Editor’s Note: David A. Love writes for thegrio.com, a website dedicated to covering news in the African-American community. He is a writer and commentator based in Philadelphia. Follow him on Twitter: @DavidALove. The opinions expressed in this commentary are his. View more opinion articles on CNN.
In the 21st century, black people are still subjected to forms of racial discrimination that feel – and should be – things of the past. White standards of beauty still dictate that the features of black people are undesirable and their cultural styles are inappropriate and unacceptable. The unfair, arbitrary treatment that tennis great Serena Williams recently received from the French Open over her iconic black “catsuit” is a case in point.
Williams first wore the outfit in May during her first grand slam match since giving birth. Without a proper explanation, French officials announced in the 500th edition of Tennis magazine they would ban Williams’ catsuit from the tennis tournament. “I think that sometimes we’ve gone too far,” French Tennis Federation president Bernard Giudicelli said, adding that Williams’ catsuit “will no longer be accepted. One must respect the game and the place.”
Reminiscent of the popular film Black Panther and the fictional African country of Wakanda it depicts, Williams’ outfit is both a fashion statement and a potent symbol of women’s empowerment. But it also serves a medical purpose, which is to prevent the star from developing further blood clots after the life-threatening birth of her first child.
The vague explanation from the French Open smacks of racism and sexism, and suggests that men in a position of power should be able to dictate Williams’ style – ostensibly in an effort to make sure it comports with white standards of beauty. They are singling out this superior athlete and beautiful woman, despite the fact that she is not the first tennis player to wear a catsuit. In 1985 Anne White, a white player, wore a shiny white catsuit to Wimbledon.
This begs the question: Is the issue really Serena’s catsuit, or that Serena is too black for tennis?
Prominent voices took to social media to express their outrage and speak out on Williams’ behalf.
“The policing of women’s bodies must end,” tweeted tennis legend Billie Jean King. “The ‘respect’ that’s needed is for the exceptional talent @serenawilliams brings to the game. Criticizing what she wears to work is where the true disrespect lies.”
“You can take the superhero out of her costume, but you can never take away her superpowers. #justdoit,” Nike tweeted.
But this is not the first time Williams has been treated unfairly. She has faced, by her own account, discriminatory drug testing and, like many black women, has been objectified for her body parts and treated like an animal specimen.
Nevertheless, she is taking it in stride, responding to the controversy like a true professional. “We talked yesterday – everything is fine guys,” Williams said of Giudicelli. “When it comes to fashion you don’t want to be a repeat offender.”
However, everything is not fine for the black women who have lost jobs for what they wear – or for those who have been made to feel less beautiful for failing to portray the European aesthetic. This is nothing new.
In 1971, black anchorwoman Melba Tolliver was nearly taken off the air on WABC for failing to wear a hat or a scarf to cover her afro while covering the White House wedding of Tricia Nixon Cox, daughter of then-President Richard Nixon. “I hate your hair,” the news director told Tolliver, who decided to no longer straighten her hair, at a time when many black women were going natural. “You’ve got to change it. And you know what, you no longer look feminine.” The station backed down, in what became a public relations embarrassment for them.
Today, nearly five decades later, times haven’t changed that much, as black women are allegedly disciplined and fired for braided hair and “ethnic” attire, for wearing hairstyles deemed too “urban,” unkempt, messy and unnatural. A federal court even ruled in 2016 that a company could fire a black woman for wearing dreadlocks, which dates back thousands of years and has cultural and spiritual significance. This is not surprising, given the overwhelming whiteness and maleness of the federal judiciary – which is becoming even less diverse and inclusive under Trump – and the promulgation of laws that fail to factor people of color into the equation.
Meanwhile, as Serena is policed for her blackness, African-American children face discipline, even detention and suspension due to school dress code violations and zero-tolerance policies for their hairstyles. These dress codes bear curious similarities to the black codes of the Reconstruction era, designed to keep people of African descent in their place. Recently, Faith Fennidy, a black 11-year-old, was sent packing from her classroom in Christ the King Parish School in Terrytown, Louisiana, in tears because her braids tied in a ponytail violated school policy. In a video that went viral, a 6-year-old black boy was turned away from a Christian academy in Florida on the first day of school for wearing dreadlocks.
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Last year, a black high school student in Monroe, Louisiana, was not allowed to attend class because his hair was dyed blonde in honor of NFL player Odell Beckham Jr., while a London school told a 12-year-old black boy he would be placed in isolation and face suspension if his mother did not cut his dreads. And back in 2009, a white teacher in Milwaukee cut off the braid of a black first grader Lamya Cammon, allegedly because she would not stop touching her hair. The teacher was fined a mere $175 for disorderly conduct.
On this 500th anniversary of the transatlantic slave trade this month, black people are still policed for their physical characteristics, reflecting the ongoing problem of racial discrimination and the criminalization of blackness. The only way to overcome this injustice is to seek a new, broader definition of beauty, and ensure that in tennis and elsewhere, the decision makers reflect the true makeup of our society.