Two weeks ago, as Wimbledon 2015 was well underway, one player in particular caught the attention of viewers and was projected across news headlines: Dustin Brown. 30-year-old Brown is ranked world number 102 and so when he beat Nadal on Centre Court it was big news; everyone wanted to know this previously unheard of underdog was. But most of all, the media was obsessed with Brown’s looks. There was a brown-skinned man with dreadlocks – oh, and tattoos – on Centre Court and that, rather than Brown’s game and skills, was the news that dominated.
Whilst is seems that most people welcomed the fact that Brown changed up the Wimbledon (or, rather, the tennis) status quo by way of his physical appearance (him being an underdog and beating one of the world’s top players aside), there was a subtle bigotry to be found in the language applied to Mr Brown.
Following Brown’s win against Nadal, an article was published in the Guardian which read: “Three days after the biggest win of his career, Dustin Brown, dreadlocks and all, will be back in action on Sunday.” The phrase “dreadlocks and all” suggested the writer was somewhat surprised at Brown’s being able to progress given his hairstyle; as if his dreadlocks should have limited his ability to succeed in the championships. In other words, Brown would be back on Sunday despite him having dreadlocks. That is not to suggest that the journalist themselves was prejudiced towards Brown because of his appearance but rather that the journalist, quite rightly, picked up on the fact that Wimbledon – and tennis as a sport generally – is not only overwhelmingly white but somewhat conservative, if not dated, in its rules and conventions regarding what is ‘acceptable’ and ‘appropriate’ (rules which Lewis Hamilton fell victim to when he was turned away from the Royal Box because of his attire).
Thankfully Brown has not let the mania surrounding his appearance phase or distract him from getting on with what he needs to do: training hard to further perfect his skills. Responding to the attention his looks had been receiving, and suggesting that some of it had not been positive, the German-Jamaican player said: “I am the way I am […] Obviously it’s great that people appreciate it. But on the other side, if I would worry too much about what people think, then I wouldn’t have the hair and definitely wouldn’t look the way I look.”
Rather candidly Brown also pointed out that who and what is considered ‘different’ or ‘unusual’ is wholly a matter of perspective, which in the case of Wimbledon and tennis is, generally, a white one. As Brown so succinctly put it: “It’s difficult when people ask me that about myself because for me it’s normal […] I could be sitting here and saying, ‘Why are you guys all different?’” Indeed, in 2015 that does seem a question worth asking? Why do so many players look so different from Dennis Brown? Why are there not more brown-skinned world class tennis players? Or, more players who do not come from financially privileged backgrounds?
The Evening Standard covered Brown’s victory with the following comments: “In the most surprising moment of Wimbledon so far, yesterday former champion Rafael Nadal was knocked out of the tournament by a dreadlocked man called Dustin Brown.” Interesting that, again, the focus is entirely on Brown’s appearance, which is noted even before his name. The description of Brown then becomes borderline voyeuristic as it hones in on the more intimate details of his physical appearance during play:
“He deftly finished Nadal off with an ace and celebrated with a twirl of those dreads and a flash of his torso, revealing a tattoo of another dreadlocked man.”
The Evening Standard also asserted that “fans describe [Brown’s] look as “more DJ or bass player than tennis player” before, somewhat randomly, sharing the fact that “[h]e last cut his hair in 1996.” The fact that people allegedly believe Brown looks more like a DJ or musician than a tennis player testifies to the fact that tennis is suffering from a lack of diversity, after all, who can really say – aside from perhaps muscular or athletic – what a world-class tennis player ‘should’ look like?
But it was a headline in the Daily Mail which really revealed just how far there is to go in not only dismantling prejudice in tennis but, more generally, in eliminating white supremacist view regarding what is beautiful and aesthetically pleasing. The headline stated: “Dustin Brown out of Wimbledon 2015 as Viktor Troicki tames dreadlocked sensation.” Even by the Mail’s standards, wow. “Tames”? And just like that the Daily Mail reduced Dustin Brown to a wild, primitive animal that needed to be sedated and civilized by a more orthodox tennis player.
This week the Daily Mail was at it once again, demonstrating racist ideas regarding beauty and conveying those black people who have chosen to embrace their natural appearance as in need of taming and bringing under control; a potential threat, in other words. This time it was superstar Rihanna who was the focus, with the article headlined ‘Rihanna rocks her wild curls …”. Next to the words were several images of Rihanna with her beautiful, glossy and defined curls. So why “wild”?
Brown, who grew up in Germany, has spoken about the racism he has suffered, recalling that “[t]here were a lot of problems, both at school and in the tennis world. A lot of people don’t talk about it for whatever reason, but racism was definitely around then, and still is now.”
It is entirely unacceptable for the natural appearance of black people to be referred to in terms that denote animalistic characteristics and imply the need for intervention to subdue and control their beauty (the exact type of centuries old degradation of black beauty that has historically led to so many black people trying to ‘whiten’ their image by way of skin bleaching, hair straightening etc.) Hopefully Dustin Brown is the first of a new generation of diverse tennis players and in the future the sight of dreadlocks or even just a black man on Centre Court will not warrant such hysteria.