Serena Williams Caricatured By a White ‘Friend.’ Was Her Response Appropriate?

A few weeks ago, A well-known Danish tennis player named Caroline Wozniacki drew a lot of attention for her rendition of Serena Williams’ physique and demeanor. To be sure the audience knew exactly who she was emulating, Wozniacki stuffed her top and skirt with padding and towels. Her normally petite frame was a padded mess of bulbous humor as she grunted and groaned for an entire round of tennis. Some have spoken out about this behavior noting that it was racist and an overt stereotyping of black women’s physical features. But, were these reactions overblown? Was Wozniacki simply poking fun at her friend in jest?

Williams herself had remained relatively quiet about this issue up until recently. In an email to USA Today last week, Williams seemed unaffected by the impersonation.

“I know Caro and I would call her my friend and I don’t think she (meant) anything racist by it.”

From this response, it appears that Williams would rather move past it than wallow in what she deems a petty and irrelevant joke. She noted, in the same email, that other tennis players had done similar things but were not labeled ‘racist.’ So, she could not understand why Wozniacki’s behavior was judged so harshly. But, the world recognized tennis player did say that Wozniacki may want to forgo the caricature next time.

“I must add if people feel this way she should take reason and do something different next time.”

As a black woman, I will admit, I found the visual parading of Wozniacki in front of a predominantly white male audience extremely offensive. It reminded me of a minstrel show more than anything else. To think that a woman as beautiful and accomplished as Serena Williams could be made fun of on such a large stage (with no recourse mind you) is truly astounding. Additionally, the nature of the joke hits an especially sensitive chord with many in the black community. The magnitude of discrimination that black women have faced over the years because of our physiques is innumerable. But, to have an audience chuckle as a white woman mocked a black female celebrity of Williams’ caliber was seen, at least in the black community, as one hundred percent racist.

We are all familiar with the stereotype of the Jezebel. And, Wozniacki’s behavior harkened back to this illusory symbol of the black female image. But, the Dane probably had little knowledge of this American creation since she has likely had little access to black American culture or American culture in general.

Some have noted that the lack of consequence for Wozniacki’s ‘impression’ of Williams seemed lopsided. This summer, Williams received harsh criticism for ‘crip walking’ after she won Olympic gold at Wimbledon. The dance was highlighted as “gang-related” and “popularized by gang members.” This occurred even though folks all over the world have been doing the dance for many years. And, Williams is from Compton, the city where the dance basically started. Williams has no history of gang violence and loves to dance. But, her decision to do so after the conclusion of one of the greatest tennis matches of her lifetime was met with immediate disapproval.

Many have simply shrugged off Wozniaki’s antics without a second thought. Even though her behavior was highly offensive to many in the black community, she offered no apologies or explanations. And, it seems Williams was fine with that. On the other hand, Williams herself has been the target of racialized epithets in other settings. She has been brought to the fore on her perceived lack of sportsman-like conduct. But, when others have targetted her, she has done little to disabuse them of their stances. Should she have said something in this case? What was the appropriate response?

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