A cartoon depicting tennis star Serena Williams, which was globally condemned as offensive and racist, was deemed acceptable this week by The Australian Press Council.
Cartoonist Mark Knight’s illustration was published by Melbourne’s Herald Sun newspaper last September. Activists, politicians and celebrities have criticized it for stereotyping Williams as “the angry Black woman.”
Williams, a 23-time major winner, is depicted as jumping over a broken tennis racket and a baby’s pacifier with her mouth wide open and her hands in fists. Her facial features in the cartoon are reminiscent of blackface.
Behind Williams in the cartoon is Naomi Osaka, whose mother is Japanese and her father, Haitian. Osaka beat Williams in the final of the U.S. Open tournament in September. Osaka is depicted as a skinny, blonde woman and the umpire is asking her – “Can you just let her win?”
The Australian Press Council said in a statement on Monday that the publisher of the Herald Sun is valid in his claim that Williams isn’t depicted “in an ape-like pose”:
“Specifically, concern was expressed that the cartoon depicted Ms. Williams with large lips, a broad flat nose, a wild Afro-styled ponytail hairstyle different to that worn by Ms. Williams during the match and positioned in an ape-like pose. The council considered that the cartoon uses exaggeration and absurdity to make its point but accepts the publisher’s claim that it does not depict Ms. Williams as an ape, rather showing her as ‘spitting the dummy,’ a non-racist caricature familiar to most Australian readers.”
Australians use “spitting the dummy” as slang for throwing a tantrum.
The cartoon is in reference to that final match at the U.S. Open, when the umpire handed down a warning to Williams for allegedly getting coached from the sidelines. Williams denied she had cheated and soon after that slammed her racket on the ground, which lost her a full point. Williams then protested the loss of the point, asked for an apology from the umpire and he then penalized her an entire game.
The cartoon at the time of its publication was criticized as reflective of the “dehumanizing Jim Crow caricatures so common in the 19th and 20th centuries.”
This is not the first time that Williams, or her sister, Venus Williams, has faced blatant racism. Williams boycotted the Indian Wells Masters Series tournament for 13 years because her, her sister and father faced boos, jeers and racial slurs after Venus Williams pulled out of a match in 2001 against her sister because of tendinitis. Williams went on to win the tournament, but the crowd would jeer her errors and Williams’ father said the crowd shouted threats and racial slurs when he entered the stadium.
“The false allegations – that our matches were fixed – hurt, cut and ripped into us deeply. The undercurrent of racism was painful, confusing and unfair,” Williams wrote in an essay for Time magazine.
Williams was also featured in a New York Times article possibly as equally infamous as the Indian Wells 2001 tournament. The article was widely criticized as placing a hyper-focus on Serena’s body instead of her incredible success as a player and creating a “Serena versus everybody else” article that compared her body to other female players. The article was widely considered both racist and sexist.