Sports Illustrated

Sports Illustrated

At 5’11, I’ve been called a stallion many times. In the black community, calling a woman a stallion is usually intentioned as a compliment, and for many years I received it as such. A combination of cultural conditioning and an ignorance of history were responsible for my inability to fully understand and analyze the implications of likening me to a horse.

Now, though, both that conditioning and ignorance have been sufficiently cured, such that when I read about the LA Times headline comparing Serena Williams and the race horse, American Pharoah, I was enraged. Following Twitter backlash, the publication promptly apologized for and changed the headline, which read, “Serena Williams or American Pharoah: Who’s the real sportsperson of 2015?” Ill-intentioned or not, such a headline echoes vicious history and practice of comparing black people to animals.

Getty Images

American Pharaoh/Getty Images

The most common comparison of black people to animals equates us to monkeys, chimps or apes. It’s so common, in fact, that an Italian official callously tweeted a pick holding up a banana to a picture of the Obamas. And who can forget the now infamous LeBron James Vogue cover that drew immediate comparisons to a poster of King Kong? But the custom of equating black people, our features and our mannerisms to animals goes much deeper and reaches much farther than this typical example.

The entire system of anti-black racism is founded on the belief that black people are inferior. Accepting that notion, it becomes logical to parallel blackness and animalism, demonstrating, classifying and recognizing black inferiority in media, through imagery and language. It’s the reason video of rioters in Baltimore and Ferguson was looped, proving that black people are animals incapable of human restraint and civility. It’s why accounts of black men running through bullets, necessitating dozens, even hundreds, of rounds to finally put them down are retold and reprinted widely. It’s why the best dunkers in the NBA and hardest hitters in the NFL are described as “monsters” or “beasts.”

Predictably, black people inevitably and subconsciously ingest this strategic and constant presentation of us as animalistic. It spills over into our own language as we construct slang to relate black humans to animals. It’s the reason black men call their best friends their dogs (loyal, “man’s best friend”). It’s why curvaceous black women are described as Thoroughbreds or Clydesdales (strong and thick in stature). It’s why black women are called “hoodrats” (dirty, greedy, unwanted pests).

Still, the greatest evidence of a culture which relegates black people to animal status is the history of black humans being displayed in zoos. Black people possessing “exotic” or “unusual” features were literally caged like or sometimes with animals. There are documented accounts of black bodies being exhibited, naked and degraded, on display for the prying eyes, prodding hands and invasive stares of white people. Black people, within the last six decades, were held captive for the sole purpose of entertaining and satisfying the curiosity of white people.

So when the premiere tennis star, a black woman, wins a coveted title for her stellar performance record, hard work and talent, a split screen of her and a horse is unacceptable. There’s too much history that has shaped a current environment where blackness is synonymous, by perception, with untamed beasts and subhuman creatures for such a parallel to ever be drawn innocently. It’s dangerous and irresponsible. It endorses and furthers a violent, oppressive association of black physical and social attributes with barbarity, validating the irrational fear of black people responsible for the perception of us as inherent threats.

But even more than the damage wreaked on the black collective, juxtaposing Serena Williams and a horse boosts the racist climate already unapologetically rampant in tennis. Serena’s blackness — the braids, her chocolate skin, her famous celebratory Crip Walk – is as much a part of who she is as is her unrivaled skill in the game. That blackness is routinely mocked and blatantly disrespected. Lending credence to questions of whether she, despite having dedicated her life to tennis, having the third most wins of any woman in the history of tennis and conditioning her body to an irreproachable physical perfection, is at least a fitting choice for ‘Sportsperson of the Year‘ is outrageous. That there are human beings who would rather see a non-human crowned Sports ”person” of the Year is hauntingly telling of just how deep anti-black racism and misogynoir run through the veins of this country.

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  • Mary Burrell

    Serena looks like a boss chick in that photo.

    • Noirluv45

      Oh, doesn’t she, girl! She’s like, “I’m Queen Rena, and I own this ish!” In spite of what anyone says or how they mock her, she’s not stopping. In fact, they are probably pushing her to further greatness.

    • Mary Burrell

      She is a queen and she is at the top of her game. I get so sick of these racist maggots trying to come for her. She is beautiful and resilient despite her haters.

    • AMEN Sister.

    • Noirluv45

      Oh, me too, Mary! They KNOW she’s at the top of her game and they’re mad! Too bad, so sad. She’ll continue to reign whether they like it or not. She has a “don’t give an F attitude.”

    • Miss.

      Because she put together the concept herself!! I can only imagine the shitty, unflattering cover they came up for her that she went ahead and requested control for the shoot. What’s new…

    • Mary Burrell

      Yeah, I can see those maggots trying to put some crappy photo shoot together.

  • LogicalLeopard

    I have never gotten the “stallion” thing, because stallions are MALE horses. I tried to mention that in a chat room or forum years ago, and this woman said I was lying, because her family raised horses and stallions were female. Even the dictionary entry didn’t sway her. *L*
    But I disgress. Interesting topic. It’s sometimes hard to look at a perfectly muscled, yet sleek and feminine physique like Serena’s and not draw a non-human comparison, because (in a complimentary fashion) her body seems so peak human that it’s inhuman. BUT, we have realize the power of language, and the impact, and the historical connotations. And the racial connotations. Someone might look at a physically fit white woman (who was that woman on the Biggest Loser) and say, “Wow, she’s really ripped!” And they’ll look at Serena and say, “Wow, she reminds me of some exotic animal.” Why is that? There’s something behind that. Besides Rob Gronkowski, I can’t think of many other persons who are compared to animals regularly. And I took note of the Gronkowski ape reference just because it was pretty singular.

  • livluvlaff

    I think because animals are bought and sold like we were once upon a time, it is easy for them to say that about black people. I personally believe it is degrading because she should be considered beautiful and powerful like they would any other woman killing it in the game. I also believe taking the beauty out of what is supposed to be meant as a compliment is its main purpose for the comparison to animals. You can’t go around calling black woman beautiful because it might catch on. (This is most definitely sarcasm.)
    I also agree with the other posts. Serena is gorgeous in that photo.

  • Excellent Article From Sister La Sha

    A lot of things must be mentioned. There is a long history of the slander of black human beings and the comparison of black people to animals (which is evil and wrong). Our black bodies are valuable, we are human, and our black bodies should never be exploited for nefarious purposes. Centuries ago, European powers from Portugal, Spain, the Netherlands, England, Germany, France, etc. exploited the bodies of our black ancestors for economic exploitation, for abuse, for sexual exploitation, and for other perverted purposes. Yet, our black ancestors fought back against injustice to counteract the Maafa and the slave trade, which existed in North and South America. Today, Serena Williams has shown the world many truths. One truth is that femininity is diverse. Another truth is that there is nothing wrong with a woman, especially a black woman, being in shape, being athletic, or having muscles. So, we have to think progressively and constantly remind the world that beauty is diverse not monolithic. Black people have shown courage, strength, and excellent intelligence.

    Our human dignity must be respected in this world. This story reminds me so much of Sister Saartjie Baartman. Saartjie Baartman was a beautiful black woman, who was mistreated and abused by racists during the 18th and early 19th centuries. She was paraded in an inappropriate way and her abusers were never convicted. Saartjie’s memory lives on today. Thsi is why we stand up. We stand up for the little black child who seek love and compassion. We stand up to make our ancestors proud of us to and to adhere to the principles of altruism, and human liberty. We honor the beauty of black women by standing up for black women. We honor the truth by being a living example of not comparing black people to animals, but showing love and human respect to all black people. We are opposed to colorism, misogynoir, and other evils. We are inspired by our heroes and Serena Williams looks gorgeous and very beautiful in the cover.

    Serena Williams is an amazing black woman (her beautiful dark skin is wonderful) and I have great admiration for her and for her family.

  • blogdiz

    Well written article, anti black racism in the USA has never gone away its always in the background but has it peaks and valleys.i.e After Abolition. Reconstruction , the great Depression , Civil Rights t era etc. Personally I feel the election of Obama has triggered another dangerous peak of antiblackness and resentment and its only going to get worse

    • Chazz A

      Agreed. Also, having a black Prez for 8 yrs has left a lot of Caucasians feeling jaded. Perhaps this may be the reason these tea-baggers jumped on the Trump-train.

    • I agree with you. anti-blackness is the scourge of the Universe. Blackness is always beautiful.