The complex origin of a black woman's anger

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If there's one thing we can learn from the Serena Williams debacle it is this: never dismiss marginalised people when they insist your interpretation of their experience is wrong.

Serena Williams reacts to umpire Carlos Ramos after her defeat in the Women's Singles finals match to Naomi Osaka at the 2018 US Open. (Photo by Matthew Stockman/Getty Images)We can argue relentlessly about whether or not the tennis great had the right to smash her racquet, to dispute the umpire's decision, to rain on opponent Naomi Osaka's parade. (Williams might well have won that match, so it's a moot point as to whether or not she knew she was spoiling the up-and-comer's moment of glory.)

Many before her have unleashed tirades at umpires, and many more will do so in the years to come. No-one is arguing that such behaviour is acceptable; though it must be said that numberless players have hurled ghastlier slurs and have nonetheless been spared the intense, divisive, global examination of their actions for days afterwards. John McEnroe was expected to smash his racquets and verbally abuse everyone in his sphere when he walked onto the court.

So people are entitled to argue that Williams was out of line with her response to cautions and penalties during Saturday's women's finals match at Flushing Meadows — as another female tennis legend, Martina Navratilova, has done. But they have no right to racially slur Williams because of her actions — as News Limited's Herald Sun cartoonist Mark Knight has done.

We can argue about whether or not the caricature produced by Knight is racist and sexist. White people in their swarms have done so already, flooding social media with their opprobrium, casually dismissing the representation of Williams as nothing more than an interpretation of a dummy-spitting sports star. The cartoonist himself is devoid of contrition. The whites have spoken.

But African-Americans (and people of colour and marginalised groups in general) vehemently disagree with Knight and his supporters. And herein lies the lesson: if a marginalised group tells you unequivocally that what you have done is deeply insensitive — and provides reams of literature and historical context with which to support this assertion — it behoves us to listen to them; just as it behoves men to listen to women when they tell — and show — them that the world is a deeply sexist place.

As members of the dominant culture, we have a nasty habit of offending marginalised people then lecturing them on the virtue of not being offended. But there's no longer any excuse for superiority and ignorance, for the voices of reason are flooding the world and imploring us to listen.

 

"The image clearly packages Williams as an unidentifiable, unattractive black female troublemaker."

 

While Knight's cartoon might appear innocuous to those of us removed from America's shameful slaving and segregation history, it conveys a deeply racist message aimed at reducing Williams to a caricature of her race rather than a parody of her own person. The image clearly packages Williams as an unidentifiable, unattractive black female troublemaker.

If we could identify with her features, at least, we could tap into the person the cartoonist is imploring we see. Because she's represented as an everywoman, she becomes the stand-in for any black woman expressing her anger. The fact that the anger has been caused by a (perceived) injustice is not alluded to.

The juxtaposition of Williams' opponent, Osaka — a brown-skinned, Japanese-Haitian woman with fair hair — compounds the offence. Where Williams is depicted as ungainly and slack-jawed, Osaka (naturally slim by comparison) stands innocent-faced and inaccurately white-skinned on the sidelines, apparently considering the umpire's injunction that she 'just let [Williams] win'. 

But more injuriously still — when one peels back the layers so dextrously arranged by Knight — the cartoon paints a picture not of Williams herself but of the deeply racist sentiment conjured around slaves and their descendants during the Jim Crow era; it exhumes a painful, not-yet-vanquished history in which being black put people at serious risk of violence and death.

While such a portrayal damages people at their core — and undermines the strides they have made in the lost war against racism — it has a more damaging consequence still: the emboldening of a hyper conservative society in which those with racist values are begging for permission to express them.

A cartoonist on a major daily newspaper would surely understand the judgement that cartoons cast, and the way in which they've been used to vilify and caricature people in centuries past. If he sincerely has no idea of the way images he himself has employed were used to demean African-Americans, then now is his chance: he is being advised ad infinitum by history professors and human rights activists and people with common sense.

His response to this re-education has been to double down by trying to prove that he offends all of his subjects (none of them, of course, could be distilled to a particular ethnic group or race). But the rest of us are welcome to remove the blinkers: educate ourselves about the complex origin of a black woman's anger; read between the lines of the cartoon's commentary; and acknowledge that we can never speak to the exact experience of anyone else — especially when that person has been victimised by entrenched racial bias. Let's silence our own defences for a change, and sit back and listen.

Cartoons contain deep commentary on their subjects, and those people who have viewed Knight's cartoon are more literate than he might have hoped; for his indictment of Williams is clear for them to see.

 

 

Catherine MarshallCatherine Marshall is a Sydney-based journalist and travel writer.

 

 

 

Main image: Serena Williams reacts to umpire Carlos Ramos after her defeat in the Women's Singles finals match to Naomi Osaka at the 2018 US Open. (Photo by Matthew Stockman/Getty Images)

Topic tags: Catherine Marshall, Serena Williams, sport, tennis, racism, sexism, Mark Knight

 

 

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Thanks, Catherine. The most lucid commentary I've read about this particular event. I will say that I am a keen watcher of grand slam tennis finals and have been for a number of years. I've seen many of Serena's triumphs in this sport and she is a powerful and crafty tennis player, mentally tough and supremely talented. Tennis is not primarily a team sport, it is one person against another. And grand slams are the biggest stage of all. She lost her temper in this final (not for the first time) and an escalation occurred. It wasn't first degree murder or grand theft larceny. If Serena had won this match she would have been lauded and crowned. As it happens, she has been vilified, racially abused and cast as a 'villain' for losing ungraciously. A most sobering lesson on the vacuity of the press and some people who don't know much about humanity.
Pam | 13 September 2018


Having grown up as a member of a marginalised racial group and experienced widespread racism from my fellow (white) Australians since arriving on these sun-kissed shores almost thirty years ago, I understand at first hand what Catherine Marshall is saying here. However, I would raise two points in defence of Mark Knight's cartoon. Firstly, his caricatures of other people (including white persons) that feature in his cartoons are all unflattering - indeed, most are quite ugly. So it cannot be said he has singled Williams out because she is black. It is simply his style of drawing. Secondly, is there any caricature of Williams that can be drawn showing the full extent of her ire and displeasure with the chair umpire that would be acceptable to those that take issue? Perhaps, Catherine Marshall, you should hold a competition for those readers who possess an artistic eye and hand, and ask them to draw their version of the ironically named Serena Williams in full vent. A cartoon that shows her to be a superb athlete and raving beauty that she truly is but also livid to the point of genius. The winner would be the one who showed off her talents and also her fury in that instant, without aggravating African-Americans or any other groups of people that Mark Knight seems to have annoyed. I saw and listened to Mark Knight professing his innocence and I have to say that I believe him when he says it is simply a caricature of a furious Serena. I doubt any of us look good when we lose our tempers in such a spectacular fashion.
Martin Killips | 13 September 2018


Spoilt, arrogant, narcissistic brats who can't take it when they are being outclassed by an opponent in a game are still spoilt, arrogant, narcissistic brats regardless of the colour of their skin.
john frawley | 14 September 2018


Saturday September 15. Considering that this event has dominated all aspects of the media through numerous articles and public comments from around the world over the last week and continues to do so if today's news bulletins are any guide, it defies belief that ES has received a mere two comments. Does the paucity of commentary mean that all believe the cartoon is racist and no further comment is necessary. Or could it be that many had commented that it isn't racist and have been censored out of commentary for fear of upsetting those who see racism and injustice as having to do with nothing other than skin colour and gender respectively. Williams herself prompted the code violations. She smashed her racket in a angry childish tantrum because she was being significantly outclassed and hammered by the relatively humble young Japanese player. She then hid behind the political no go zones of the oppressed mother and champion of women's rights, urging the sisterhood and the angry blind amongst them to get behind her. And they took to it like honey-eaters to the bottle brush. Williams' display was discourteous in the extreme, unwarranted and possibly in itself racist. She did after all consider herself above others not of her own race - the umpire and her opponent. A disgraceful performance appropriate to its portrayal in the cartoon.
john frawley | 15 September 2018


The idea that appalling behaviour is ok because you are a wealthy tennis player is unacceptable. Serena Williams trampled over another young woman of colour. To say she was entitled to act as she did because she is a victim is not on. That I hiding behind the rage is ok stance adopted by many to justify acts that cause harm to others. Williams did precisely this. The racist card allows her to not take responsibility for the awful display she produced, against a man of colour, the umpire, and another woman of colour, her opponent.
Rosemary Sheehan | 17 September 2018


I have difficulty with the concept of a cartoonist being required to consider the impact of his caricature on the potential world wide audience and not just on those who regularly read the publication for which the cartoon is intended. This suggests that caricature drawing must cease as somewhere in the world someone will be offended no matter the subject. An example - cartoons pertaining to paedophile priests are accepted by most as raising a legitimate concern yet some priests find them offensive because they tarnish the image of many priests. No one in their right mind would object to their publication, but just what is the underlying difference?
Mike | 17 September 2018


Thank you so much for your piece Catherine. I thought your writing was insightful, articulate and challenging to big narratives wanting to describe what is right and wrong. The Aussie white community still thinks it can pass comment and describe the experience of our diverse human race. British Colonialism is not dead in Knights world.
Ben Webb | 17 September 2018


Serena is certainly NOT a 'marginalised' person ..... just the richest and best female tennis player in the world . She doesn't lose often , but when she does she 'spits the dummy' (so to speak). A bad loser. The cartoon (as cartoons are meant to do) is her as it is Osaka. Mark Knight has it as it is .
Jack Bowen | 17 September 2018


We live in a world of 'political correctness these days. My wife who 'is of colour' (Filipino) and I (Irish) and our children(all adult) were not offended by the cartoon. Williams is not the only professional sportsperson to spit the dummy, Sadly its become all too common as greed, money and egos have ruined the ethics of sport over the last few decades. What does annoy me is the message being sent to our young people by these very spoilt brats, whether they be white , black or brindle!
Gavin O'Brien | 17 September 2018


Serena’s coach immediately admitted cheating. Serena was angry because of the injustice or just because she got caught? Did we not see the exact same behavior from Lance Armstrong along with the similar strenuous denials. The threats to destroy those who dared to hold them to the sports governing rules. He was a dispicable cheat. It seems Serena is not any different from Lance. Her team undertook structured action to break the rules, she got caught and came out swinging. The tennis federation has since imposed fines on her behavior as well they should.
Patrick | 17 September 2018


Serena displayed bad sportsmanship, nastiness and abuse. Her behaviour is not acceptable. Gender or race has nothing to do with it, it was uncalled for and certainly very unacceptable.
Brian Goodall | 17 September 2018


Thank you Catherine for your insightful commentary. It seems to me your comments were about the cartoon, not about Serena's outburst. I found the cartoon you referred to by the white male artist racist. I found his defense of his racism not all that surprising. Australia is a racist country and our history of our treatment of our first peoples bring this sharply into focus. The defense of the racist cartoon by so many white males seems to me to only support our inherent racism. I believe we have been raised by our society to be so and that we cannot see the inherent racism is a shame and, for so many aboriginal peoples and recent immigrants tragic. Why else would we tolerate the treatment of those seeking shelter by imprisoning them on foreign lands. Maybe the cartoon creature is genuinely ignorant of his racism and that indeed might be the crux of our nations problem in this area.
Tom Kingston | 17 September 2018


To accept bad behaviour and a temper tantrum because of Serena's particular colour, is patronising of the worst sort. In my family we were taught to treat all people equally, no matter what and that meant with courtesy and kindness. Serena is a very successful, wealthy athlete and there is a responsibility to set an example for the upcoming young players. Learning to be a good loser is part of it.
Jane | 17 September 2018


Some of the personal comments about Serena Williams – arrogant, narcissistic, appalling, nasty, abusive, and even comparing her to Lance Armstrong – are out of proportion, but it seems that by challenging the umpire as she did, Williams lays herself open to all sorts of stereotyping and insulting caricature. I thought the question in the cartoon – can’t you just let her win – was particularly insulting as well. It was never about that. Naomi Osaka was asked what Williams said to her after the match. Apparently Williams’ comments to Osaka were along the lines of “I’m very proud of you” and “Don’t worry, they aren’t booing you”. This sounds a lot more like recognition, respect and encouragement than poor sportsmanship.
Brett | 18 September 2018


Williams was simply being beaten by a better player. she lost the first set and was well on the way to losing the second when she decided to put on a turn. being a bad loser is pathetic, and to try and pull on the race card is despicable
BERNARD TRESTON | 20 September 2018


I have seen Williams act this way at several Australian Opens, her strategy was always to intimidate the Umpire, unsettle her opponent and therefore give herself an advantage. Never off the cuff, clearly with all under control. She is not he example for other women at all, rather a win at any cost attitude, that we can all do without. Her behaviour after the match to her opponent was at best patronising
adrian jones | 20 September 2018


Serena is never going to cut it here. I get it that her blow-up on court during the final was not good and with hindsight she might have handled her grievance differently. But she can’t even show respect for her opponent’s victory without being called “at best patronising”. I’ll add pathetic, despicable and patronising to the list in my earlier post. We sure are a tough bunch of judges here on Eureka Street.
Brett | 24 September 2018


The complex origins of a black woman's anger explained to us by a white woman! Now I see why its so complex to explain!
Aurelius | 24 September 2018


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