Ugly, isn’t it?
I refer not to the aspect of the figure caricatured, but to the caricature itself; and I’m not talking about artistic merit.
The cartoonist in question, Mark Knight, of Melbourne’s Herald Sun newspaper, offered this snapshot in response to multiple Grand Slam champion Serena Williams’ verbal altercation with the umpire, at the recent US Open. Unsurprisingly, the cartoon set the airwaves alight, with cries of “It’s racist!” and “It’s not racist!” ricocheting across the globe (or at least, the part of it occupied by people with nothing better to do).
Of course it’s racist. It’s considered racist because of the long history of precisely such caricatures–not caricatures of an individual, but caricatures of an ethnicity. As actor and activist Kelechi Okafor put it, it is racist because,
[It]plays on historically racist ways of drawing black people.
You find such images throughout the Jim Crow era; you see them in the trope of the “angry black woman“; in the trope of the “magical negro“; in the trope of Little Black Sambo; you see them in blackface, in minstrelsy; and on and on, and that’s only the US. Australia has its own troubled history on the subject. The depictions exaggerate, and thereby dehumanise, often portraying subjects animalistically. Bob Moran, the Telegraph newspaper’s cartoonist, and someone who is keenly aware of the pitfalls of such portrayals, lays out precisely why Knight’s cartoon is inappropriate, in a short video.
I actually have a harder time understanding how it could not be perceived as racist (but much ink has gone into shedding some light in that respect, in a fascinating study by sociologist Robin DiAngelo, for example, covered recently by The New Yorker). It’s not that I take offense personally; I don’t. I’m comparing this depiction against the backdrop of historically racist depictions.
What I find more offensive is the deluge of white commentary, deciding that this is not racist. That is not a decision that white people get to make, in the same way that I wouldn’t dream of deciding for a woman what’s misogynistic and what isn’t. It’s my place to listen and accept and learn; not to brandish my prejudices about. Nor does professing ignorance of racism absolve one of engaging in it. Aldous Huxley said “Facts don’t cease to exist simply because they are ignored.” The same could well be said of racism.