The White Tennis Aesthetic

10 09 2010


 As an avid tennis fan, I’ve learned that everything in life relates to tennis.

As a fan of theology inherited from such greats as Dr. Willie Jennings and Dr. J. Kameron Carter, I’ve learned that there are tons of things that speak theology that we simply have to train our ears to hear.

Everything relates to tennis, everything relates to theology.

Even tennis outfits.

At first my reaction to Venus William’s dress was one of embarrassment (see left-hand picture above). I asked aloud: what is she wearing? What is she trying to prove?

But as the matched wore on and the majority of the comments issued were that her dress  made her miss that volley or affected that backhand, I noticed something. The commentators were being unfair and in her outfit alone, making excuses to criticize and take cheap shots at her game (she won the match by the way). Outside of the matches where she wore two similar outfits which received passing comments of its shortness came courtesy of the Huffington Post, it’s flair from Lifestyle, its unconventionality from CBS News, all culminating with the slide show of Venus’ most controversial and interesting outfits from Bleacher report – all attempts to draw negative attention to her outfit, which somehow either directly “paralleled her talent” or “spoke of her flimsy judgment”.  

After processing her outfit, I came to a realization: I was being just as unfair as the commentators were for doing what many black people automatically turn to out of fear of judgment: secretly hope that her outfit was not received by Caucasians as misrepresenting the entire black race. I didn’t want people in the “classy” sport of tennis to have a bad perception of black people based on this one outfit.

I’ve repented since then.

I repented because I realized that her outfit had nothing to do with me, with us, with the black race, but it has everything to do with her and what we – commentators, true fans, enemies, and fans simply because she’s a black tennis player – place on her as prerequisites to be a black tennis player: a tight mold that only gives her the freedom and space to act and dress like a typical tennis player, a white (European) woman. I re-placed her into a mold she’s probably been trying to break out of, escape and deal with since she came stood out in the professional tennis scene in 1997.

I realized that her fashion was not about shame falling on an entire race, but it is about the fact that shameful fear can cause me to turn on someone who is advocating through her body and how she presents her body that different is okay. She doesn’t have to cater to a certain way of being and looking on a European surface; this exposes the expectations wrapped up in and bound to white women’s bodies that, I was afraid to point out, Venus (and Serena) cannot fit!  The mold is too small, too white, too one-dimensional.

I do have to give credit where credit is due. Some have begun to see that something about tennis fashion speaks to tennis culture. The only commentators who had something fairly concrete and positive to say about Venus Williams (Serena Williams) and tennis fashion came from two men. Commentators, Chris Muther (a white gentleman) and Bomani Jones (a black gentlemen) on ESPN commentary somehow got it! They, in an innovative and honest way, gave truthful (not judgmental) commentary about Venus’ other controversial outfit from the 2010 French Open. Muther said that she was willing to express herself, she was willing to be herself and “take a racquet to” the normal white way of dress.

Venus and Serena Williams are doing and saying something with their unique outfits and disregard for the backlash that we, especially theologians would do well to pay attention to. They are being themselves. They are showing people that molds are made to be broken, especially when they do not cater to your body and being.

As Dr. Jennings would say, they have entered into something only to break it open from the inside. They have a mission to destroy the norm and live out something radical and more holy, more honest, more honorable to themselves and to who God made them to be. Dr. Carter would include that their outfits and bodies push against the norms of whiteness and white performance in a game that they have been present in for a decade, but are only currently being noticed (through negative press).

Venus and Serena Williams are portraits of a God who is diverse and an artistic Creator. They are arguable the face of tennis because they are unique living into, not just with, their bodies, the color of their skin, the color of their flesh toned spanks, the fit of their tennis outfits, the curves of their arms and the texture of their hair. They are talked about so much because the tennis world has not quite figured out what to do with them. After winning numerous titles, comments must come from somewhere and unfortunately it’s centered around the way they dress their bodies.

They have infiltrated tennis with no warning and have changed the excitement around the game forever. And it was a violent infiltration, but an atypically violent one. Venus and Serena are not colonizers, they are settlers. They do not aim to force their aesthetic on others, but simply wish to have their own and it be respected and live in tennis harmony with the rest of their majority European surroundings.

Venus Williams, in commenting on her flesh-colored spanks under her 2010 French Open outfit said something so captivating that I’m still processing its exquisiteness. She said her outfit was expressive and that the flesh-color made it more beautiful.

The flesh color is beautiful. I think Jesus would agree. Refusing to submit to a certain aesthetic even in one’s undergarments is certainly making a statement about the appreciation of flesh and its skin tone.

Venus and Serena Williams (and even the style of play of Jamaican newcomer Dustin Brown who had the commentators at a loss for words with traces of condescension and disdain in the comments they did offer), I salute your mere presence and efforts to be you in the tennis world, no matter how controversial that is. Maybe we who are taken aback by unique fashion and clothing should be taken aback by our surprise. Maybe we should be surprised that we’ve been so calibrated to operate in a white tennis aesthetic that we cringe at any deviation from that norm.

Maybe we shouldn’t cringe at the black wave of candor and distinctiveness, but applaud it. Perhaps the idea of love and acceptance will take over and we’d worry less about who’s wearing what and come to grips with the notion that tennis culture is being pressured to step outside of a European standard and live atypically.

Tennis has been changed because of the Williams sisters; it looks like that trend will continue.

Maybe there is a model for the reconciled church in Acts and Galatians.

7 07 2010

Maybe there is a model for the reconciled church in Acts and Galatians.

In order to have the perfect reconciliation recipe you need (in my opinion) two things:

1)      A majority group and minority group who recognize that in being with each other something different (and oftentimes good!) can and will happen

2)      (More often than not) The majority group recognizes that it takes a lot more work and grace to do this new “together thing” and starts to tighten the reins on what is acceptable change, and what is just plain crazy.

And in Acts 15, Paul is trying to affirm the “just plain crazy” and the reality of the whole reconciliation situation: this reconciliation stuff is ridiculously uncomfortable!

It’s not peaches and roses like it was imagined. To be honest, it’s not okay with some people in the church body who were so eager to reconcile with everyone.

And some not so eager. The Pharisees still held to the fact that in order to be transformed, one must transform themselves to look like us. In other words, you can’t be us until you are like us.

But the point isn’t to be just like you. The point is to be just like Him.

The Pharisees were not like Christ, but interested in trapping Christ, setting Jesus up, outwitting Jesus and those who followed. And they looked stupid for doing it. Jesus can’t be trapped into being something or someone less than He is.

Jesus can’t be outsmarted. His way of reconciliation and life in God and with God’s Spirit is a model that freely accepts people without condition except to believe in Him. He does not require people to worship God as He worshipped, but to love God in their own way, to believe in Him because they have witnessed His glory.

For Jesus reconciliation was not about mimicry, it was about collectively becoming something totally different.

The Pharisees wanted to enforce a pre-requisite for others to be like them even though they were not the new model of reconciled life that Christ intended. They misunderstood. People weren’t converting to Judaism, they were de-converting from whatever life they once lived, whichever gods they did serve and moving towards an ambiguous following of righteousness, humility, and freedom that did not warrant certain dress, places of worship, specific rituals and the like.

Life in Christ didn’t mean joining the ranks of the Pharisees…Christ was too free for all that.

At least that’s what Paul was trying to teach/remind people. Christ has freed us up from the new guy having to become like the old guy. Instead both are made new. Both begin again. No matter how long one has been doing something, it is never long enough.

Many churches fall into the 2-step reconciliation model because those who own the church (the faith of that house if you will) are only willing to go so far. They don’t quite understand that it’s not about bringing people into your church to be transformed into yourself.

Reconciliation is a complete make-over of the church. Christ, the Reconciler, does not employ surface change. He’s interested in something completely new standing before Him as His bride.

The real question is, is the bride willing and ready to be transformed? Or does her transformation really translate into “trying out a new look” like someone tries out eyeliner or mascara? Is this a temporary cover up or a new yet permanent identity?

I don’t think Paul was interested in the Gospel he spread being a colonizing agent against the minority into the majority image. I don’t think Jesus wanted people transformed into the Pharisees image, or the Western church’s image, or the Methodist’s church’s image, or the Presbyterian Church’s image.

Both parties must change. And if both parties change that eliminates the backbone of this entire controversy: power.

In Christ, power is surrendered to His will. His transforming power overrides the power of the majority over and against the minority many are so eager to transform into their image.

Both parties are powerless and both parties are powerful in Christ alone. That’s it. Not powerful in budgets or buildings but in Christ. Money and longevity mean nothing. Both are beginning something new, and they’re doing this together, both as amateurs copying the Expert.

Don’t get circumcised for the wrong reasons. Don’t get circumcised at all. But rather accept the uncircumcised and the circumcised into your life because Christ’s death and resurrection wills us to. The laws and unwritten understandings and “this is the way we’ve always done it” mean nothing. But grace means everything no matter if you’re the majority of the minority…

…in Christ both have become beloved.

That is the picture of reconciliation. It refuses trends and patterns of acceptance and accepts anyway. It reject traditions that harm. It replaces custom with Christ.

I think Paul calls this grace.


24 06 2010

I was a third year at The University [of Virginia], or who most colleges would deem, a junior.  Super-excited about this class that would unlock a door to my ancestors’ religious landscape; I soaked in every word my professor spoke.

He knew so much.

And I marveled.

Because he was a white man.

His white skinned had graced my continent and my country more times than my dark skin had. 

His Western-white accent had had many more conversations with my people than I had.  Even though I knew more of them than he did, he had spoken and lived amongst many more.

“Yoruba Religion” the course was boldly named.  This course would teach me everything about me, everything about my ancestor’s religion before Christianity, everything. I was excited, but mostly about learning when my ancestors finally “got it right” and became Christians.

We learned about many orisha, or gods in Yoruba tradition. We learned about “Esu”, the mediating god. We learned about “Shango”, the god of war who could possess someone with extreme strength. We learned about “Osun”, the goddess of water. It all fascinated me. My parents never taught me this and it was refreshing to learn a little bit about the history of religion for my people.

We learned about the minor deities. We learned about the diviners, the priests. We even learned some detail about what we being posessed, claimed, changed, affected. We learned about everything and everyone except for the One I was waiting for.

So I waited and waited for Him, for Jesus. We learned that “Oludumare” or “Olorun” was God. I kind of knew that from home. My professor spoke of “Oduduwa” who helped established the first Yoruba kingdom and from whom Yoruba people descended. So I assumed, that he was the One I was waiting for.

I assumed he was the Jesus figure. I wanted him to be the Jesus figure. Because Africa needs Jesus. Their gods need to be erased so that Jesus can be.

“So if Olorun is like God, who is Oduduwa like?” I asked my professor.

“Well, he’s Oduduwa. He’s not really equated to anyone.”


“Yes. He is his own legend.”


And then it hit me. The colonizing affects of Christianity had taken hold of me and I hadn’t even realized it. I was so focused on converting these orisha into the right Christian parallel, that I minimized their significance on their own.

Why couldn’t I let Oduduwa be his own legend?

Do I follow him, no. But why must I colonize him?

Jesus is Jesus and “Oduduwa” is “Oduduwa”. Maybe I should leave “Oduduwa” to be part of the religious history of Yoruba people and leave it at that. Maybe a Christian urge to eliminate Yoruba religion is that colonizing Christianity I hate so much. Unfortunately, to many Jesus is a murderous force who came with guns, and weaponry, and  language of mastery and intent to colonize.

So maybe some Yoruba feel better believing in “Oduduwa” or other orisha. I can’t blame them. And I hope that one day they will see that Jesus isn’t clothed in the colonization that He was presented in. Maybe I will shed my ignorance and stop trying to equate Jesus to a Yoruba legend and this notion that He can forever replace history, culture and legend.

I don’t think Jesus came to erase history, but to correct it by shining a light of gentle love on those who are like and unlike Europe or the West.

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