An Australian cartoon depicting Serena Williams is the image of pathological, raging whiteness unable to deal with the legitimate demands of people of colour, argues the University of Auckland’s Dr Neal Curtis

When I first saw Australian cartoonist Mark Knight’s controversial depiction of Serena Williams on Twitter I retweeted it with the comment: “Great cartoons reveal a truth. Bad cartoons impose a prejudice. This is a very bad cartoon.” I stand by that because this is truly awful: racist, lazy, simplistic and bigoted. I’d also stand by the claim that the best cartoons help us see something with clarity or make connections that crystallise a complex issue, making it immediately readable. What I need to correct in that original statement, though, is that bad cartoons can’t do that, because this one clearly does. That truth in this cartoon, which appeared in Melbourne’s Herald Sun, is not what the artist thinks it is. The truth presented here is of quite a different order, but it nevertheless expresses something we need to pay attention to because it takes us to the very heart of the dangerous times we live in.

There is a lot of material for a cartoonist in the events of the “controversial” US Open final, not least, the way men and women are still expected to conform to different types of behaviour, even different codes of dress. It would have been interesting, for example, if a man had decided to wear a body suit at the French Open, and I’m still intrigued to know if Williams’s choice of a tutu for the US Open was a direct comment on the unspoken demand that she dress more like a lady (and not a Wakandan warrior). There was also the highly-charged matter of deducting her a game for calling the umpire a thief. Again, was this fair? Or was this related to the fact that the male umpire might have wanted to put a female player in her place? From all the accounts I’ve read there certainly seems to be some mileage in such a claim. Instead we get a crude exercise in what is now known as “misogynoir”; a particular brand of hostility directed at black women.

So, what is the truth here? What can we take from this truly bad piece of work? All it seems to say is that Serena Williams is a baby having a tantrum in order to get her own way, but it also clearly taps into deep-rooted animosity to black people in white culture presenting her as a wild, raging ape. It obliterates the fact that she is one of the greatest athletes of all time. It entirely hides the work that a black woman needs to do to get to the top of tennis. It completely erases how hard she fought to survive childbirth and within a few months be back in Grand Slam finals. It completely denies the grace with which she spoke about her opponent at the end of the game. In other words, the cartoon is a work of idiocy, but it still shows us some truth.

The key to reading this image and getting at that truth is the erasure of the winner, Naomi Osaka. She is sort of in the picture, but also absent. Knight has rendered her hair fully blonde, when in reality it is black with bleached tips, and presents it in a very visible pony tail hanging over the back of her visor. Why has he done this? The answer is actually quite straightforward. He did it because this is a cartoon coded as a comment about “white victimhood” that accidentally reveals the fragility of white privilege.

This is more than just crude dog-whistling, then, it is a carefully thought-out and arranged scene with very specific visual cues for those who believe they are under attack. The text “Can you just let her win” also speaks to the racist belief that people of colour do not merit anything they claim to have earned. Instead, the argument goes, we (white people) have been forced to give them everything through the largesse of liberal elites, “PC” propaganda, and the twin dogmas of diversity and multiculturalism.

The cartoon was published in a right-wing newspaper that regularly runs xenophobic commentary and material about non-white people that might be considered racist. Its primary target is Muslims and other non-white migrants. It is a newspaper that is right-wing in a country where even the centre is scarred by white supremacism; where the First Peoples of that country, although given citizenship in 1949, were strangely not counted as part of the human population until the referendum of 1967 and the removal of section 127 of the Constitution. 

In recent years there have been significant advances made by women and people of colour that have pushed back against entrenched white male privilege. In this formulation, privilege simply means the unearned social advantages a person has simply by inhabiting a dominant social position. Serena Williams has rightly become an icon for the social and political aspirations of women of colour. It is therefore only logically that she be treated in a hostile manner by the forces for whom the image of black female excellence, success, autonomy, self-confidence and wealth is a threat.

So, this is an image that captures the white fear that gave us Donald Trump, a man, it can be argued, who also represents the last throes of a society premised on white privilege and white supremacy. This fear is the fuel that drove his campaign and jettisoned him into the White House. Knight interestingly also places the whitewashed Osaka next to the umpire, the symbol of law, civility and normality in order to exaggerate the dangerous, feral threat of black self-expression.

We can, in fact, take this further and say this is not an image of Serena Williams at all, but a projection of the cartoonist himself. In the end, the truth in this cartoon is the image of pathological, raging whiteness unable to deal with the legitimate demands of people of colour and women in particular, and if Donald Trump is seen as the solution to this challenge then we all seriously need some therapy.

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