The Serena Cartoon: A Classic Case of Unconscious Racial Stereotyping

The cartoon by Mark Knight, published by the Herald Sun newspaper, depicting an on-court rant by Serena Williams, has, as most people now know, evoked a storm of criticism, particularly from the African-American community. A defiant doubling-down from the cartoonist himself as well as the newspaper ensued; followed by a spirited defence of the cartoon from a number of commentators.

Williams is portrayed in the cartoon with thick lips, wild hair and what is presumed to be a vaguely Africanised physiognomy, not having any particular resemblance to Williams herself. She is shown as being in a state of un-selfconscious rage.

Renown author J. K. Rowling commented: “Well done on reducing one of the greatest sportswomen alive to racist and sexist tropes…”

The defenders of the cartoon have responded with generalised comments about the freedom of the press and rejecting what they see as “political correctness”. In addition their counter-arguments can be summarised in the following points:

  •  The cartoonist, Mark Knight has no history of racism;
  • Mark Knight has emphatically denied any racist intent and said his aim was just to be funny;
  • The cartoon simply makes use of the fact that Williams has a large body-frame and happens to be black;
  • It is common practice for public figures to be lampooned by exaggerating their physical features;
  • Williams’ behaviour was unacceptable and she deserves to be taken down

These statements, in our view, all miss the point. Williams, like any other sports figure should not be immune from criticism if she behaves badly in public.

However, a line is crossed when drawings or cartoons resort to the use of generalised features or characteristics (usually of an unsympathetic nature) which historically have been taken to connote a particular race, religious affiliation, gender or other diverse group. This cartoon crossed that line and the subliminal messaging was, naturally picked up most immediately by the group who felt that they as a whole were demeaned by it-African-Americans.

The examples of race-insensitivity and crude racial stereotyping in publications throughout history are too numerous to list. Some are created deliberately for political purposes such as the Nazi cartoons of Jews. Yet others are published as bland matters of fact not realising the distorted images they convey. A recent one of note was the April 2018 edition of National Geographic which surveyed its own coverage over decades of black people. It acknowledged that in the language which it has used and the way photographs had been composed it had been undeniably racist over a long period. Its lead article noted the following:

“There is no genetic or scientific basis for race. It’s largely a made-up label, used to distinguish and divide us”

It may well be true that Mark Knight sincerely believes that no element of racist intent motivated him when drawing the cartoon. But his conscious intent is not the end of the matter. Research and a wealth of data from testing using tools like Harvard’s Implicit Association Test have shown that biases which lurk in the subconscious emerge in all manner of situations, often in the actions of people who emphatically renounce and condemn racially-motivated prejudice. Unconscious bias is universal and by its nature, is undetectable by the person at the time the relevant action is carried out.

The first step in combating unconscious bias is understanding how it arises and then acknowledging that no-one is free from it. We can then take steps to counteract some of the unintentional acts and statements which cause hurt and offence to those who are different from us because of their race, ethnicity, gender and sexual orientation.

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