Serena Williams: Cartoonist denies US Open depiction is racist

Serena Williams lost to Naomi Osaka at the US Open at the weekend. Courtesy: BBC

An Australian cartoonist has defended his depiction of Serena Williams at the US Open, after the image went viral and was criticised as racist and sexist.

Mark Knight’s newspaper cartoon showed Williams jumping above a broken racquet next to a baby’s dummy. Critics said it portrayed racist stereotypes.

The cartoonist denied it was racist, saying he had intended to depict only the tennis player’s “poor behaviour”.

Some also said Knight had “whitewashed” Japanese player Naomi Osaka.

Williams sparked controversy during her loss to Osaka when she accused the umpire of sexism and being a “thief”.

Knight’s drawing, published in the Herald Sun newspaper on Monday, referenced Williams’s outburst and showed the umpire asking Osaka: “Can you just let her win?”

It has been strongly defended by Knight and the newspaper’s editor, Damon Johnston.

But critics, including author JK Rowling, compared the cartoon to past racist caricatures of African-American people.

Others on social media pointed out that Osaka appeared to have been drawn as a “white woman” with a blonde hair.

The National Association of Black Journalists in the US denounced the cartoon as “repugnant on many levels”.

“[It] not only exudes racist, sexist caricatures of both women, but Williams’ depiction is unnecessarily sambo-like,” it said in a statement.

The 1899 children’s book, The Story of Little Black Sambo, featured derogatory racial depictions – such as characters with thick red lips.

Knight said he had “no knowledge of those cartoons or that period”, saying on Tuesday that “the world has just gone crazy”.

“The cartoon was just about Serena on the day having a tantrum. That’s basically it,” he told the Australian Broadcasting Corporation.

Knight also rejected a suggestion that he would not draw a similar image of a man. As evidence, he tweeted his recent cartoon of tennis player Nick Kyrgios.

Racism in Australian cartoons

One sociology expert told the BBC that Knight had used “a genre that has a long history of racist impact”.

“The author may not even realise their own framing of the world has been shaped by history of racism in Australia,” said emeritus Prof Andrew Jakubowicz from the University of Technology, Sydney.

He said there had been “a tradition” in many Australian cartoons to exaggerate physical characteristics of minority groups, including indigenous Australians, to “trigger a reaction” – such as humour.

Knight was also accused of racism last month for a cartoon which showed faceless black figures fighting in a Melbourne subway, a reference to a debate about African-Australian street gangs.