A Sharp White Background

As I read the first two chapters to Citizen I found one particular quote that stood out to me. On page 25, the narrator quotes Zora Neale Hurston in saying “I feel most colored when thrown against a sharp white background.”. This, to me, is one of the most powerful phrases I have seen. This is a statement clearly made about racism in America and states that she feels most colored when around white people, but also uses the word “sharp”. She is describing how it feels and the challenges you have to face being a black person in a world full of white people while also stating that it the color difference is only so noticeable when she is treated harshly for being black.  Throughout this chapter the most potent example she makes is the tennis player Serena Williams.

Today she is very well known being a very skilled tennis player, but she has had a rough and challenging career to say the least. In 2009 Serena Williams had an outburst on the court over a bias ruling that caused her to lose the match. The ruling was a foot fault meaning she had overstepped the bounds while serving. During this call Serena was already a game down and had 1 point left to lose the match. This call was made on a play where Serena had scored to tie up the round, but because with the call being made the rulings gave the point to her opponent and lose her the match. That being said it is a known custom in tennis to not make such trivial calls at such climatic points in a match that could decide everything. And even so others in the sport including McEnroe, a professional player, and the ESPN tennis commentator at the time all agreed that it wasn’t even a fault at all. In a fit of rage Serena swears at the lineswoman making the call. Although what she said was very offensive, There was much leading up to this scenario. That including the 2004 US open where she had been robbed of a match due to Mariana Alves’s aggressively bias calls forcing Serena to lose another important match.

All of this led up to her having a match in 2011 where a call is made, rightfully, and she gets into a small argument with the umpire asking if she was “screwing her again”. Aside from the fact the 2004 and the 2009 umpires were different she had many other instances of discrimination against her on the court. It is easy to assume this is probably an umpire from one or multiple of those instances. At this time Serena had become a very well known and well liked athlete, but it seems that all of that aside the community is very harsh towards her in particular. The quote “I feel most colored when thrown against a sharp white background” is personified by Serena so well because of her career as a tennis player. In her attempt to grow as an athlete Serena is constantly reminded by her white colleagues that she is black because of the poor and unjust treatment she constantly gets on the court.

Yet now she has slowly changed after achieving a few gold medals on the court she becomes less and less personal in the public eye. The narrator references “how to be a successful artist” by Hennessy Youngman on Youtube. This is a mock at society stating that in order to be successful you have to be white.  This is referenced here because we are getting into an era where time after time Serena is winning and slowly becoming less and less expressive about her racial pride. Even to the point of stopping her boycott of indian wells in 2015 after she is called out for lack of “dignity” and “integrity”over it. Serena had to separate herself from her career in order to be where she is today and to overcome the discrimination she is constantly faced, but instead of fighting it she eventually gives up on expecting better of her peers. She ultimately conforms to the white community in order to succeed.


Can you think of other athletes that experienced such extreme abuse throughout their career as well?

What do you think of the phrase “In order to be truly successful you have to be white.”?

12 thoughts on “A Sharp White Background”

  1. Can you think of other athletes that experienced such extreme abuse throughout their career as well?

    One athlete that has a story similar to Serena Williams is Jackie Robinson. He faced discrimination in baseball, which is a primarily white sport. Tennis is a white sport so Serena Williams faced discrimination. “The quote “I feel most colored when thrown against a sharp white background” is personified by Serena so well because of her career as a tennis player.” Both Serena and Jackie were expected to keep their temper under control in order to fight racism through sports.

  2. Another athlete who struggled with racism and oppression is Jack Johnson. He was the first heavyweight African American champion. He faced many obstacles during his career, including jail time for a petty act that was hardly deserving of conviction; leading him to flee the country. He also faced a large amount of violence from white fans who disagreed with the fact that he was allowed to fight. The quote, “If they don’t see happiness in the picture at least they’ll see the black” (2), really struck me and connected to your ideas. Even though African American should not be seen as inferior to whites, they are; regardless of their skill, talent, or profession. This quote embodies that idea.

  3. In response to your first question “Can you think of other athletes that experienced such extreme abuse throughout their career as well?” one athlete that comes to mind is Colin Kaipernick. If you are unfamiliar with this athlete, he is the NFL player that started the protest of staying seated for the national anthem. He was applauded by some for his actions, as many players followed shortly after, but many were disgusted with this movement. He refused to stand for a country that is racist towards African Americans. One of Rankine’s quotes that very much remind me of this situation is “…if ‘a nigger paints a flower it becomes a slavery flower, flower de Amistad’,…” and I think this suits because if a white person had started what Kaepernick had started, it would not immediately be about racism. However, because of the color of his skin it was assumed from that moment that it was a race issue.

  4. The first athlete that came to mind when reading your first question was Cassius Clay Jr. (Muhammad Ali.) He is a world-famous boxer who’s outspokenness on issues of race, religion, and politics made him a controversial figure during his career. During his time the Vietnam war was starting. Ali went to the scheduled induction and cited his religious beliefs, he stated that he refused to serve. This caused an uproar throughout America. This quote helps reminded me of this situation. “…if ‘a nigger paints a flower it becomes a slavery flower, flower de Amistad’,…” and I think this fits well with Muhammad Ali because if a white person had rebelled and didn’t want to serve it would have been an entirely different situation.

  5. Going off your question on the phrase, “in order to be truly successful, you have to be white”, I immediatly thought of Benjamin Franklin’s theory of the “american dream”. It’s easier to become something out of nothing and succeed if you’re white. Claudia Rankine states in her novel, “Citizen”, “this overlap is not the beginning of anything because she immediately points out that she, her father, her grandfather, and you, all attended the same college. She wanted her son to go there as well, but because of affirmative action or minority something- she is not sure what they are calling it these days and weren’t they supposed to get rid of it?- her son wasn’t accepted” (Rankine, 13). This quote is talking about how because someone is apart of the minority, they’re less likely to succeed as to how a white person would. For example, “Serena’s reply is to ask the umpire if she is trying to screw her again. SHe remebers the umpire doing this to her before”. (Rankine, 32). Serena is an outstanding tenis player but because she is colored, the game is sometimes unfair for her. The umpire is most likely calling a bad call due to racism. This clearly isn’t fair for Serena.

  6. One athlete that experienced such extreme abuse throughout their career as well that came to mind is Colin Kaepernick. He is a quarterback for the San Francisco 49ers. Racism pushed Kaepernick over the edge so he decided to do something very controversial to show America that he has to deal with racism. Kaepernick refused to stand for the National Anthem. This inspired people but also made many people angry. His action was seen as both a disrespectful and motivating act. A quote from Citizen that can be related to Kaepernick’s actions is when Rankine says, “The trees, their bark, their leaves, even the dead ones, are more vibrant wet. Yes, and it’s raining. Each moment is like this—before it can be known, categorized as similar to another thing and dismissed, it has to be experienced, it has to be seen” (Rankine, 9). This quote relates to Kaepernick’s action because he felt that racism needed to be experienced and seen, so he did something about it. Also, he tried to make racism be seen by doing something that isn’t typically appealing. Not standing for the National Anthem is like the rain, they both aren’t things we view as good and positive but they both created a strong message.

  7. Answering your question, “Can you think of other athletes that experienced such extreme abuse throughout their career as well?”, is more difficult than I thought. Athletes today are idolized by most people, no matter their skin color or what nationality or race they are. When I read the quote, “I feel most colored when thrown against a sharp white background”, I immediately thought of Jackie Robinson. He was the first African American baseball player to play in the major leagues, and definitely felt more colored considering he was the only colored player. He was heckled and called profound names, yet he kept his cool and proved everyone wrong by doing one thing: playing the sport he loved.

  8. I too thought the quote, “I feel most colored when thrown against a sharp white background,” (25) was the most important quote in the reading. The reason I feel that it’s so important is because it truly defines what racism is; people viewing others differently because of their skin color, because they don’t fit in with everyone else around them. Another message I interpreted from this quote is that racism only exists if you notice the black among the white, versus humans among humans. A human being can not solely by judged by the color of their skin, and by continuing to do just that, racism will never go away.

    I also like how you bring up the prime example of Serena Williams versus the reference of Henry Youngman’s video entitled “How to be a Successful Artist.” I think these two examples contradict, or perhaps complement the message each one brings to the table because in his video Youngman mocks society, stating that in order to be successful, you have to be white. However, the example of Serena Williams could perfectly lead into analyzing of all the successful African American athletes who have been discriminated against.

    Great blog post! I think you did a great job interpreting the reading.

  9. Cody,
    That same quote by Zora Neale Hurston stood out to me, as well because it helps me as the reader better understand what she is trying to convey which is what you said “…states that she feels most colored when around white people…”. To answer your first question about what other athletes experienced similar things that Serena Williams has faced, I had to think hard about it. I did some research because I am not totally familiar with sports teams and the players. One thing that I had found that was interesting is that when searching on google about African American athletes that 1/10 articles on the first page were about females whereas the rest are about males. Obviously, female athletes are not given the same standard as males which is portrayed on television. It is rare to hear people even talk about professional female sports compared to male professional sports. Overall, I really appreciated what you had to say in your blog. Thank you for your input!

  10. One athlete that comes to mind in a case like this is Colin kaepernick. He is much more of a recent athlete that has been going through abuse in his career. He is more of a black activist of our time that decided to use his platform as an athlete to stand up for racial justice. In our generation there is a lot of racial injustice happening, and those of the minority community have not been seeing anything done about it. Colin kaepernick almost lost his career due to his actions and caused a lot of controversy throughout the united states. But he was not listened to, he was automatically rejected and attacked by others and has been struggling throughout his career because of it.

  11. What do you think of the phrase “In order to be truly successful you have to be white.”?

    I think this phrase had more affect during times of extreme segregation and racism, but most certainly is applicable to what is happening in society currently. Some still believe that the white population is still considered superior to other races, even though the goal of today’s America is total equality. But the people who till believe that we all aren’t equal as human beings are the people that prevent us from reaching that goal. “While putting forward the argument that one needs to be white to be truly successful, he adds, in an aside, that this might not work for blacks because ‘a nigger paints a flower it becomes a slavery flower, flower de Amistad,’ thereby imitating that any relationship between the white viewer and the black artist immediately becomes one between white persons and black property…”. (34) Amistad is a revolt, based on 53 African natives being kidnapped from eastern Africa and sold into the Spanish slave trade, and then were sent on a boat to Cuba to be sold. Using this comparison in context with a video on How to be a successful artist/black artist is very intense all in itself. The author is obviously using this reference to show extremes. Comparing a time of legal slavery to a now thats considered the times of “equality” is bizarre, considering we have laws and morals against it. This makes a point to cause us to wonder, how much has actually changed? “She tells you you smell good and have features more like a white person”. (5) Is equality actually the goal, or is being white? If white is the goal and the epitome of success, then people should look up to me and want my lifestyle, correct? Not correct. I believe that the success of a person is not due to their race, but their hard work and strides to receive a prosperous life. If everyone would have this belief and take action in making strides for total equality, then we can eliminate the stereotype that white is right. Success is achieved by a person, not a race .

  12. Once I read the quote “I feel most colored when I am thrown against a sharp white background”(25) I thought of Jackie Robinson, baseball used to be a white persons game until the owner of the Brooklyn Dodgers(Los Angles Dodgers now) Branch Rickey decided to sign Robinson to a deal. When Jackie Robinson was making his way through baseball he faced several different challenges just like Serena was and still faces today.

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