Column: Tone-deaf Serena Williams cartoon is a lesson in the importance of education

With the abundance of information available to us, the excuse “I didn’t know” doesn't cut it anymore.

Roshae Hemmings is a first year journalism major at MU. She is an opinion columnist who writes about civil rights.

In 1962, civil rights activist Malcolm X said that “the most disrespected person in America is the black woman. The most unprotected person in America is the black woman. The most neglected person in America is the black woman.” In 2018, this statement seems to remain true. Black women are paid 63 cents to the white man’s dollar, those who identify as trans are more likely to be killed and they are still likely to be characterized as “angry,” a stereotype that has been around for decades.

Even someone who is considered to be one of the greatest athletes of all time is unable to evade the harsh realities of just existing as a black woman in America. During the U.S. Open, tennis champion Serena Williams was penalized by an umpire because she received what he thought was coaching. This ultimately caused her to lose the match, resulting in a win for Naomi Osaka (making her the first Japanese player to win a Grand Slam).

While the initial reaction was anger toward the umpire and his unfair treatment of Williams, opinions after the fact have been much more polarized. One reaction in particular has turned the conversation to more than just tennis, but to the racism and sexism that Williams and so many other black women experience simply because they choose to advocate for themselves.

Australian cartoonist Mark Knight unveiled a cartoon, which later appeared in the Herald Sun. In what he and the Sun call satire, Williams is seen with big lips, jumping on her tennis racket. In the background, a blonde Osaka (who naturally has brown curls) is asked by the umpire if she can “just let her win.” Unsurprisingly, the caricature sparked outrage, and rightfully so. This disgusting portrayal is overtly racist and calls back to the Jim Crow era, a time in history where black men and women were consistently the butt of racist “jokes” and rhetoric.

The Jim Crow era was a time during the 19th and 20th centuries in which laws and propaganda reinforced racial segregation in the United States. Knight’s cartoon is not only reminiscent of the depictions of black people during the era, but of the microaggressions, stereotypes, and laws that made black people appear to be second class citizens. The oversized lips and features Williams has in the cartoon are an illusion to ‘Sambo’ imagery, a derogatory term derived from the 19th century children’s book The Story of Little Black Sambo. “The cartoon plays on old, discredited images of African American ‘sambos’: unintelligent, emotional (rather than rational) and childlike,” said Dr. Joe Street, a senior lecturer in American History at Northumbria University in Newcastle, England. The exaggeration of Williams’ body, the jumping on and breaking of her racket, and the pacifier call back to the ideologies that led to slavery, Jim Crow laws and resulted in civil rights movements.

All aspects of this tone-deaf depiction work together to further enforce the idea that black people are are illogical, animalistic monsters that have no restraint. Hence, why white-washed Osaka, the umpire, and even the crowd are in a calm “rational” state, while Williams is seen as acting irrationally. This characterization suggests the need for an oppressive, white supremacist society where black people can be “tamed” and silenced.

The cartoon is also sexist in nature, boiling down Williams’ frustrations and concerns during the game to pointless whining. It also picks up on the angry black woman stereotype, chastising Williams’ for standing up for herself in the face of adversity.

In defense of the controversy, Knight claimed that race was not a motivation in creating the depiction he did. "I saw the world number one tennis player have a huge hissy fit and spit the [pacifier]. That's what the cartoon was about, her poor behaviour on the court," he said. "I'm not targeting Serena. I mean, Serena is a champion. 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.”

To state that he drew Williams as an “African-American woman,” shows what this whole debacle boils down to: a lack of awareness and education. Knight claimed that he was unaware of the reference in which people compared his work to, and I find this laughable. Granted he may not have a strong knowledge of the history, but to have no indication that the public may view the cartoon as problematic seems unlikely. In the event that Knight truly was oblivious, he is an example of how important it is to educate yourself. To have a lack of social awareness, decorum and knowledge of history in a time where information is available to us with speed and ease is inexcusable. Take time to learn about things you don’t know, or brush up on the stuff that you think you do. In an ever changing and evolving world, ignorance isn’t bliss; it’s divisive.

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