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Serena has long been a symbol for Black women

  • THE CANADIAN PRESS VIA ASSOCIATED PRESS
                                Serena Williams, of the United States, serves to Belinda Bencic, of Switzerland, during the National Bank Open tennis tournament Wednesday in Toronto.

    THE CANADIAN PRESS VIA ASSOCIATED PRESS

    Serena Williams, of the United States, serves to Belinda Bencic, of Switzerland, during the National Bank Open tennis tournament Wednesday in Toronto.

Group chats light up, snacks are gathered and work is pushed aside when it’s time for Serena Williams to play tennis.

But the #SerenaAlert hashtag that floods Twitter when she takes the court is not just a signal for a sporting event — it’s also a rallying cry for Black women that it is their time to shine.

Williams, with her deep-brown skin and curvy body shape, has experienced racism, sexism and body shaming throughout her career that many Black women can relate to. So when she takes the court — in all white at Wimbledon, in catsuits, in braids or as a blonde — many Black women come together to support her and, in a sense, support themselves, too.

“For me, Serena has always been Black excellence and misunderstood,” said Cari Champion, a journalist and television host who is Black.

Champion runs Brown Girls Dream, a mentorship program for women of color that has received financial support from Williams. “I just love her for always being honest and true and authentic to who she is, whether it was received well or not,” Champion said.

Black women, especially those with darker skin tones such as Williams’, are often perceived as less feminine than white women. In 2014, Shamil Tarpischev, then the president of the Russian Tennis Federation, was fined $25,000 and suspended for a year by the Women’s Tennis Association after he referred to Williams and her sister Venus as “the Williams brothers.” He also said it was “frightening when you look at them.”

In a 2018 interview with Harper’s Bazaar UK, Serena Williams said those kinds of comments were “hard for me.”

“People would say I was born a guy, all because of my arms, or because I’m strong,” she said. “I was different to Venus: She was thin and tall and beautiful, and I am strong and muscular — and beautiful, but, you know, it was just totally different.”

Coco Gauff, who is Black and one of the rising stars in women’s tennis, said Tuesday at a tournament in Toronto that Serena Williams was “the reason why I play tennis.”

“Tennis being a predominantly white sport, it definitely helped a lot because I saw somebody look like me dominating the game and it made me believe that I could dominate, too,” she said.

Champion is often among the Black women on social media alternately rooting for Williams and challenging people who make negative comments about her or downplay her accomplishments. Champion said that with 23 major singles titles, Williams should be seen as one of the greatest athletes ever — male or female — but many recognize her only as a great female athlete.

“Black women understood that,” Champion said. “We understood when people cannot see our contributions to society.”

Champion said Williams and Justice Ketanji Brown Jackson, who in June was sworn in as the first Black woman on the U.S. Supreme Court, are important because they show Black women and girls that they can “succeed at all levels.”

“Serena is a self-made woman in a world that didn’t really understand who she was,” Champion said.

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.

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