It’s been a week of outbursts: from Joe Wilson, to Kanye West, to Serena Williams to Donald Winton, the heckler who shouted racist remarks at Williams from the stands. The discussions of these outbursts in the media raise questions about appropriate vs. inappropriate displays of emotion; free speech vs. speech that is deemed threatening; and displays of rage and whether these such outbursts are male prerogatives.
While most civil minded folks agree that it’s inappropriate and egregious to denounce the President as a liar on the House floor, the throngs of “conservative activists” who gathered in lynch mob fashion at the Capital have embraced Wilson as a hero who told the truth (actually, he didn’t). Was Wilson just emotionally overwhelmed by what he sees as the gaps in Obama’s health care plan or does his rage (and the extended ire of the tea party brigade) have more to do with the audacity of a black man to run this country?
This same “audacity” to disrupt the old order and disband the old boys club in part explains the reactions the tennis world has had to the Williams sisters since they entered and continued to dominate the game. To be sure Serena’s “outburst” should be penalized. But her behavior, unlike Wilson’s, is not an anomaly: Connors, Agassi, and McEnroe, to name a few are notorious for acting up on the court. What distinguishes Williams from her other outrageous counterparts is her gender and race. It is not “proper” for women to cuss out a line judge during a tennis match. For black women, these performances are expected and further proof that we are “crazy,” but we are not expected to be on the tennis court, much less to have the audacity to “act up” on it.
Acting up is different from “acting out” but sometimes the two blur. For Williams, cussing out the judge was acting up; making security remove Winton: acting out. Kanye West acted up (and acted a fool) at the VMAs but acted out when he spoke about George Bush’s failure to respond during Hurricane Katrina.
Acting out is not always deemed appropriate but is often an act of resistance. It can be oral, aural, physical and any combination of the three. Williams has acted out before by refusing to participate in matches or on courts that she found offensive. It is likely that, in part, her acting up stems from having to act out in order to play, and play hard, in a sport that is raced, classed, and gendered in hegemonic ways. I’m not trying to defend Williams’ actions but rather to frame them as well as the media’s (over)reaction.