Adora Tobias, 13, Tatum Primus, 9, Gianna Felder, 11, Deja' Dimps, 10, and Daelyn Dimps, 11, at the Southeast Tennis and Learning Center in the District. (Courtland Milloy/THE WASHINGTON POST)
Columnist

At a tennis summer camp in Southeast Washington, a group of black girls had gathered in front of a TV set to watch the Wimbledon women’s tennis championship. There were five of them, and they were all smiles.

I love those smiles.

A smile on any child’s face can be pleasant. But on these black girls, it was a thing of beauty. To me, their bright eyes and cheery expressions aren’t just signs of happiness but also symbols of myriad inner victories in an unfathomable battle against racism and sexism. Every smile a triumph over ever looming despair.

One of the girls, 13-year-old Adora Tobias, told me that she liked tennis because “you can be your own self on the court.” Was it difficult for the girls to be themselves off the court, in their everyday lives?

All of them nodded, yes.

You could dismiss their concerns as typical childhood feelings of being overly constrained. But a study released last month by Georgetown Law’s Center on Poverty and Inequality found other reasons black girls might be having trouble being themselves.

Adults tended to view black girls as “less innocent” and “more adultlike” than their white peers, “especially in the age range of 5-14,” the study said. Black girls were perceived as needing less support and less protection than white girls. Black girls were viewed as needing harsher punishment in schools and courts and fewer second chances than white girls.

Given how early the deck gets stacked against black girls, it’s a wonder that all of them don’t have frowns permanently etched into their faces.

On the tennis court, all-time greats Venus and Serena Williams have served as role models for how black girls can handle racism and sexism in their sport. Off the court, a different kind of role model was needed to help them hurtle the obstacles. For the girls at the Southeast Tennis and Learning Center, those role models could be found in their parents.

To hear how much work went into raising their healthy and happy girls so far, you’d never take a smiling face for granted again.

“We just have to work harder to make our girls happy with themselves because we are going against the European standard of how a girl should look and act,” said Alva Tobias, Adora’s mother. “My daughter use to go into [tennis venues] where she was the only one with dark skin, and she would ask, ‘Why is my skin like this?’ and ‘Why is my hair like that?’ I’d make sure she understood that there is nothing wrong with her skin or her hair. I’d tell her, ‘You are beautiful. You did not come from slaves, you came from kings and queens and scholars and doctors. You did not come from mediocrity, you come from greatness.’ ”

Valerie Felder, mother to 11-year-old Gianna, tells her daughter to stay true to herself, no matter how others may view her.

“I’m teaching her to just be the best person she can be,” Felder said. “Serena Williams says she doesn’t want to be known as the ‘best female tennis player’ or the ‘best black tennis player.’ She wants to be known as the best tennis player. Of course, the reality is that as soon as she walks onto a tennis court the first thing people see is a black woman. So we are stuck with the labels but you still don’t have to let yourself be defined by them.”

As hard as Alva Tobias works to keep her daughter smiling, sometimes she has to call for her daughter to put on the “game face.”

“It can be very hard for girls with dark complexion to step into the tennis arena and be taken seriously,” Tobias said. “So we can’t smile. We can’t socialize. It can be tiresome. But you have to stay vigilant. You have to make sure that your daughter is being treated correctly and not being profiled or stereotyped.”

Both Alva Tobias and her husband are in the Air Force, which she noted by way of explaining her use of military analogy.

“It’s like going into battle,” she said.

But she also wants her daughter to be a little girl. “I want her to know that they should be having fun, first and foremost, and if they are not enjoying what they are doing, if it becomes too heavy, then we have to rethink it. But there is no escaping the fact that we live in a world where showing your weakness for even a moment is not an option, because the world will eat a little black girl up in a heartbeat.”

At the tennis camp, the concerns of the parents were a world away. The girls were talking about dreams for the future. Noting that Venus had turned pro at age 14 and Serena at age 13, some thought that might still be a possibility for them. But if not, they’d settle for being a lawyer — or owning a corporation.

Then they went outside to play — their parents hard work still paying dividends in smiles and laughter.

To read previous columns, go to washingtonpost.com/milloy.