Serena Williams is one of the greatest athletes of all time—but that doesn’t mean she hasn’t experienced prejudice and discrimination. On a recent episode of Sirius XM’s show Shade 45, Williams reflected on how she saw racial biases manifest early in her career, and how her family helped her get through it.
After one of the hosts said Williams is the first famous person she’s seen deal with a “hostile work environment,” the tennis champion replied, “It’s just something I had to grow used to, which shouldn’t be normal.”
She and her sister Venus both started playing at young ages, so unfortunately, mean-spirited crowds were nothing new to her when she reached the professional level. “It had to be normal for me to realize people weren’t gonna root for me in the beginning, because I was different and I looked different,” Williams said.
When she wasn’t focusing on playing her own match, Williams explained, she would notice how much the audience preferred white players, noting the reaction Venus’s playing would garner.
“I remember when my sister was playing, I could tell when she would win points and when she would lose,” she said. “The crowd would be really loud if she lost a point, and then there would be almost silence if she won the game or the point.”
“The same applied to me,” she continued. “I had to make people realize that it’s okay to be Black and to play tennis. And it’s okay to be good at it and to be better.” Eventually, she says, she realized the hate “wasn’t anything to do with me. It was just that I had to force people to see me because of my game. And let my game do the speaking. And I had to be comfortable with that.”
The key, she says, was family support. “Thankfully, my parents were so awesome and so pro-Black,” Williams said. “They really taught us from a young age that we’re gonna face different things that other people aren’t gonna face. And we were okay with that because we knew that we were prepared for that. We were prepared for anything that came our way. And we continue to be prepared for that.”