Spencer, N. (2004) 'Sister Act VI: Venus and Serena Williams at Indian Wells: "Sincere Fictions" and White Racism', in Journal of Sport and Social Issues, 28 (2): 115 -- 35.
The two tennis players were due to meet in the semi-finals at Indian Wells, but Venus withdrew. The crowd were disappointed and booed. Serena got through to the finals and was booed throughout the match. Richard Williams [father and manager] claimed that he had heard racial insults and described the booing as '"the worst act of prejudice... since they killed Martin Luther King"' (116).
Many stories about these tennis players are 'frequently inflected with references to "race" and/or racism' (116). Some commentators insist that it is not about 'race' but about Richard Williams's manipulation of the competition between his daughters, and that he has raised the issue of racism. However, other commentators see the episode as one of a series of racialised events. The argument is that white people can create '"sincere fictions" that serve to sustain racist attitudes... [and]... make sense of their complicity in racist behaviours that are considered to be politically incorrect' (116) [compare this with techniques of neutralisation and denial, for example in Peretti-Watel ]. These sincere fictions play a part in the new kinds of white racism discussed below.
Spencer thinks that racism is still operative for some American society: forms of racism have changed rather than disappeared, and it is important to realise the historical context which gives meaning to contemporary practices. 'Critical race theory' sets out to expose the apparent tolerance and neutrality of contemporary liberal practice. Other approaches have set out to critique 'Whiteness' and its dominant conceptions -- this article sees the work on 'sincere fictions' as a contribution to that critique. [a more detailed discussion of the alternative approaches is found on page 118].
The new forms of racism can include 'dysconscious racism'-- where even though overt racism is denied, 'racist images or views' persist (119). 'Sincere fictions' can resolve this tension -- white people can see themselves as denying negative attitudes at one conscious level, while 'still participating in discriminatory practices' at another mythological level (119).
Racist theories used to be justified by 'scientific racism', where 'external [bodily] signs and innate abilities' were seen as providing the basis for discrimination, often linked with evolutionary theory (120). Nazism descriptive this approach, together with the emerging civil rights movement in the USA. However, echoes of scientific racism can still remain in sport, as in 'the obsession with Black athletic bodies' (120) [see St Louis for a very good discussion of this]. Certainly, the Williams sisters have been often described in terms of their physicality, which simply ignores the hard work and intelligence required to be a top tennis star.
'Cultural racism' relocated the key identifiers of 'race' into matters such as language, dress, musical and sporting tastes. This approach seems more ready to recognise black culture, and elements have been incorporated into the mass media. However, there is a paradox in that black people can be clearly marked as '"Others"' (122). The Williams sisters' hairstyles came in for some criticism, for example, as distracting.
'Commodity racism', renders 'race' as a matter of style, but here the commodity form oppresses black people, so that they become represented in terms of objects and consumer goods [the actual examples here are drawn in fact from feminist critiques of the commodification of women -- 123]. The commodity system organizes images into systems [Try Armstrong, on Nike's commodification of black culture]. Remarketing of black music is the example chosen here, using the concept of the 'culture industry'. Once more, black culture appears to be accepted by the mainstream, but that the price of keeping black people as exotics, as dangerous and fearful.
Sports stars have been commodified, as a number of studies show [see another Armstrong on Jordan -- there are other examples on page 124]. The Williams sisters have been drawn into the system of sponsorship, probably for the first time for black athletes [the absence of sponsorship deals for earlier black athletes seems to be seen here as some kind of evidence of oppression, however!]. Campaigns to promote the Williams sisters took off from a drive to make tennis popular again. Early images depicted them as'"Cinderella's [sic] from the ghetto"' (125) -- an image invented by Richard Williams himself. Black music also was becoming popular, and the commercial success of black athletes such as Michael Jordan and Tiger Woods. American images were dominating global markets as well.
However, the Williams sisters also attracted adverse publicity -- a minor clash occurred between Venus and a white player, and 'Richard Williams immediately construed the incident as being racially motivated' (126), and the subsequent tensions apparently threatened 'Venus's marketing appeal' (127). [Very hard to see what is being argued here. Did Richard Williams correctly diagnose the underlying racism, or was he over-sensitive, and if so for political or commercial reasons?]. Venus was also seen as arrogant towards other players.
Meanwhile the global marketing of women's tennis led to a demand for identifiable stars who would be able to also appear in movies and game shows. The Williams sisters handed over their career management to a specialist agency, which leads to sponsorship deals and celebrity status, including a profitable deal with Reebok. Apparently, the sisters earned 17.5 million dollars between them in 2000 (127). They also diversified into music video and television comedy. This has led to more racism, however, with accusations that they are exploiting their 'race', and gaining an unfair success because they're black [a common element of middle-class white races them, according to Cashmore as well].
The meeting between the sisters at the US Open in 2001 attracted considerable television coverage, and a number of black celebrities were in the audience. This time, the crowd 'greeted the sisters warmly' (129). Spencer says this might have been a way of forgetting the earlier booing, and separating mainstream fans from a racist minority. However, crowd enthusiasm also implied that Richard Williams had indeed fixed earlier matches so that the sisters would not play each other. Venus won the match, but a number of commentators suggested that the play between them was poor, implying that the fans were not receiving their money's worth (130). Subsequent encounters between the two sisters in finals did display better-quality play, but apparently fans became 'bored when they play so well that they repeatedly meet in the finals' (130). Thus 'It may be that whatever happens in the rivalry between Venus and Serena Williams, it is important to examine how sincere fictions obscure the operations of White racism' (130). [Again, it is hard to know what to make of this, since much depends on interpretations of fan behaviour, and whether or not criticism of the quality of play or the alleged management of competitions stand in their own right or as examples of racism].
Both sisters declined to return to Indian Wells, on the grounds that they did not appear to be able to entertain the crowd. The implicit possible racism has never been addressed by the tennis authorities [nor by the Williams sisters by the look of it]. There have been some interesting evasions though -- one organizer denied that the booing fans were actually proper Indian Wells fans.
There is still Martina Hingis's argument that the Williams sisters are using their race to sell themselves, and, as with female athletes using their sexual attractiveness it is hard to see tell whether this is '"good business" or "sexism"' (131). [Spencer seems to be concluding that the argument is an example of sincere fictions, however]. The ways in which the Williams sisters are seen as at fault however they play is also debatable: after all, 'agreements [to fix the outcome of matches in order to entertain the crowd] are known to be commonplace among players', including John McEnroe who has apparently confessed to this practice. So 'again, perhaps the suspicions are really about the operation of White racism' (131). Even the much more popular US Open final could have been 'orchestrated to present the face of racial harmony to the rest of the world, whereas the memory of Indian Wells remains obscured for most, just as many other racialised events have demonstrated in the past' (132).
[I am still not sure about this. I take the point that racism, like other forms of discrimination, clearly operates at a number of contradictory and subtle levels, while being denied officially. I also take the point that it is hard to avoid racist assumptions and stereotypes, given the history of real discrimination, and the continued practice of it, especially in the economic sphere. The problem for me is a methodological one. What Spencer has done here is to use an analytic technique based on what some people have called 'the hermeneutics of suspicion', the view that behind any seemingly innocent practice or statement can be found the exercise of power. Thus despite what the white commentators and organisers have said, white racism motivates what is said and done, even at a 'dysconscious' level.
There is much in this view, and it has been reported as an element of 'hyperreality' which is chronic in modern societies (see Eco). There is so much spin, PR, and the strategic manipulation of information that the public simply does not know what to believe any more -- did Bush invade Iraq to get his hands on cheap oil, or is that a smear circulated by his opponents? Or is the accusation that this is a smear another smear, circulated by Bush's powerful allies to discredit his critics? Or is this view a repetition of the first smear, designed to show how unscrupulous and manipulative Bush and his friends are? Or it is this just a view to show how devious Bush's opponents are? And so on. Once the hermeneutics of suspicion is engaged, it is impossible to turn it off.
The thing is that Spencer does turn it off. The statements of Richard Williams, in particular his accusations of racism , are taken as sincere. The suspicion against him that he is a shrewd manipulator out to make maximum money from his daughters, prepared to use allegations of racism to forestall criticism, is seen merely as an example of a 'sincere fiction'.
What lies behind this ready acceptance of the views of one participant, and the deep analytic suspicion of the views of others? It might be that the evidence supports one view rather than another -- but all 'evidence' must be open to suspicion. It might be the decision politically to stand with the group that has historically been oppressed, and to give them the benefit of the doubt for a change. It might be something else -- the tendency for liberal academics to grant to victims of oppression some unusual status as guardians of the Truth, the same sort of tendency that grants to the victims of crime, say, some particular privileged insight into the causes of crime.
Is my raising this issue here, with this topic, an example of a sincere fiction? Please let me know if you have a view...]
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