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Aussie newspaper doubles down on Serena cartoon decried as racist, puts it on the front page

A newspaper stand in Melbourne displays the Herald Sun, whose Sept. 12 edition features a controversial caricature of Serena Williams on the front page. (MELANIE BURTON/Reuters)

When Australia’s Herald Sun newspaper published a cartoon this week about Saturday’s controversial U.S. Open women’s final, it sparked an almost immediate controversy. Critics from all over the world suggested that the cartoon, drawn by Mark Knight, drew on racist tropes in its depiction of the African American athlete Serena Williams.

On Wednesday, the Melbourne-based newspaper responded to its critics — by republishing part of the cartoon on its front page under the headline “WELCOME TO PC WORLD.”

“If the self-appointed censors of Mark Knight get their way on his Serena Williams cartoon, our new politically correct life will be very dull indeed,” read the front page, which also featured caricatures of other famous figures such as President Trump and North Korea's Kim Jong Un.

The newspaper, which is operated by Rupert Murdoch’s News Corp Australia, had originally published the caricature of Williams on Monday in response to a remarkably controversial women’s final at the U.S. Open in New York City on Saturday evening. The 23-time Grand Slam champion lost her game against her Japanese rival Naomi Osaka following a heated dispute with umpire Carlos Ramos.

Carlos had given Williams a warning for violating a rule about receiving coaching from the sidelines. Williams responded angrily and said that she does not cheat. She later smashed her racket and was docked a point. After a series of verbal confrontations with the umpire, Carlos gave her a game penalty.

The dispute between Williams and Ramos had prompted global headlines, with many arguing that the umpire had been unfair when he gave the U.S. player her first warning for violating a rarely enforced rule and that the game penalty was also too harsh a punishment. Many critics argued that other players — in particular, white male players — were not judged as harshly as Williams had been.

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 Herald Sun’s cartoon had depicted Williams angrily smashing her racket, while in the background the umpire says to Osaka: “Can you just let her win?” However, Knight’s portrayal of Williams was reminiscent of many older depictions of African Americans that are now viewed as racist.

As The Washington Post’s Michael Cavna put it, “Knight draws facial features reflecting the dehumanizing Jim Crow caricatures so common in the 19th and 20th centuries. Knight’s cartoon conjures up a range of such caricatures that were branded on memorabilia and popularized on stage and screen of the era, including the minstrel-show character Topsy born out of ‘Uncle Tom’s Cabin,’ as well as the title character in 1899’s ‘Little Black Sambo.’ ”

Knight faced a wave of criticism on social media, with major figures like J.K. Rowling weighing in. “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,” Rowling, the creator of Harry Potter, wrote to Knight. (The cartoonist has since deleted his Twitter account.)

In an interview with Australia's ABC News, Knight defended the cartoon. “I saw the world number one tennis player have a huge hissy fit and spit the dummy,” Knight said Tuesday, using an Australian expression for a childish tantrum. “I drew her as an African American woman. She’s powerfully built. She wears these outrageous costumes when she plays tennis. She’s interesting to draw. I drew her as she is, as an African American woman.”

The Herald Sun said it stood by Knight on Tuesday, calling him “Australia’s finest cartoonist” and saying that positive comments outweighed negative ones. Knight has worked at the newspaper for several decades and has won awards for his cartoons.

However, Knight has faced criticism for his handling of race and gender in the past. As Cavna noted this week, a cartoon about train-station safety published in August was also called racist for its depiction of faceless black figures fighting in the background. Knight also faced criticism in the 1990s for a cartoon that showed a female politician in bed with a male counterpart.

Rohan Connolly, a popular Australian sports journalist, offered his own view of the cartoon on Tuesday, arguing that although he didn’t think Knight meant to be racist, he felt that some of the cartoonist’s prior work was.

Connolly said that he himself had been accused of racism in the past and had apologized once the point was explained to him. “So I think it is quite possible to be racially offensive through naivety,” he wrote in a message published on Twitter. “The point is once you do see the other view, from those who have actually been subjected to that sort of offense or oppression, that should be enough for it to cease.”

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An Australian artist’s racist Serena Williams cartoon receives swift and international blowback