Is the Herald Sun's cartoon of Serena Williams racist?

A cartoon of Serena Williams has provoked a furious backlash from critics who deemed it racist and offensive.

Mark Knight’s caricature of the 23-time grand slam champion’s outburst at the US Open appeared in Melbourne’s Herald Sun.

The newspaper has defended the cartoon as satire, dismissing critics as politically-correct. Williams is depicted with oversized lips, jumping on her broken tennis racket, a dummy lying on the court next to it.

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Her match opponent, Naomi Osaka, who is Japanese and Haitian, is depicted as slender and blonde in the background. The cartoon has been widely criticised as “racist”.

This is why..

Reminiscent of Jim Crow era

It boils down to the fact that the cartoon “plays on historically racist ways of drawing black people,” says actress and activist Kelechi Okafor.

Many, including Ms Okafor, have compared it to imagery from the era of Jim Crow, which refers to laws and propaganda that enforced racial segregation in the US during the 19th and 20th centuries.

The original Herald Sun cartoon. Picture: Herald Sun/APThe original Herald Sun cartoon. Picture: Herald Sun/AP
The original Herald Sun cartoon. Picture: Herald Sun/AP


There has been a huge focus on Knight’s decision to draw Williams with enlarged facial features including oversized lips.

Such elements were often used in ‘Sambo’ imagery, according to Dr Joe Street, a senior lecturer in American History at Northumbria University.

‘Sambo’ is a derogatory racial term that refers to a children’s book from the late 19th century, The Story of Little Black Sambo.

Defending the cartoon, Mr Knight has said he has no knowledge of these references.

Stereotypes and slavery

Others critics have said his cartoon plays into tropes surrounding black people and their historical oppression.

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“The enlarged facial features and the position of a dummy in the cartoon draws on pernicious stereotypes of African Americans as angry, childlike and in need of restraint by white masters,” says Dr Kate Dossett, associate professor of US history at the University of Leeds.

“These were the images used to justify African enslavement and racial segregation in the past; they are still used to control black lives in the present,” she says.


The cartoon also highlights a particular type of bias towards black women – misogynoir.

According to writer Chante Joseph, black women in particular are often portrayed in the media as angry.

Writing for i, she says Knight has invalidated and dismissed Williams’ “genuine concerns [during the match] as blanket rage”.

“To make matters worse, he depicts Osaka, who is of Japanese and Haitian heritage heritage as a petite pale woman speaking to the umpire as he pleads with her to ‘Let [Serena] win’.”

The cartoon appeared in Herald Sun after Williams’ lost in straight sets to Naomi Osaka during the weekend’s US Open final.

Umpire Carlos Ramos warned Williams for receiving coaching from the sidelines and docked her a point for smashing her racket.

Ramos then penalised her a game.

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The tennis player called the umpire a “thief” and claimed the treatment was sexist.

Cartoonist Knight defended his drawing – as did the editor of the newspaper – saying it was nothing to do with race, rather Williams’ “poor behaviour” at the match.

The publication then doubled-down on the cartoon, reprinting it on the front page with the headline ‘Welcome to PC World’.

There has been dismay over Knight’s defence. “Regardless of whether that was the cartoonist’s intention, [racist caricatures are] an important frame through which many people will understand the image – and I find it very hard to believe that Knight would not be aware of those connotations,” says Dr Tom Davies, senior lecturer in American History at the University of Sussex.

This article first featured on our sister site iNews.