Grotesque, racist U.S. Open cartoon tells us more about the press than it does Serena Williams
The Herald Sun and Mark Knight should be held accountable.
By portraying tennis superstar Serena Williams as a Sambo caricature, the Herald Sun made it clear they are invested stereotyping Black women for entertainment.
Whether you agree or disagree with how the U.S. Open finals went down on Saturday night, racism is never the answer.
Someone should tell that to the Herald Sun as they have now chosen to invoke Jim Crow era style journalism in 2018. On Monday morning, the Australian publication ran a cartoon illustrated by their editorial cartoonist Mark Knight depicting tennis superstar Serena Williams whining like a baby as her opponent, Naomi Osaka, asks the umpire Carlos Ramos if he can “just let her win.”
But the devil is in the details as Williams is illustrated as a huge screaming Black monstrosity with oversized lips and grotesque facial features. Osaka, who is Haitian-Japanese, is portrayed as a thin white women with blonde hair talking to a white Ramos, who is actually a person of color in real life.
— Mark Knight (@Knightcartoons) September 10, 2018
What you don’t see in the cartoon is that Williams was actually challenging sexist double standards after being penalized several times during Saturday’s U.S. Open finals match against Osaka. After calling Ramos a “thief” for taking a point from her, the umpire then penalized Williams another point in the game for the “verbal abuse” — which further escalated the intensity of the match. Osaka went on to undoubtedly win, and Williams was a good sport about it. Graciously imploring the crowd not to boo during the trophy ceremony, Williams created a beautiful moment in sports history.
Despite the cartoon already being publicly criticized by celebrities such as Jemele Hill and J.K. Rowling, who tweeted “Well done on reducing one of the greatest sportswomen alive to racist and sexist tropes and turning a second great sportswoman into a faceless prop” — the publication has since then retweeted the horrible image, further doubling-down on their stance.
About as subtle as Fran Drescher’s voice ??♀️ https://t.co/VM23b4XnlI
— Jemele Hill (@jemelehill) September 10, 2018
Well done on reducing one of the greatest sportswomen alive to racist and sexist tropes and turning a second great sportswoman into a faceless prop. https://t.co/YOxVMuTXEC
— J.K. Rowling (@jk_rowling) September 10, 2018
Imagery like this warrants the level of bad press it’s getting for several reasons. First, it harkens back to the days of racial segregation when Black faces were turned into Sambo-style caricatures who were debased and devalued for the entertainment of white people. And second, having a major publication such as the Herald Sun cosign such racist imagery today sets back conversations surrounding newsroom diversity.
Not About Free Speech
For those hidden racists who love to use free speech as an excuse for bigotry, there are various different ways that the U.S. Open finals incident could have been depicted without going full Sambo. Perhaps Ramos could have been shown as an actual “thief” for robbing a great moment from two talented women? Or perhaps showing how other male tennis stars were probably scratching their head as Williams received points taken for things they’ve done repeatedly without such violations?
But depicting a powerful Black woman as an angry, oversized, stereotypical infant (complete with a pacifier) is a lazy trope that’s not just an example of free speech, but something editorially racist. If that’s how you portray Black women who justifiably defend themselves, then the Herald Sun can’t expect readers to trust their ability to accurately depict people of color elsewhere. Black people around the world had to be traumatized yet again by images that characterizes us as disposable jokes.
Journalists and publications around the world need to denounce this imagery because it’s not a matter of whether or not you personally stand by Williams, but whether or not you believe that any Black public figure should be racially mischaracterized by the press. When Black people already losing our humanity in the streets every day for simply living, they shouldn’t have to see such bigotry in the news we’re supposed to trust.
Ernest Owens is the editor of Philadelphia magazine’s G Philly and CEO of Ernest Media Empire, LLC. The award-winning journalist has written for USA Today, NBC News, CNN, BET and several other major publications. Follow him on Facebook, Twitter, or Instagram and ernestowens.com.