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.
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.