Content warning for the use of a racial slur in a quote and links to NSFW articles.
Continuing on the subject of Claudia Rankine’s Citizen: An American Lyric, I’d like to take a bit to talk about intersectionality. For those not yet familiar with the term, a brief explanation is in order. Intersectionality, commonly associated with the more inclusive third wave of feminism that emerged in the 1990s, is the belief that oppressive systems such as race, class, gender, sexuality, etc. interact with each other to complete complex individuals whose privileges and disprivileges intersect in unique ways. For instance, a black woman’s experiences are much different from a white women’s despite the fact that both are negatively affected by patriarchy.
This brings me to Rankine, whose work often focuses not only on the black body, but the black woman’s body. This is most evident in Rankine’s retelling of the moment when during a match against Serena, Caroline Wozniacki stuffed her bra and skirt with towels in a mocking imitation of Serena’s body:
“Wozniacki, it becomes clear, has finally enacted what was desired by many of Serena’s detractors, consciously or unconsciously, the moment the Compton girl first stepped on court.
Wozniacki … finally gives the people what they have wanted all along by embodying Serena’s attributes while leaving Serena’s ‘angry nigger exterior’ behind.”
In taking apart this quote from an intersectional perspective, I found myself coming back to the mention of Serena’s “attributes”. Rankine claims that these are what the public wants to see without dealing with Serena’s very human anger, but what are they? Well if they are, as Rankine states, what is being “embodied” by Wozniacki, then Serena’s only positive attributes to the public are the breasts and rear that Wozniacki stuffed in her impersonation. This is an uncomfortable realization, that Serena’s strength is not what is supposedly memorable about her, but instead her body that has been sexualized against her will.
Every time Serena stands up for herself, fights back against obvious bad calls, she is no longer merely a body to gawk at. She becomes human, and (worse yet), she has a temper. I can’t help but be reminded of the “angry black woman” stereotype that is applied to any black woman who dares to show emotion. Although women of all races face stigma for standing up for themselves (as the Ban Bossy movement goes to show), the backlash against black women who don’t stay silent in the face of injustice is so great that it has turned into a negative stereotype.
Also troubling about Rankine’s report on Serena’s “attributes” is its relation to the American tendency to fetishize black female bodies. This shows itself in situations from the seemingly tiniest of microaggressions (white commentary on twerking or black women’s rear ends in general, for instance) to the disgusting, as is the case with the entire subset of pornography known as “ghetto” or “ethnic” porn that sells itself on stereotypes about black women and treats them as fetishistic objects rather than whole participants in sex.
Serena does not go out of her way to be sexy when she performs as the best female tennis player in the world. She’s far too busy on the court to do so, but instead of admiration for her amazing ability to play, she receives the reduction of herself to a choice few body parts by white audiences. This makes it evident that Wozniacki’s “joke” is much more than simple competitive teasing- it’s an example of the rampant misogynoir in American society.