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The Daily Wildcat

The Daily Wildcat


    Column: Comments about Williams sisters draw on racist tropes

    A joke isn’t funny when it’s at someone else’s expense. It’s even less funny when its humor derives from centuries of oppression.

    The president of the Russian Tennis Federation, Shamil Tarpischev, has been removed from his position for one year by the Women’s Tennis Association and fined $25,000 after receiving backlash for ignorant and racist comments about women’s tennis superstars Venus and Serena Williams. Tarpischev referred to the women as “the Williams brothers,” saying it’s “frightening when you look at them” during a talk show interview.

    The issues start with the fact that Tarpischev, a white male in a position of power who represents a traditionally white sport with predominantly white athletes, is speaking flippantly and unashamedly about two black women whose experiences he does not understand. According to the 2010 census, Russia’s demographics are dominated almost exclusively by white Russians (not the drink; the people). Add this to the fact that the Atlanta Blackstar just named Russia as one of “8 of the Worst Countries for Black People to Travel” and Tarpischev’s comments become much more menacing and dangerous.

    The crux of Tarpischev’s comments, too, builds off of a history of oppression. Black women have been historically either desexualized to the point of masculinization or hypersexualized and deemed “exotic” or “other worldly.” It’s a lose-lose pattern, and it’s one that Tarpischev compounds with his “joke.”

    Tani Sanchez, an associate professor of Africana Studies, instructs courses on the construction and deconstruction of black women’s femininity and the history of oppression of black women. In response to the Tarpischev controversy, Sanchez said the root of the issue is, “very specifically, assumptions that black people are violent and frightening or that black women have some inherent lack or excess of femininity as compared to what is considered to be normative non-black femininity.”

    It should be noted, too, that Russian tennis superstar Maria Sharapova is taller than both Venus and Serena Williams, coming in at a height of 6-foot-2. And while Venus and Serena Williams, who are only 5-foot-9, get branded as masculine or somehow frightening, Sharapova is ranked as No. 1 on WondersList’s “Top 10 Hottest Female Tennis Players of All Times.” Serena Williams was ranked last; Venus Williams was not on the list.

    It follows, then, that Tarpischev’s comments are not simply about the Williams sisters’ size or body types but, rather, directly linked to their race. And this is what is most disheartening of all.

    “These types of ‘jokes’ are disparaging and inappropriate, and it is time to stop saying them,” Sanchez said. “What is just as bad is the pretense that the racist background does not exist.”

    So, thank you, Women’s Tennis Association, for punishing an ignorant white man on behalf and in defense of two black women. If only all sports leagues responded to these problems in the same way.

    There’s nothing “frightening” about the Williams sisters. The only terrifying thing is that comments like this still happen in 2014._______________

    Paul Thomson is a senior studying BFA acting and Africana Studies. Follow him on Twitter.

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