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The long history behind the racist attacks on Serena Williams

Why women bear the brunt of racist depictions.

This Mark Knight cartoon published by the Herald Sun depicts Serena Williams as an irate, hulking, big-mouthed black woman jumping up and down on a broken racket. The umpire was shown telling a slender blond woman — meant to be Naomi Osaka, who is actually Japanese and Haitian — "Can you just let her win?" (Mark Knight/Herald Sun-News Corp./AP) (AP)

In a stunning upset at the U.S. Open women’s final Saturday, Naomi Osaka defeated legendary tennis star Serena Williams to become Japan’s first Grand Slam singles champion.

But Osaka’s victory was soon overshadowed. After chair umpire Carlos Ramos cited Williams for three code violations during the second set of the loss — for receiving coaching during a match, breaking her racket and calling Ramos a “thief” — Williams accused him of sexism.

“For me to say ‘thief,’ and for him to take a game, it made me feel like it was a sexist remark. He’s never taken a game from a man because they said ‘thief,’ ” Williams said.

In the process of calling out sexism in tennis, Williams has become a target for racist attacks. In a derogatory caricature created by Mark Knight for Australia’s Herald Sun, a seething, oversized Williams with thick lips and wild, upright hair jumps on her smashed racket, unable to control her rage at losing the championship. Nearby lies a discarded pacifier, while in the background a white male umpire says to Williams’s willowy, blond-haired opponent, “Can you just let her win?”

Here, Knight — like other sports commentators — has willfully erased Osaka’s ancestry as a multiracial woman of Japanese-Haitian heritage and transformed her into a demur, rule-abiding white female counterpart to Williams’s supposed Angry Black Female. Ramos is also reduced to a lean white male to further emphasize Williams’s cartoonish black girth.

The grotesque caricature of Williams and Osaka, which drew immediate criticism on social media despite Knight’s contention that he was only attacking behaviors, should come as no surprise. Australia, like the U.S. and Europe, has a complicated history with both racism and racist iconography. For the past two centuries, degrading visual caricatures of black figures — particularly women of African descent — have played a powerful role in shaping debates about slavery, race and citizenship. Such images are not neutral, rather they tap into long-standing racist and sexist stereotypes that remain embedded in the fabric of Western culture, ready for reuse when a black man or woman is perceived as crossing a line or being “out of place” in a public space.

Beginning in the late 18th century, as the abolitionist movement gave rise to widespread popular protest against the transatlantic slave trade, British cartoonists published numerous visual caricatures of people of African descent, particularly enslaved women. As sexualized objects of public consumption, the racialized bodies of nameless black women in these caricatures played a central role in public debates over the future of slave trading, slavery and the incorporation of free people descended from enslaved ancestors into the social and political worlds of Georgian England and antebellum America.

In late 18th- and early 19th century London, visual artists such as Isaac Cruikshank, James Gillray, Richard Newton and Thomas Rowlandson focused public attention on the unsuitability of women of African ancestry, not only as sexual partners for British men but also as free and equal imperial subjects. Caricaturists depicted African-descended women as simultaneously comical and frighteningly brutish, with jet-black skin, voluptuous bodies, thick lips and insatiable appetites. Black women, cartoonists suggested, posed a danger to the nation unless subject to white male control.

Similarly, in Jacksonian America, the lithographic cartoonist Edward W. Clay offered a scathing portrait of free black behavior, lampooning educated, urban African Americans for dressing in the latest fashions. His “Life in Philadelphia” series of 1828 to 1830 represents middle-class African Americans as pompous, buffoonish characters, unequal to the task of mimicking white social norms, speech patterns, courtship practices and clothing. The popularity of Clay’s cartoons prompted the publication of additional visual satires in the 1830s caricaturing the pretensions of middle-class African Americans in New York and ridiculing the claims of racial minorities to equal citizenship rights and legal protections.

In both 19th century England and the U.S., anti-abolitionist images played on and attempted to heighten public fears of interracial sex. Cartoonists insinuated that abolitionists, by trumpeting freedom and black equality, were radicals who sought racial amalgamation. After President Abraham Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation in 1863, racist imagery and cultural fears of miscegenation flourished in tandem with violence against African Americans.

During the Jim Crow era, American pop culture was saturated with “black memorabilia.” White America, Lisa Hix explained in a review of Jim Crow culture, “churned out objects, images, songs, and stories designed to reinforce widespread beliefs about white supremacy and black inferiority,” including the notion that people of African descent are inherently violent and prone to outbursts of rage and sexual aggression. Such images desensitized the public to the casual brutality inflicted on the bodies and identities of African Americans through segregation, beatings, sexual violence and lynching long after slavery ended.

By the late 1940s, racist iconography came under sustained attack from organizations such as the NAACP and other civil rights groups. African American activists challenged racial discrimination and sought to eliminate negative depictions of African Americans in the media. Racist, sexist caricatures and characters were slowly phased out of newspapers, magazines, storefronts, TV shows and films in the decades after the civil rights era, but only as a result of social and political activism on the part of minority organizations and vocal individuals.

As notions of racial justice, feminism and multiculturalism gained currency in the Western world in the late 20th century, explicitly racist iconography became increasingly anachronistic, relegated to antique stores, museums, attics and eBay. But the transformation of racial attitudes and imagery was far from universal or complete.

As recently as February 2018, Australians were debating whether the time had finally come to shift blackface “Golliwog” dolls (also known as “Gollies”) from their prominent position in Australian shop fronts, or even to ban their sale entirely.

The Golliwog doll originated in an 1895 children’s book by Anglo-American illustrator Florence Kate Upton called “The Adventures of Two Dutch Dolls and a ‘Golliwogg.’ " Inspired by caricatures of black-faced minstrel performers, the Golliwog had coal-black skin, unruly hair, large lips and leering white eyes and teeth. Because Upton did not own the copyright to the character, the Golliwog figure soon took on a life of its own. In addition to a line of dolls, the Golliwog became associated with a number of now-defunct 20th century consumer products, from English marmalade to Australian chocolate biscuits.

For more than two centuries, visual caricatures and racist consumer brands, mascots and logos have been used to demean minority groups, especially men and women of African descent, and question their fitness for freedom and equal treatment under the law. In 21st century America, ideas about black deviance and the need to police African American behavior continue to hold sway in both popular culture and the criminal justice system, with devastating consequences for the African American community.

Women of African ancestry have borne — and continue to bear — the brunt of these racist attacks. The recent treatment of Serena Williams offers strong evidence that the insidious legacy of slavery, racism and black female exploitation remains alive and well in our nation and beyond. Degrading caricatures of black women have never been simply about critiquing individual “behavior.” Instead, they are intended to marginalize and silence women of African descent through a reassertion of racist and sexist imagery rooted in the beliefs of the slave era. The only path forward, as Williams pointed out, is to fight back.