Don’t judge Serena Williams: if you don’t make a fuss as a minority, you can’t make a change
Paul Letters says unless you know what discrimination feels like, you won’t truly understand why the tennis star raised a rumpus at the US Open. People who are minorities sometimes have to shout to be heard, rightly or wrongly
I used to be Mr Majority, with no experience of being a minority in any meaningful respect. White, male, middle-class and straight, I had everything except the ability to dance rhythmically. And yet I knew nothing – nothing about discrimination, that is.
It’s easy for white, middle-class males – from America to Australia – to deride Serena Williams’ on-court behaviour last weekend. Provoked by pigheaded umpiring decisions, Williams did raise her voice and call the umpire names (“liar” and “thief”). Nobody could say she carried herself with Christ-like perfection. However, until you’ve been in the position of a minority, with inequitable, long-established conventions and norms bearing down on you, then you can’t really understand. At least, I couldn’t.
A decade ago, my life changed. Not that I was in a war zone or car crash, I just got an unlikely sports injury that led to a pain condition in my leg. This is no hard luck story: friends call me “disabled lite”; I’m highly functional and my disability – chronic neural pain – is unseen. Taxi drivers give me a good look up and down before making it perfectly clear they expect me to put my own wheelchair in their boot. Which I do, on a good day.
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But the point here is that I went from out-and-out majority to disabled minority. Every bus lacking space for wheelchairs, every building in need of a ramp or lift, every disabled toilet used as a storeroom: it’s all against you, and it all wears you down. You shout loud and nothing may change. But nothing will change if nobody shouts at all.
Since gaining wheelchair status, I’ve had a raft of experiences that confirm this. To mention just one, this summer, I visited Barcelona football club for a tour with my family. Wheelchair users pay the full price in advance online, without any visible warning that – as it turns out – most of the stadium is inaccessible.
My family were separated from me without warning, to join everyone else in visiting the changing rooms and heading through the players’ tunnel and out onto the pitch. At first, I quietly complained to nearby staff, who agreed but said there was nothing they could do. I thought otherwise. So, moving to the most public location – an official’s desk next to where crowds were queuing to get in – I argued loudly. I didn’t swear or call anyone names, I just presented my case, at high volume. I was encouraged to leave. I said I’d only do that once the director in charge of the stadium tour came down. Which he did.
Initially, he told me off for shouting. But then I made my case in private in his office and have remained in badgering contact ever since. Last week, the director informed me by email me that FC Barcelona had just held a meeting, passed a motion to make tickets half price for the disabled, and avowed to make the tour restrictions clear on the website. If somebody had not raised their voice and got a little emotional, nothing would have changed.
“Making a scene” will cause collateral damage: innocent bystanders will feel uncomfortable. In Flushing Meadows, the remarkable new US Open champion, Naomi Osaka, deserved much better.
However, Williams raised her voice, questioned unfairness and kick-started an overdue debate about sexism in tennis (not to mention racism in the media). She has drawn attention to everything from whether the French Open is right to ban clot-reducing catsuits like the one she wore (because she suffered a potentially fatal pulmonary embolism in 2011) to the justice of penalising Alizé Cornet at the US Open for changing her shirt around on court (it had been on back to front). For the record, Cornet was wearing a decidedly unrevealing sports bra. Men regularly sit on court half-naked.
Central to the debate is the degree to which men are treated more leniently. And we all know, it’s not just tennis. A man can stand up for himself without being lambasted as “hysterical”. A vociferous woman in a wheelchair, at FC Barcelona or just about anywhere else, would have less chance of being heard.
Paul Letters is a novelist, journalist and historian. See paulletters.com