Serena Williams, Power Dynamics, and “Black Exceptionalism”

Were you one of the millions of viewers to watch Serena Williams play (what is expected to be) her final match of tennis at the US Open last week? Just a few weeks earlier, Williams announced her farewell to tennis after a truly extraordinary career. She was careful with the words she used: “I have never liked the word retirement. It doesn’t feel like a modern word to me. I’ve been thinking of this as a transition, but I want to be sensitive about how I use that word, which means something very specific and important to a community of people. Maybe the best word to describe what I’m up to is evolution. I’m here to tell you that I’m evolving away from tennis, toward other things that are important to me.” Of course, athletes do occasionally change their mind after announcing their retirement (ahem, Tom Brady), but Serena Williams’ announcement reminded me of an eye-opening activity about power dynamics that uses the 2018 US Open final between Serena Williams and Naomi Osaka as a case study.

In the large group activity, introduced to me by education and DEI consultant Shauna Brown Leung, participants watch a 15-minute portion of the final, during which the chair umpire Carlos Ramos gave a formal warning to Williams’ coach Patrick Mouratoglou for coaching from the stands (Mouratoglou admitted after the match that he was, but stressed that all coaches do, and that the players are too focused to tune in to what the coaches are suggesting in the moment). Williams disputed the call, stating that she would rather lose than cheat. Following an unforced error on Williams’ part, she threw her racket to the ground and broke it. Ramos gave her a penalty for breaking her racket, and further disputes ensued. “You owe me an apology,” Williams says to Ramos, loudly emphasizing certain words. “I have never cheated in my life. I have a daughter and I stand for what’s right for her and I have never cheated. You owe me an apology.” She calls him a thief for taking a point, and he responds by calling another code violation and giving her a one-game penalty. Naomi Osaka, who idolized Serena Williams from a young age, attempts to remain focused in her biggest match to date. If you haven’t seen the end of this match, I won’t spoil anything, but it is hard to watch without experiencing complicated emotions.

In the activity, participants then attempt to take the perspectives of four different people involved in the situation – Patrick Mouratoglou, Carlos Ramos, Serena Williams, and Naomi Osaka. What were they thinking, what were they feeling, what were they protecting and defending? Effectively, what were the power dynamics in play? These role-play thoughts are shared anonymously, which results in some pretty raw and unfiltered responses, and a powerful exploration of how power is enacted in matters of race, gender, and hierarchical structures: Power Over, Power With, Power To/For, and Power Within.

One perspective that sometimes comes up in these discussions is that the idolization of Serena Williams – like that of Beyoncé, Michael Jackson, Simone Biles, Prince, and many others – highlights the idea of “Black Exceptionalism“: the sense that her inherent value stems from her excellence in her chosen field and comes from God-given talent rather than dedication, persistence and intense hard work. Black Exceptionalism suggests Serena Williams should be exempt from racism and discrimination because of her contribution – implicitly suggesting, of course, that people of color who are not recognized as exceptional somehow deserve the discrimination and racism they face. We’ll return to Black Exceptionalism in a future piece, but in the meantime, how can Serena Williams’ farewell to tennis help us to become better leaders this week?

This week’s tips:

  1. Try your own personal version of the 2018 US Open case study activity outlined above. Start by watching the video, by yourself or with a trusted friend or partner who can do the activity with you. As you take the perspectives of the four participants – Patrick Mouratoglou, Carlos Ramos, Serena Williams, and Naomi Osaka – notice what comes up for you. As you role-play each person, what are they thinking in that role? What are you feeling? What are you protecting and defending? How do you see the various types of power (Power Over, Power With, Power To/For, and Power Within) in action?
  2. Try the same activity using a situation from your workplace. Ask which people’s perspectives should be considered, and go through the same steps as before, including the same set of questions. What do you notice as you do so? How might this affect your actions differently?

Try this out this week, and let us know how it goes in our Facebook group! We’d love to hear from you. As always, you can subscribe to our feed here, or sign up for our weekly newsletter to get these articles directly in your inbox.

Published by Ian Jackson

Ian Jackson is the founder of Building Bridges Leadership, which works with individuals, teams, and organizations to create authentic community in the workplace. He also writes children's fiction and teaches creative writing.

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