article is prefaced with the line “there’s sexism in tennis but…” In a similar vein, Kevin Mitchell writes “Serena Williams was right about women’s treatment, but…”. Are these prefixes simply there to ward off accusations of sexism, or do they tell of a genuine lack of experience of the issue that stems from not being a woman?

Perhaps the answer lies in repetition: as men, we are exposed most clearly to sexism on grand one-off stages like this one, with the time and place to consider the issue in its singularity. Were we to experience and be subject to the everyday sexism that Williams and all women receive, might we find ourselves more willing and able to understand the positions taken by our female counterparts? One prime example of this is Naomi Osaka, who has been labeled the victim of Saturday’s events. Perhaps Osaka, Kessel, Afoko and Joseph’s experiences as women mean they are better equipped to understand Williams’ position.

That is not to say that the prefaces to those articles should disappear. We should all endeavor to walk as far as possible in Serena Williams’ trainers. Yet, as we do so, we must remember to tread carefully along the line between understanding and acceptance. If we are going to move past the limit of our understanding of these issues, we cannot afford to forget their existence.

Jasper Clow