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Opinion What the Herald Sun’s Serena Williams cartoon reveals about Australia’s racial history

The Melbourne, Australia-based newspaper Herald Sun displays a controversial cartoon of Serena Williams that has been widely condemned as a racist depiction of the tennis great. (AP Photo)

Bo Seo is a journalist covering Asia and Australia.

In the aftermath of Serena Williams’s controversial defeat at the U.S. Open, a cartoon from Australia, drawn by Mark Knight and published in the Herald Sun, made global headlines. The cartoon showed the contours of Williams’s body enlarged and fixed in a brutish pose. Critics compared it to Jim Crow caricatures such as “Little Black Sambo” and placed the cartoon in a genealogy of American blackface. Author J.K. Rowling criticized Knight for “reducing one of the greatest sportswomen alive to racist and sexist tropes.”

Meanwhile, the Herald Sun stood firmly with Knight. In an editorial, the paper denied that the cartoon was sexist or racist, and charged that such an accusation “is an attempt to defeat cartooning — and satire — with a politically-correct barrage.” The next day, the Herald Sun reprinted the cartoon on its front page and issued a warning: “If the self-appointed censors of Mark Knight get their way … our new politically correct life will be very dull indeed.”

But treating Knight’s cartoon as a generic touchstone for freedom of speech, or indeed as just another racist depiction of African Americans, overlooks the extent to which his work is a product of an Australian visual tradition and racial history.

In Australia, the visual representation of black Australians by non-indigenous artists began shortly after the landing of the First Fleet in 1788. Early settlers such as William Bradley and Thomas Watling fixed an anthropological eye on indigenous Australians and depicted them in drawings and paintings. From the 19th century, cartoonists in magazines such as the Bulletin or Punch set aside mere representation in favor of political expression. The lineage led up to cartoonist Eric Jolliffe, who in 1980 was brought before the New South Wales Anti-Discrimination Board. His infraction was depicting an indigenous Australian woman wearing a bra on her backside. The caption read, “She got it from the missionary’s wife — it’s for figure control.” These small figures were colored in black with the anxieties of their age.

Sportswriter Liz Clarke analyzes the 2018 U.S. Open women's final controversy, where tennis Serena Williams was fined $17,000 for violations. (Video: Taylor Turner, Melissa Macaya/The Washington Post)

The problematic traditions have, in recent years, found a home in Australian newspaper cartoons. Cartoonist Bill Leak sparked outrage in 2016 with his depiction of an indigenous Australian father, with beer in hand, asking a police officer for the name of his son. Earlier this year, Knight, the cartoonist behind the Williams caricature, drew anonymized black figures fighting in a train station to skewer politicians for inaction on keeping “the Victorian public safe .” The characters were a stand-in for Sudanese Australians allegedly involved in gang activity.

Australians have long celebrated the freedom of irreverence: that “larrikinism” grounds distinctively Australian conceptions of egalitarianism and honesty. But it puts us at odds with the rest of the world, especially when we stumble on cultural references that are not our own. Last month, Australia’s most prominent shock jock, Alan Jones, used the n-word on air. When famous Australians wore blackface makeup to costume parties and even television skits, a 2016 BBC article posed a question that has been repeated since, “Why do Australians keep wearing blackface?”

This awkward disjuncture owes, in part, to Australia’s peripheral location. Although Australians encounter American culture every day, the potential targets of an offensive cultural reference still feel distant. When the New Yorker disinvited former White House chief strategist Stephen K. Bannon from headlining its annual festival, prominent Australian journalists from liberal outfits such as the Guardian and the ABC were outraged. Pointing to a recent interview with Bannon on an Australian news program, they argued that bigotry must be met with scrutiny. Setting aside the merits of the position, the stance was easier for the distance between the journalists and the Americans offended by Bannon’s agenda.

Henri Bergson wrote that comedy arises from “something mechanical encrusted on the living.” He described it as a “rigidity … applied to the mobility of life, in an awkward attempt to follow its lines and counterfeit its suppleness.” In the dark comedy of Knight’s cartoon, a flat caricature prevails over the complexity of a life. In Knight’s cartoon, though Serena’s mouth is open, no sound escapes. It is a reminder of who has the platform to speak in Australia. Even in this multicultural country, black Australians (which includes indigenous groups, African migrants and African Americans) are too often drawn and ventriloquized, but not heard.