The Arts

Recovering Black Dignity for Serena and Naomi

Elissa Yukiko Weichbrodt

Over the past week, Australian Mark Knight’s cartoon of Serena Williams stomping on her racket during her U.S. Open match has sparked international controversy. Critics accuse Knight — and the newspaper that published the cartoon, the Herald Sun — of perpetuating damaging racist stereotypes.

Supporters, on the other hand, argue that “political correctness” has made it impossible for people to take a joke and claim there was no racist intent in the image. The Herald Sun reiterated its position by reprinting Knight’s depiction of Williams alongside caricatures of other famous people on their front page with the headline: “Welcome to PC World.” Indeed, for many cultural conservatives, the outrage over this cartoon might seem unmerited. Why would an image, particularly one meant to poke fun, inspire such vitriol?

Knight’s cartoon provides a clear example of the power of our visual archive. Regardless of Knight’s claims about his intentions, the image does not exist in a vacuum. It makes meaning internally, simply as an image, but it also relies on our knowledge of past images in order to make its point. In doing so, it recirculates dehumanizing depictions of black women while subtly elevating a particular, narrow norm of womanhood. As Christians, we should recognize, condemn, and work to reverse this dehumanization wherever we find it. After all, the very image of God is at stake.

The Image Analyzed

So, first, how does this image’s internal logic create meaning? The cartoon is dominated by a huge, hulking figure on the left hand side of the composition. A dark-skinned woman, with exaggerated lips and a large, flat nose, appears to jump angrily while a wild spray of hair appears to erupt, like steam, from her head. Her pose, as well as her head shape, is more gorilla than human. On the ground beneath her is a battered tennis racket and a small blue pacifier; both objects were presumably discarded by the fuming woman.

Behind this figure, we see a tennis court, a crowd, and a thin man in a blue jacket perched on an umpire’s raised chair. He bends down to speak to a second woman, who is separated from us by the hip-high net. This woman — slender, with lightly tanned skin and a long, straight, blonde ponytail — looks up silently at the umpire as he asks, “Can you just let her win?”

Knight uses the composition to set up a clear visual contrast between the two women in the cartoon. The figure on the left — Knight’s depiction of Serena Williams — is giant, bestial, and even threatening in her physical rage. The figure on the right — Knight’s depiction of Naomi Osaka — is diminutive, contained, and passive. Furthermore, Williams’s dark skin and kinky hair contrast with Osaka’s paler skin and sleek, blonde ponytail. This visual binary suggests a more existential comparison as well. Williams is less desirable, less reliable, and, presumably, less moral than her counterpart.

The Image in the Archive

Already, then, the image is working to dehumanize Serena Williams. But this impact becomes even more clear when we consider the visual archive that Knight references. Although Knight is Australian, his work picks up on tropes from American visual culture that were disseminated widely from the beginning of the twentieth century. The Jim Crow Museum of Racist Memorabilia at Ferris State University, for example, contains dozens of objects from Australia that participate in familiar American stereotypes.

First, Knight depicts Williams as being a tantrum-throwing child. Such infantilization recalls the picaninny stereotype, famously characterized by Topsy in Harriet Beecher Stowe’s novel “Uncle Tom’s Cabin” and Little Black Sambo in Helen Bannerman’s books of the same name. Often shown in the company of animals, picaninnies are depicted in popular culture as having large mouths and unkempt hair. They lack emotional control, often shown as either utterly carefree in their pleasure or completely undone in their rage. An ashtray from the early 20th century, depicting a fat black boy squatting naked on a chamberpot and squinting with his mouth wide open, suggests how this trope has been a common, even mundane, part of daily life for many Americans. Thus, when Knight characterizes Williams as a “crybaby,” he participates in a much longer history of delegitimizing the complexity and validity of African Americans’ emotional lives. 

Second, Knight’s image positions Williams as an angry black woman, the “Sapphirestereotype. “Sapphire” is short-tempered and sharp-tongued; she emasculates men with her irrational outbursts. A postcard from 1910, for example, depicts a wide-mouthed black woman with sagging, swinging breasts beating her cowering husband. 

We need to take seriously the social role that these kinds of images have played historically. Developed during the Jim Crow era, such stereotypes were deployed as mechanisms of social control. Making fun, belittling, and otherwise dehumanizing African Americans who violated social norms functioned as a very real means of enforcing black passivity and servility.

But there is another black woman in this cartoon: Naomi Osaka, a biracial Japanese-Haitian. As some critics have observed, Knight seemingly depicts Osaka as a white woman. Although Osaka does have blonde-tipped hair, neither her ponytail nor her skin color or profile resemble Knight’s cartoon. Knight erased all visible signs of black identity.

The contrast between the animalistic Williams and the ladylike Osaka in this cartoon recalls a photograph from Little Rock, Arkansas in 1957. In the image, taken by Will Counts, Elizabeth Eckford walks towards Little Rock High School in a neatly pressed shirt dress, clutching her books to her chest and shielded behind a large pair of sunglasses. Her expression is implacable and her attire is immaculate. Eckford’s contained, quiet femininity is contrasted with the snarling face of a white girl, Hazel Bryan, who strides behind her. The photograph was at least partially effective in drumming up white northern support for school integration because Eckford’s fresh-faced, poised appearance and attitude concurred with dominant cultural notions of what appropriate femininity — and appropriate blackness — should look like. Eckford looked more like a Sears catalogue model than a derogatory, racialized stereotype, and her perceived respectability was soothing to white supporters. Knight’s depiction of Osaka similarly suggests that there is an acceptable way to be a black woman…and that is to look and to act as much like a white woman as possible.

Once Knight’s cartoon was published — once it entered the public space — it became part of a much larger visual archive. The artist insists, “I drew her as she is, as an African-American woman.” And yet, Knight’s choices of how to draw Williams — what features to exaggerate, what proportions to use for her body, what contrasts to make between her and Osaka — are inevitably informed by the visual culture of the past. If it was not, the cartoon would not be so immediately legible.

The Image of God Restored

Given all of this, what do we do with this image? Do we censure Knight directly? Do we refuse to look at the cartoon altogether? I want to suggest, as I have before, that as Christians, we have a responsibility to recover the Imago Dei where it has been denied. That means that when we look at Knight’s cartoon, we must re-see the dignity of Williams and Osaka, women with powerful bodies, complex psychologies, emotional realities, and personal agency. In doing so, we might also ask ourselves what diminishing lies we have believed about black womanhood and what we may have lost along the way.

It might also mean that we proclaim this dignity to those in our social groups. Perhaps this means reposting the photograph of Williams embracing Osaka at the end of the match, choosing to circulate an image of black female solidarity instead of the more common photograph of Williams yelling. Perhaps this means asking someone what they actually see in Knight’s cartoon and talking through it with them, rather than allowing them to simply dismiss it as politicized bickering. Perhaps this means telling a black sister that you see the image of God in her when she is loud in her protest of injustice.

This takes real effort. It is actually far easier to simply dismiss the cartoon as “racist” than it is to do the work of restoring and affirming the image of God in these women. But with such high stakes, can we do anything less?


13 thoughts on “Recovering Black Dignity for Serena and Naomi

  1. Thomas W.

    Hey Adam,

    Sorry, I meant to check back and see if the conversation continued and life has just been busy.

    I agree with you impact can matter. But impact doesn’t by default indicate racist intent, and impact is often in the eye of the beholder when it comes to visual art or words.

    For instance, one person sees the drawing through their filter as an adult throwing a tantrum while marginalizing Osaka and portraying modern culture’s bent toward pacifying as if Osaka was white, herself. Her blackness didn’t matter.
    Another will see it through their filter as a racist drawing of Serena with or without Osaka, as you suggest.

    Unlike an actual government policy that has a physical impact, art is subjective with an impact to the beholder. But it doesn’t mean the artist was sinful anymore than a miscommunication to your spouse is necessarily sinful. Because the reality of their intention should be given the grace and understanding to accept even when that miscommunication unintentionally causes pain or offense to another.

    What we often do, especially across knee jerk society today, is that we solidify the impact or conclusion, without much consideration for the alternative possibilities.

    And that’s what I mean by not knowing the artist intent. It matters to how it should impact us.

    Remember, the initial charge by Serena post game was that the judge was sexist. During the game she called him all sorts of things in her multiple tirades. That she was being maligned because she was a woman. The initial media response reflects this. Society’s response, which largely expected her win, ignored everything, and took her side REGARDLESS OF OSAKA. Who is also a woman, and a racial minority all the same. On the court, Osaka was white-washed when the post game crowd/announcers/pundits/news, comments, and award ceremony didn’t want her to have won. The point of leaving her out in that conversation, is entirely because that’s what happened. So if there is any racism impact, it’s in the exposing of society’s predominant and immediate response to the situation.

    Lastly, I agree with your analogy in instances of government policy. Policies, regardless of their intent can have impacts that marginalize specific people. I think what often happens, whether intended or not is that the impact/intent is confused in how it’s taken when a policy is labeled “racist”. The person for instance that designed it, is now labeled along with it as racist. Most everyone in society ties their work to themselves as their value, and when criticized, presume it’s directed at them too. And so I think we talk past each other, especially in politics and policies, rather than getting to what would make a policy better.

    For instance, to your analogy, my response wouldn’t be to label it racist, but to ask, what can we do as a part of the policy to ensure that all citizens can have easy/easier access to obtaining a photo ID? Do we offer a door to door photo ID person for a couple of years? Do we provide transportation for a couple of years so that those in rural areas or are older have the opportunity?
    Or, we can ask how do we structure a better policy that addresses the concerns with non-citizen’s voting and others voting more than once, etc? African American voters are as harmed as any other citizen when non citizens are influencing elections. Is there a better option than photo id? I don’t know, but I do believe it’s important to protect the votes of citizens regardless of their color.
    The impact here though is far more real than someone’s perception on art which has little impact other than in how much it exposes our own bias.

  2. Adam Shields

    Thomas W when you said “I said that’s a possibility, but the artist denies the intent you’re attempting to establish on them. And we aren’t mind readers.”

    I think that matters. Because you are defining racism as a sin of commission that requires intent. I am not. I am saying that the impact of the cartoon is racist because it literally removes the minority as a person from the action where she was present because the actual minority person was a distraction to the point the artist was trying to make about another minority person.

    I can’t know intent beyond what the artist reveals. But that does not mean that I am incapable from judging an action as racist in impact.

    A legislative action that requires everyone to show photo id to vote may not have racist intentions. But if it has disparate impact between racial groups then it has a racist impact. There are historic reasons for why someone may not have or be able to get a government issued photo id. For instance, poverty is a desperate racial category. Minorities as a whole are more likely to be both in poverty and in isolated poverty. Many whites are in poverty, but they are more likely to be in non-isolated poverty. They are around wealthier people, which means they have access to services that wealthier people have. One study I looked at showed that poor minorities on average were twice as far away from a state drivers license facility as poor whites were. Older minorities, especially rural blacks are more likely to have been born at home and have difficulty with obtaining birth certificates.

    All of this is to say that racism is not defined as intent, but impact. When we hear a preponderance of minority voices say, this action or art or activities is racist and then gives reasons, we can’t say as a response, ‘well it wasn’t intended that way so it can’t be racist’. We can say, ‘It wasn’t intended as that way, but I will pay attention to why it was felt as racist and learn from it and do differently in the future.”

  3. Thomas W.


    I said that’s a possibility, but the artist denies the intent you’re attempting to establish on them. And we aren’t mind readers.

    Leaving Osaka out was likely done on purpose, but the intent isn’t necessarily due to the artist’s nature. It can entirely be done to expose the culture’s response. Does that make sense? In other words, Osaka isn’t a factor in the conversation….when she entirely should be. It’s all about Serena, largely due to the expectations of her winning. It’s entirely possible that it’s not a whitewashing, but a complete replacement where the white woman is representing the general community and not representing Osaka at all. The judge is asking society. As that’s the conversation being had by some due to her tantrum.
    My understanding of the initial conversation was that it the judge was racist for his ruling against her. Then the cartoon, then the response on the cartoon.

    It could also be done simply for viral response, which would be playing off of racial PC responses. For instance, if you see a large black woman throwing a tantrum as a gorilla, rather than a big baby, that might be exposing you rather than the artist.

    His body of work has Weinstein as Jaba the Hutt, and Nick Kygrios looking like a spoiled brat too. That’s what caricatures are. They exaggerate the PERSONAL physical attributes and situation.

  4. Thomas W.

    I think the point of the whitewashing conveys the world’s typical PC response to someone like Serena, where they’ve completely ignored the other person in the matter. “Can you just let her win” is the comment from the judge, conveying that her tantrum should be rewarded.

    In other words, I think he uses it to entirely expose our race reactions, not as a means in which he personally is racist, or that he personally wants to exclude Osaka, but that society is. Does that make sense?

    He’s on record saying it’s about Serena’s behavior.

    Further, in looking at some of his body of work, he drew Weinstein as Jaba the Hutt, and Nick Kygios as a cell phone distracted brat. I’d say the satire and caricature work is consistent and not race specific.

  5. Adam Shields

    Thomas W,

    Knight deserves to be treated humanely. But we should call racist things, racist.

    By itself, the whitewashing of Naomi Osaka out of the scene is a racist action. She was there. She won the match. And she was removed from the image.

    I don’t think there is any real question about the racist nature of the rest of the image. But that one part shouldn’t have any real question as being racist.

    Knight should also be judges by his body of work. And his body of work has more than several similar examples.

  6. Thomas W.

    Ben P,

    I agree. I think it’s perfectly fine to speak against racist actions. We should be hesitant though in situations in which we can’t prove a racist foundation though. Knight deserves as much human value as they do too.

  7. Ben P

    I agree with your thoughts on celebrating the talent of both women, but I think we need to also actively speak against racist actions towards them. I think the author of this article does a good job challenging us to act giving us a few ideas.

  8. Thomas W.

    Good questions, Adam. In all cases of sin? No. I was specific to the context here. We’re talking about an incident on the court in a game, and a cartoon drawing in response.

    What part would you like to “deal with”? In the case of the cartoon, can you for sure, prove the intent of the author? And what would be your suggestion in “dealing” with that? Censorship? And how will you restrain censorship from not being used in return in the future on yourself?

    In the case of Serena’s poor sportsmanship. Fine her, and encourage her to apologize to Osaka and the fans for her poor display. But that’s up to whoever runs Tennis. Not me or you, and I certainly can’t force her to apologize anymore than we can force a cartoonist not to draw.

    I would say if you’re considering controlling thought behavior via the law, that’s likely legalism, and it should be a red flag for us in how we are attempting to respond. We should take action when there is a present danger to the actual well being of another, such as the civil rights era, slavery, abortion, abuse, etc. This is a far different context than Serena throwing a tantrum like a 2 year old in a professional sport.

    Ben P.,

    Which part are you referring to? And what are suggesting should be done?

  9. Ben P

    The Lord will ultimately deal with it, but hasn’t He called us to love others and be Kingdom people? Can Kingdom people sit back and watch this kind of thing happen and not be questioned/challenged/etc.?

  10. Ben P

    What an incredible ending to a very helpful, and thorough examination of this cartoon. “Do the work of restoring and affirming the image of God in these women.” Thank you.

  11. Adam Shields

    Do you think that we should just let God deal with it in all cases of sin? Would it have been better for civil rights era protestors to just let God work it out?

    How do we know when it is better to let God work it out and when we should take action?

  12. Thomas W.

    I concur. I thought the white blonde in the background just typified the response for whiners and babies due to the comment he asks in “can you just let her win” to pacify Williams. In other words, it’s like there’s a crying kid in the supermarket and you tell the parent to just buy it whatever she wants.

    I don’t think it’s necessarily a racial statement, even in her caricature. I can see how it’s taken that way though, and why its a possibility. However, I think if it were a white woman, built like Williams, the caricature is drawn the same. In fact, you can find John McEnroe caricatures that show his frizzy hair, steaming out.

    But that’s what art does anyway when it’s effective, it plays on every bias that takes it in.

    I think what’s absent is also telling in that Osaka isn’t in it. I don’t think she’s drawn as white. He could just as easily drawn her in her frame and sportsmanship as it was and it would still be the model image of sportsmanship. The image has no consideration for the other opponent (Osaka) and another person of value by leaving her out. She’s not being asked, but society. If one were to let Williams just win because of her poor sportsmanship, how does that reflect on Osaka who by all accounts deserved to win the match and is of equal value? Societies knee jerk reactions to viral events, especially when a large portion of society is expecting a specific outcome, have a hard time reconciling with an unexpected outcome. Thus, lost in the reaction is the full context and consideration for others. Thus, people would rather pacify the outcome they expected and want, than give credit to the well deserving Osaka.

    But censorship is a quick steep slope. The legalism of it, has always had consequences. Even if Knight is being racist, let the Lord deal with it. Let’s celebrate that 1. Even Serena isn’t perfect like the rest of us. and 2. How incredible both women are as women in the first place, and the gifts they’ve been able to excel at on the court as a bonus.

  13. pduggan

    I dont think Knight wanted to literally depict Osaka. He knows she’s not white and blonde. He wanted to symbolize whiteness instead, and for purposes of a political cartoon (which is a genre that traffics in symbolisms far more than realisms) he altered her to a symbolic white person (with the message that whiteness’s desire for social peace means that black boorishness can get the goods [which is a terrible message]

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