We Need to Keep Talking About Serena Williams and the Dignity of Black Children

Sep 14, 2018 12:00:00 AM


By now we’ve all seen the headlines after the most recent U.S. Open in which Serena Williams lost to Naomi Osaka. Yet the headlines weren’t about the match itself, they were about the courtside dispute between Serena and a referee. During that moment I held my breath as the camera zoomed in on Serena, close enough to hear her demanding an apology, which she rightfully deserved. As she shouted over the crowd, I thought, “Don’t lose control, Serena! They’ll only peg you as an Angry Black Woman!”

That inevitable accusation came anyway, in a torrent of tweets immediately following the showdown, as well as in a racially charged cartoon. Educators can learn a lot about themselves from this controversy, particularly how they succeed—or fail—in empowering Black children to advocate for themselves with dignity. The backlash following Serena’s controversy boils down to one thing: a very real fear of Black people having too much dignity. By dignity, I don’t mean arrogance, just self-respect.

Any bit of dignity a Black person displays can be seen as a threat to the legacy of a racial hierarchy wherein Black people have a “place” at the bottom of the totem pole.

When a Black person’s self-esteem seems unscathed by the messages of racial inferiority all around them, many perceive their tenacious confidence as aggressiveness or pretentiousness. Even the most modest and personable Black folks are still liable to get humbled, if their self-assuredness garners too much praise or recognition. The relentless attempts to undermine Barack Obama’s presidency proved this.

As Kris Kristofferson says in the song “Jesus Was A Capricorn,” “Everybody’s got to have somebody to look down on, who they can feel better than at any time they please.” At a young age, Black children internalize this idea that they aren’t worthy of loving and being proud of themselves. Yet, despite this, Serena’s father made it a point to shield her dignity and self-esteem.

In this clip from a 1995 interview, a journalist presses 14-year-old Venus Williams for any sign of self-doubt her father shut him down. “You think you can beat her?” the reporter asks. “I know I can beat her,” Venus responds. “You know you can beat her? Very confident,” he says. She nods, replying, “I’m very confident.” “You say it so easily. Why?” Without missing a beat, Venus snaps back, “’Cause I believe it.”

Suddenly, Richard Williams emerges from behind the set. “All right, stop right there if you don’t mind. And let me tell you why. What she said, she said it with so much confidence the first time, but you keep going on and on an on.” “But we can’t keep interrupting…,” the frustrated reporter says, cutting off Venus and Serena's father. A big mistake. “You’ve got to understand that you’re dealing with the image of a 14-year-old child. And this child gon’ be out there playing when your old a-- and me gonna be in the grave,” he shouts, pounding his chest and hovering over the reporter. “You’re dealing with a little Black kid, and let her be a kid. She done answered it with a lot of confidence. Leave that alone!”

You See It in the Classroom

In my work, I’ve witnessed a number of situations where educators have spoken negatively about Black children—or spoken down to them—with the exact same patronizing tone. An academic advisor persuading an ambitious but struggling Black student to drop advanced courses, without first identifying their strengths or devising an academic support plan. A Black parent requesting that a teacher recalculate a report card grade, only to be told that their child should be happy to have earned a B. A teacher encouraging a Black student to “be realistic,” by applying to more safety schools than dream colleges. Popular Black athletes stereotyped as self-absorbed jocks with a chip on their shoulder, despite being congenial and respectful.

In all of these circumstances, Black students confronted pushback—just like Serena—for having the dignity to strive to be exceptional, or to advocate themselves.

Whether these educators—as well as Serena’s referee—were aware of their motives or not, their negative assumptions and expectations derived from implicit biases about the status of Black culture and Black people’s “place” in society. These educators conflated the ambition, dignity, and self-respect of their Black students with feelings of superiority. Yet many of them admired and encouraged White students for displaying these same aforementioned traits.

The Problem for Black Girls

In regard to Black girls, I’ve observed implicit bias play out in disciplinary disputes that left a mark on their permanent records. One recurring example involved authority figures declining to resolve conflicts between Black girls with mediation or restorative justice—just severe punishment for all parties involved. If Black girls challenged this verdict, they were reprimanded for having an attitude or talking back. “Push Out: The Criminalization of Black Girls in Schools,” as well as a plethora of educational research, substantiates this stereotyping of Black girls. They pay a price for speaking up in schools.

Furthermore, because the majority of research on the school-to-prison pipeline focuses on Black boys, most educators don’t know that Black girls are 5.5 times more likely to get suspended than White girls, and are also more likely to receive multiple suspensions, compared to students of any other gender or race. This reality is the same reason why many people exaggerated Serena’s assertiveness, despite a long history of White male tennis stars going ballistic on referees, without half as much press or scandal.

On top of stereotypes about Black girls being confrontational, school dress codes often punish Black girls most severely, and there are a number of cases of Black girls who have gotten suspended or expelled for wearing cultural hairstyles. And it seems that they can’t win, no matter what. There are Black girls who stay home from school, out of embarrassment about their natural hair, when they can’t get an appointment with their beautician over the weekend. They don’t go back until their hair is “done.” Even then, it’s often “done” in styles that some schools have banned, like braids and twists, which smooth down curly, kinky and afro-textured hair.

The price that Black girls pay for taking pride in their appearance is often written off as being rebellious or unruly, even considering that assimilation and conformity to Eurocentric beauty standards is almost always the goal. It’s a lose-lose situation.

Wake Up, Teachers

Educators must realize that so many of us make assumptions about Black children that strip them of dignity and innocence. A recent study even explored how adultification causes adults to see Black girls as less innocent and less worthy of protection than White girls. Another study among kindergarten teachers found that the faces of Black boys could activate the same region of the brain associated with rapid detection of danger. Based on what I’ve seen in schools and on the news, Black children aren’t afforded a childhood, because adults, whether cops or teachers, fear them and rarely handle them with care. Adults play hardball with Black children, whether or not they follow the rules.

So many educators fail to realize that Black children do not have thicker skin.

By undermining Black students’ self-esteem—by either putting them down or punishing them—educators are only compounding the relentless indignity that Black children and youth face out in the world, at an age when they have yet to develop the coping skills to process the psychological toll of racism. It’s no wonder, then, that so many Black students feel disconnected.

Fellow educators, it should disturb us that so many Black children feel humiliated by us, silenced by us, stereotyped by us, underestimated by us, undermined by us. They deserve so much more than we are offering them. A conversation about how schools perpetuate a culture that disempowers Black children and youth, within and outside of school, is long overdue. At the heart of that conversation should be our own self-reflection about how we are often the culprit. And if it takes Serena’s bold example to start that conversation, then let’s begin now.

Araya Baker

Araya Baker is a counselor, suicidologist, and policy analyst. Baker has published commentary and public scholarship in  The New York Times, The Washington Post's  The LilyHuffington PostEducation PostViceBuzzfeed, The Mighty, The Tennessean, and other platforms. Araya earned a master's in professional counseling from the University of Pennsylvania Graduate School of Education and a master's in human development and psychology from the Harvard Graduate School of Education.

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