There are not many people who wouldn’t have seen the news about the Serena Williams vs. Naomi Osaka match at the US open, and so that isn’t the subject of this article today. Instead, I am here to talk about the heated debate over a cartoon drawn by the Australian cartoonist Mark Knight, which you can see below. According to Knight, the drawing is supposed to represented what he saw as the poor sportsmanship and “childish” temper which lost Williams the match, but that isn’t quite how it came across online.
Instead, critics ranging from The Guardian staff to J.K Rowling railed against what they saw as a racist caricature of an internationally renowned and successful black woman. But to understand why they saw it this way, one needs to understand the historical baggage that comes with depicting black people in these satirical forms; and more specifically, how they relate to the “sambo” and “picaninny” images of old. The book below, Little Black Sambo, has a similar history to the Golliwogs in that it was a popular household fixture with a troubled, racist past. The depiction of Sambo on the front, and the fact that many characters captured within depend of stereotypes of black people, make any future likeness to it problematic from the get go. The big lips and tied up hair are common images, and ones that you can find in Mark Knight’s cartoon.
Alongside this is another, though all the more grotesque image, which stems from old Americana and its vitriolic satire. Similar tropes can be found within both examples, such as the big lips, an exaggeration of black skin and tied up hair, but on top of this the second image illustrates something more with its use of text. The use of broken English is no mistake, for the three contractions in the speech represent what is seen as a lack of education within the American black community. Ignorance and small-mindedness have been commonly associated with blackness throughout history; and so, when a comic is released depicting a black woman as babyish, ignorant and close-minded, all with the trappings of near-Sambo illustration, people are bound to come out in opposition.
But the sensitivities of the image’s opponents did not stop the artist’s paper, Herald Sun, from mocking their complaints. Their front page article, which you can see above, bemoans what they see as “snowflake” culture and media censorship. To them, Knight’s caricature of Williams is nothing different to his other political and cultural satire-pieces. The article shows this with an array of mocked characters and political figures whose likenesses are at times worse than that used with Serena. The claim of racism, when seen in this context, comes with some complications, posing the question: is there any way that you could draw Serena in satire without giving offense?
Giving further weight to Knight and Herald Sun’s side is the fact that this isn’t the only cartoon the artist has made about sulky players. Above, you can see another drawn only a few days before, in which Nick Kyrgios’ behaviour is also lambasted for being bad-tempered and childish. Is it possible to claim racism on part of the Williams cartoon if this is the case? Or did the cartoon have normal intentions but has been latched onto by the culture of a bigoted history? Personally, I believe Serena’s actions have been overblown, and that she has individually been unfairly punished, as she always has done, due to matters of gender and sex. This cartoon, to me, is not racist in its original representation but is in some ways culturally insensitive in its portrayal. The whitewashing of Osaka in the background is somewhat worse, and throws up some questions about the contrast between whiteness and blackness in this piece, but all that is for another day.
As always, I would love to hear what you think, feel free to comment here or on social media. These articles are made to get you thinking. I know you have an opinion, so, just tell me it!