Serena Williams Reminds Us That Even At The Top Women Must Be Nice Or Risk Losing It All

Photo: Jon Kopaloff/Getty Images.
Saturday’s Women’s U.S. Open Final had nearly everyone cringing.
In theory, watching two powerful women athletes of color battle over a prestigious sports title should have been deeply satisfying — but that’s not how it turned out at all. In case you haven’t already heard, Naomi Osaka beat Serena Williams after chair umpire Carlos Ramos penalized Williams three times during the game, robbing the players of both a genuine win and an honorable loss.
I’m certain I don’t speak for myself when I say that the events that transpired during Saturday’s game were not unfamiliar to most women. Whether in the workplace, or in general society, women are constantly expected to be palatable and nice, even when we are rightfully angry. Saturday's game was a painful reminder that no matter how powerful or respected women are, they are not allowed to express a full spectrum of human emotions.
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For women of color, particularly Black women, racism and sexism fuse together to form an especially ugly variety of oppression, one which brands any and all manifestations of anger from Black women — the “angry Black women” stereotype — as misguided, unregulated, and irrational. Though white women and women of other races and ethnicities also suffer to varying degrees under the weight of obligatory feminine niceness, certainly Black women are the most affected by this gendered double standard — whether on the court or in the corner office.
In the workplace, these standards are particularly pronounced, and many women of color are forced to adopt work-appropriate alter egos in order to blend in and, hopefully, ascend in their careers. Regardless of how you feel about umpire Ramos’ judgement calls, Serena’s inability to freely speak her mind, even when she was rightfully upset, is reminiscent of the double standard so many working women face daily, both inside and outside of the workplace.
While men are allowed to lose their cool or enact their anger — their tantrums, their so-called “bad tempers” — as they see fit, women must sit and seethe in silence or else risk everything. According to a study published in the Human Resource Management Journal, women must be liked in order to be considered confident and influential at work. However, women must also be careful not to be ‘too nice,’ as this can also backfire.
The U.S. Open Final was distressing on too many levels to count. This game felt like a bad dream — one where I was suffocated by the reality that, for women, power, success, and prestige might not matter as much as we’d like to think. Watching Williams, arguably the embodiment of female athletic prestige, be belittled by a chair umpire as the whole world watched felt like an all-too-familiar humiliation that all women and girls watching would recognize as well. After all, Saturday’s game was added proof that no matter how hard women work — how successful we become, how unmatched we are in our achievements, how famous and powerful our names are in the world — if we forego our niceness, we risk losing it all.
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