The next great black tennis player isn’t black or white — she’s Madison Keys Her refusal to racially identify challenges the status quo
Madison Keys’ favorite movie is Pretty Woman. Her favorite actress is Julia Roberts. If a movie is ever made about her life, she wants Roberts to play her.
Madison Keys is black … at least according to us.
The Pew Research Center estimates by 2050 there will no longer be a racial majority in this country. “The Browning of America” is what people are calling it. What hasn’t been talked about is how this new, browner population will self-identify.
Keys — the first American woman to crack the top 10 in the WTA rankings since Serena Williams broke through in 1999 — has a white mother and a black father. For centuries, that person with that parentage would be considered black. Depending on how he or she looks, they would try to pass. But Keys isn’t trying to pass. In a 2015 interview with The New York Times, she said, “I don’t really identify myself as white or African-American. I’m just me. I’m Madison.”
A beautiful sentiment that will likely rub a whole lot of black people the wrong way. Keys’ desire to have Roberts portray her in a movie caught my attention because of the current focus on Hollywood’s propensity to do things like hire white actors to play African royalty (see Taylor, Elizabeth). The #OscarsSoWhite hashtag and proposed boycott of the Oscars erupted from the lack of diversity in the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences’ acting categories. One of the more precious moments of the broadcast was an interview with Mark Ruffalo, a left-leaning/politically active white guy from Wisconsin, acknowledging the film industry needed to do better while hoping to win the best supporting actor award for his portrayal of a Mexican-American. With that dynamic in the background, the idea that a 21-year-old black tennis star wants to be played by Roberts — not Kerry Washington or Taraji P. Henson or Gabrielle Union — is curious to say the least.
Unless, of course, Keys isn’t black.
In some regard, Roberts, who is dubbed “America’s sweetheart” in some circles, is the perfect choice. With her powerful groundstrokes, athleticism and magnetic smile, the Illinois native is primed to become the country’s next tennis star. Not star in the premature way Sloane Stephens was deemed the next big thing, but the star in the sense that she’s the one we’ve been searching for to eventually take the place of the Williams sisters. The tendency to compare Keys to the two of them is understandable given their styles of play and that they’re all presumably black. But while Keys looks up to the sisters, she doesn’t want her racial identity to be labeled in any way.
“I’m just me” is the mantra of the millennial generation. It is the country’s least religious generation. It is the generation most resistant to the binary constructs of man and woman or gay and straight. This was something 27-year-old actor Nico Tortorella made clear this summer when he recently came out as “sexually fluid.” And then after the gossip rags went crazy, he posted a photo on his Instagram account with this caption: “call me whatever you want, just call me. #niconiconico”
Pew Research even found that millennials don’t even want to be called millennials, which must drive advertisers crazy. How do you market to a bunch of people who don’t want to be identified in any way? It can be a bit of a challenge for those not trying to push products. People are resistant to change and we’ve been calling biracial people with a black parent, black for a very long time. When Keys begins winning majors, and is spending more time in the public eye, will the black community embrace her with the same level of pride with which we’ve embraced the Williams sisters? Or will we be put off by the fact she doesn’t want to be called black, reminding us of paper bag tests and light-skinned privilege? We certainly didn’t appreciate the way golfer Tiger Woods, who has a Thai mother and a black father, sort of said, “Thanks but no thanks,” though Woods’ generation didn’t rebuke labels the way Keys’ generation does.
Perhaps actress Meryl Streep should play Keys in a movie because she’ll have to be an iron lady to continue to resist being labeled.
Imagine: The long history of black champions chipping away at the socio-economic wall that has kept tennis predominantly white, from Althea Gibson to Arthur Ashe to Venus and Serena Williams, coming to a screeching halt. And not because the wall came down or that there isn’t a champion to pick up the mantle. But because the next great black tennis player isn’t black.
She’s just Madison.