Why America is so furious with 'racist' Serena Williams cartoon

An American professor has revealed why the US has reacted so angrily to an Australian cartoonist’s depiction of Serena Williams.

Mark Knight of Melbourne’s Herald Sun newspaper posted his illustration on Twitter on Monday morning, immediately sparking a firestorm of criticism.

The cartoon depicts Serena’s confrontation with umpire Carlos Ramos during the US Open final, showing the tennis superstar destroying her racquet with a child’s dummy lying on the ground next to her.

Knight has defended his controversial cartoon by saying he was simply trying to illustrate Serena’s bad behaviour, but Dr Jason Johnson says the image is inherently racist, even if it wasn’t intended to be.

The controversial cartoon. Image: Herald Sun
The controversial cartoon. Image: Herald Sun

The professor of politics and journalism at Morgan State University says Knight’s depiction of Serena as a “brooding, big-lipped, almost ape-like” figure was unnecessary.

“If the cartoon was purely about bad behaviour I don’t see why she had to be depicted the way she was. You can have her jumping up and down, whining, crying, whatever — that’s typical for sport … you can depict people as sore losers,” Dr Johnson told 3AW Radio on Tuesday.

“But to depict her in this large, brooding way — even for a cartoonist — is reminiscent about (how) black women in America and black women’s bodies (have been racially portrayed in the past) — especially in comparison to Naomi Osaka who in the back corner is drawn as this lithe, possibly white, looking woman.

“I understand Mark Knight is Australian, consequently his understanding of racial depictions might not be the same as they are in the United States, but I also think as a cartoonist who is writing about an international incident and international figure, I don’t buy that he was completely oblivious to how his work would be perceived either.

Serena Williams argues with umpire Carlos Ramos. (Photo by Michael Owens/Getty Images)
Serena Williams argues with umpire Carlos Ramos. (Photo by Michael Owens/Getty Images)

“There is a long history in the United States and abroad of depicting African-Americans as less than human. Certainly black women as being broodish and certainly not in any shape, way or form feminine.”

Dr Johnson says if the cartoon was received as racist, it was racist.

“Regardless of what his intention was, the way it was received is legitimate as well,” he said.

“He can claim until the cows come home that he didn’t intend this to be at all racist — maybe that wasn’t his intent — it doesn’t mean it wasn’t.

“I can tell a joke that I think is funny. If the entire audience says I find this joke to be offensive, I can’t turn around and say ‘well … I don’t care how you receive it because that wasn’t my attention’. The receipt is almost as important as the intention of art.

“That’s not a caricature that was necessary to depict her behaviour was ill-tempered.”

‘Repugnant on many levels’

The National Association of Black Journalists has condemned the cartoon for it’s ‘unnecessarily sambo-like’ depiction – a racist term for an African American.

“The racist cartoon of Serena Williams and Naomi Osaka by Mark Knight of the Herald Sun is repugnant on many levels,” the NABJ said.

“The Sept. 10 cartoon not only exudes racist, sexist caricatures of both women, but Williams’ depiction is unnecessarily sambo-like.

“The art of editorial cartooning is a visual dialogue on the issues of the day, yet this cartoon grossly inaccurately depicts two women of colour at the US Open, one of the grandest stages of professional sports.”

Harry Potter author J.K Rowling was among a number of high-profile figures to slam the cartoon, with many also seeing problems with the way Osaka was depicted.