Serena Williams with hands on hips
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Salamishah Tillet for the New York Times: Serena Williams’s Gift to Naomi Osaka, and Women, at the U.S. Open

In this Opinion piece for the New York Times, Salamishah Tillet unpacks the events of the women's final at this year's U.S. Open. 

Rather than remain silent, she insisted on being heard. Rather than contain herself, she used her rage for the countless women silenced by sexism and racism.

Serena Williams’s Gift to Naomi Osaka, and Women, at the U.S. Open

I’ve never booed so loudly in my life. I was standing in Arthur Ashe Stadium on Saturday at the women’s finals of the United States Open, and I barely could hear Serena Williams. She was protesting an unjust and unnecessary penalty that the chair umpire issued.

“This has happened to me too many times,” she said. “This is not fair.”

Williams’s vexed relationship with umpires at the tournament is well documented. Even so, I knew I was also watching another history unfold, a quietly revolutionary one.

In her defiance and dismay, we saw ourselves: women who play by the rules, exceed professional expectations, and yet, still find ourselves constrained by the Angry Black Woman stereotype, in which African-American women are portrayed as overly aggressive, impulsive, physically threatening and ultimately, less than human.

Williams had liberated herself of constraint. Rather than swallow her frustrations in the face of discrimination, Williams fought back and reminded the world of her greatness. In doing so, she gave her 20-year-old vanquisher, Naomi Osaka, an even bigger victory: the right to be angry and black and a woman — on and off the court. Her rage was for the countless women silenced by sexist discrimination, not a simple pleading for herself.

But too few people saw it that way. Many critics have simply ignored or trivialized those earlier disputed calls, which are essential context for understanding her anger. Even more egregious, Williams was the subject of an outrageous racist caricature in an Australian newspaper, The Herald Sun.

The cartoonist, Mark Knight, defended the image of Williams stomping on her racket with her pony tail standing upright, her features exaggerated so she looked like a monster. “Don’t bring gender into it when it’s all about behavior,” he tweeted, to which my former colleague, the historian Martha S. Jones, aptly responded that the image is a direct descendant of the racist caricatures of the 19th-century illustrator Edward W. Clay.

After the match, I commiserated with my black female friends. My sister told me she was afraid for Williams because she knew too well how easily black women’s expressions of rage could be turned against them.

In her defiance and dismay, we saw ourselves: women who play by the rules, exceed professional expectations, and yet, still find ourselves constrained by the Angry Black Woman stereotype, in which African-American women are portrayed as overly aggressive, impulsive, physically threatening and ultimately, less than human.

I’ve spent most of my adulthood running away from this cliché, opting to speak in measured tones when a white male colleague viciously spread false rumors about me or swallowing my voice when another colleague yelled at me in a faculty meeting.

By doing so, I became a far more unrecognized statistic: Studies show that black women are less likely than other groups to express anger in situations in which they are being treated unfairly.