What would really be racist is if political cartoonists treated black women any differently
16 Septemeber 2018
At first, I didn’t think much of the whole ordeal surrounding Serena Williams and her defeat at the 2018 US Open. She lost, accused the umpire of sexism, and was hit with the rule book, proven wrong by her coach, who admitted to violating the rules, and fined $17,000 by the tournament referee’s office. It was an example of bad sportsmanship from a great athlete.
There was no story here other than the inane idea that Williams was being treated differently from her male counterparts. She wasn’t. Male tennis players are routinely penalised for breaking the same rules, and William’s punishment just happened to be so severe because she broke the rules three times. That was it.
But then, an Australian political cartoonist came out with a piece of satire, and the world seemed to go mad—at least that loud vocal minority did. The word ‘racist’ became synonymous with Mark Knight’s cartoon, not because the art or the artist were genuinely racist, but because if you repeat a lie enough times it becomes the truth.
Here’s the real truth: the only racists here are the ones asking black women to be treated any differently from the rest of society, asking satirists to pull their punches and pussyfoot around what they do best, which is exaggerate the features of public figures in order to bring them back down to earth.
If I were to expect anyone to understand this, it would be those who supposedly fight for equality, as they’d presumably know the virtue of judging people on the basis of their conduct rather than their skin colour.
Umpire, Carlos Ramos, judged Serena Williams as a tennis player, and she broke the rules. He’s being called sexist. Cartoonist, Mark Knight, saw an opportunity to mock someone who threw a tantrum and ruined her opponent’s big night. Now he’s being labelled a racist. But why?
Our old friend J.K. Rowling claims that Knight’s cartoon reduced the sportswoman to ‘racist and sexist tropes’ while ‘turning’ Naomi Osaka into a ‘faceless prop,’ joining the chorus of Twitter pundits who claimed Osaka was whitewashed in the cartoon. First of all, if you just used your bloody eyes, you’d realise that the shade used for Osaka is comparable to the one used for Williams, as they are both dark skinned-women in real life. And Osaka isn’t depicted with blonde hair to appeal to racist white men; Knight drew her as a blonde because that’s the colour of her hair.
Normally, I wouldn’t quibble with such small things, but in this case, it demonstrates just how far people are willing to go with their lies.
Another, much more dangerous lie being perpetuated, is that Knight’s cartoon is racist because it’s somehow evocative of blackface and minstrel art. This is the response most often heard when someone is asked to explain how exactly the depiction of Williams is racist.
Not many people, I believe, buy the argument that the art is racist because it depicts the sportswoman as whining about her loss in a hyperrealistic manner. But not many can argue against the point that the cartoon is racist because it’s linked to a greater kind of historical, systemic, and cultural racism.
Indeed, that sentiment may cause some to shrug their shoulders and give up defending this piece of art. However, that word salad argument doesn’t make the claim of racism any less false. In fact, it increases the degree to which that side of the debate is morally and factually abhorrent.
In a ridiculous move, a writer for CNN claims that the ‘racist Serena cartoon is straight out of 1910,’ reflecting identity politics in their contention that individuals bear the history and weight of their entire race, regardless of personal intent or character. Calling Knight’s work, ‘visual imperialism,’ the author attempts to suggest that it perpetuates ‘European standards of beauty and fantastic representations of a black grotesque,’ effectively ‘condemning black citizenship in cartooning’ while rendering Williams’ opponent ‘a small, blonde white woman.’
Reading through the article, you’ll find plenty of unsubstantiated arguments and comments such as the ones above. The entirety of it is predicated on the idea that when you target individuals like Donald Trump, it’s OK because he’s an individual.
But when you target Serena Williams, it’s not OK because she’s a representative of her historically oppressed race. The author attempts to base this argument upon the faulty bedrock of Knight’s cartoon supposedly depicting a ‘traditional black stereotype combined with blonde opponent.’
If you look at the illustration of Williams and see a ‘monstrous black’ person rather than a tennis player smashing her racket (which she did) and spitting out a dummy, then I’m afraid the issue is you and not the cartoon.
The depiction simply does not promote a message other than that of Serena Williams being a sore loser. That message would still make sense if it were any other athlete in the same role. The only difference would be the exaggeration of another person’s features.
Mark Knight’s drawing of Nick Kyrgios, a male tennis player, similarly portrays its subject in a hyperrealistic manner that could be interpreted as recalling racial stereotypes. The case could be made that by depicting sweaty unshaven hair atop Mediterranean skin, big ears, a bulging belly, and all in a position that denotes laziness, Knight is attacking Greek Australians, whom have been subject to slurs like ‘wog’ and have faced discrimination due to the perceived shortcomings of their race.
But that claim would be ridiculous because Nick Kyrgios is not the consummation of Greek identity but an individual tennis player who deserves to be judged on his own merits.
The one good point that the CNN article raises is that proponents of free speech and art should be similarly outraged when ‘political cartoonists who skewer conservatives’ are fired or attacked. Yes, that would and does upset me. However, I at least retain moral consistency in wanting to protect the expression of all artists.
There is a threshold of social acceptability, but the problem nowadays is that people are constantly lowering that bar, to the detriment of free speech. The reaction to Mark Knight’s cartoon demonstrates the suffocating state of affairs, where ‘racism’ and ‘tolerance’ are justifications for silence and dogpiling.