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Happy birthday, Serena: I’m proud that you spoke up

NAACP Legal Defense Fund study shows black girls are disproportionately punished for being ‘disrespectful’

Growing up, I idolized Serena Williams. Not only was she a champion, she was also hardworking, collected and smart. She had braids, just like me, and her dad was her first tennis coach, just like mine. My dad taught me the game’s unofficial rules: Never talk during a point, always shake hands at the end of a match and, most importantly, never lose your cool.

As a black girl in Philadelphia traveling to the suburbs to play tournaments, these rules had special significance for me. If I protested a point, I would be considered undisciplined or angry. “Tennis is a mental game,” my dad would say. “Don’t let them break you.”

I thought about those unwritten rules while watching Williams play in this year’s US Open final. After the referee gave her a warning for a minor code violation, she protested, leading to a more serious penalty from the umpire, who called her response “verbal abuse.” Williams was visibly frustrated, and her game never recovered. It was clear she wasn’t just upset about a single penalty. From enduring racial slurs on the court to having her tennis outfit banned as “inappropriate,” Williams has been subject to discriminatory treatment for nearly two decades, simply for being a black woman in what is widely perceived as a white person’s game. After the match, the angry black woman stereotype was repeatedly evoked to describe her frustration, and cartoonist Mark Knight depicted Williams as a racist caricature that resembled a monkey throwing a tantrum on the court.

As an attorney at the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund (LDF), I know that the differential treatment black women receive from childhood takes a psychological toll. Last summer, LDF released a report documenting how black girls are more likely to be stereotyped as loud, angry and aggressive. When black girls challenge authority or violate norms, they are more likely to be punished at school for offenses subjectively labeled as defiant, disobedient, disrespectful and threatening. Like Serena, young black women are disciplined for wearing natural hairstyles, disproportionately targeted for increased surveillance and punished for dress code violations while similar clothing is interpreted as “innocent” when worn by girls of other races.

The result is that black girls are more likely to feel unwelcome and undervalued at school. In fact, black girls in Baltimore city schools are nearly five times less likely to have access to “gifted and talented” classes but four times more likely than their white peers to get suspended. The exclusion of black girls from school can have severe consequences, including being caught in the school-to-prison pipeline. During the 2016-17 school year, black girls in Baltimore accounted for 20 percent of school-based arrests and nearly half of the school-based referrals to the justice system. Yet, the majority of black girls in juvenile detention in Baltimore are held for misdemeanors and behavior that is a manifestation of trauma, such as running away.

Overall, this data tells us that adults are less likely to extend to black girls the empathy that other students receive and more likely to respond to minor misbehavior with punishment. Because of the harsh treatment they often experience, black girls are at greater risk of being pushed out of school entirely. One can imagine a similar impact in sports or other fields, where hostility toward black women serves to exclude rather than encourage, no matter their potential.

Some who watched Williams’ response will say she may have been treated unfairly but that she also showed poor sportsmanship. They will say it’s not clear whether bias against her as a black woman is what caused her punishment. In civil rights law, we call these “messy facts.” But most experiences in life have messy facts. Racism and sexism are rarely clear-cut and obvious; there is usually some reason that the discriminator can point to as evidence that their behavior wasn’t only because of race. But the larger pattern is clear: Black women and girls experience a disproportionate amount of discrimination from a young age.

I believe that’s what angered Williams during the Open match. She told the referee that she knew who she was, that he had gotten it wrong and that she wanted him to acknowledge the truth for the sake of her daughter. The referee continued to impose new penalties for her “threatening” words and behavior, but she would not stop — something inside would not let her be silent anymore in the face of what she perceived to be unfair treatment.

I was proud of Serena for speaking up. Sadly, like so many black women whose behavior has been mischaracterized and mislabeled for far too long, her protests fell on deaf ears.

Cara McClellan is a Skadden Fellow at the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, Inc. She graduated with honors from Yale College, received an M.S.Ed. from Penn Graduate School of Education and a J.D. from Yale Law School. Cara taught middle school with Teach for America in Philadelphia and is a co-founder of the educational advocacy organization My Sister’s Keeper Collective.