North America

Serena Williams cartoon criticised for exploiting 'angry black woman' stereotype


Members of the African communities in Australia and African-Americans in the US have condemned a cartoon of Serena Williams by Mark Knight as "racist" and "sexist".

Cartoonist Mark Knight published the caricature in News Limited publication, the Herald Sun.

The cartoon satirises the heated exchange between Serena Williams and chair umpire Carlos Ramos during the US Open final.

The 23-time Grand Slam champion is depicted throwing a tantrum by stomping on her racquet in the foreground. In the background, the umpire is pictured in his chair saying to Naomi Osaka: “Can you just let her win?”

But it was the depiction of Williams' facial features and body that have come under the most fire.

Dr Keith Rathbone on Serena Williams sketch
Dr Keith Rathbone on Serena Williams sketch

Kenyan-born humanities academic Kathomi Gatwiri at Southern Cross University said the oversized lips contributed to the dehumanising portrayal of Williams.

"The grotesque way in which her body was over-exaggerated, her physical attributes, her lips. Her buttocks, her thighs, her arms. It doesn't look human," she said.

"And when you put that in contrast with how Naomi (Osaka) or the coach is depicted in the cartoon, you can see that is a human being. They are presented in a very careful way - not animal-like."

Comparisons have also been drawn to derogatory and racist caricatures during the US era of Jim Crow, between 1877 and the mid-1960s.

Imagery used at the time to support racial segregation depicted African Americans as "innately intellectually and culturally inferior to whites", according to the Jim Crow Museum of Racist Memorabilia.

READ MORE: Opinion: The cartoon of Serena Williams is the latest in a long line of harmful caricatures of black women

The museum at Ferris State University in Michigan showcases the "anti-black caricatures" in order to promote "racial understanding and healing".

Mark Knight has defended his work, saying the accusations of racism are exaggerated and he was using the tools of satire.

"I haven't tried to portray her as some kind of ogre character," he said.

"People are seeing things that are just not there. People are saying things that are just not true.

“The cartoon about Serena is about her poor behaviour on the day, not about race.”


Dr Gatwiri said the portrayal exploited stereotypes of the "angry black woman", which were featured in the Jim Crow era.

"Angry black woman syndrome is something that comes out of the American context to depict African-American women as angry, domineering, sassy, bad-mannered, ghetto-ish, loud, aggressive," she said.

"I think the point of contention is when you draw on stereotypes. When you draw on harmful narratives to make your point across," she said.

"If he had drawn both women the same then we wouldn't be having this discussion."


She points to Mr Knight's work portraying Nick Kyrgios in a way that didn't dehumanise.

"When you compare those two cartoons (one of Serena Williams, the other of Nick Kyrgios). Nick is portrayed in a very respectable position," Dr Gatwiri said.

"He is sitting down, he is fully clothed, there is no super over-exaggeration of his physical bodily features, so he has got no stereotype to draw on when it comes to drawing Nick Kyrgios."

Author of The Hate Race, Maxine Beneba Clarke, argued that Mr Knight had other tools to choose from to make his point as an artist.

Ms Clarke said she had no sympathy for Mark Knight's defence.

"It's a tried & tested method. They print a racist cartoon, wait for dissent, then Bolt etc jump on any critics, with their weird 'Freedom of Speech'."

Lawyer and community advocate Nyadol Nyuon said seeing the cartoon brought back memories she would rather forget.

"Mark Knight’s cartoon, especially the lips, reminded me of this racist leaflets I saw circulating online. If you can’t see the similarities you should go to specsaver," she said in a post on Twitter.

Comedy writer Kara Schlegel said Mr Knight took artistic license too far by exploiting facial features historically used to demean members of certain races.

"Going to use my degree for once and explain precisely why this Mark Knight cartoon is racist, regardless of what the Herald Sun says," she wrote on Twitter.

"Cartoonists would commonly depict people of colour according to these 'essential' traits, Jewish ppl w/ large noses, Asian ppl w/ buck teeth, etc. It didn't matter how the actual human being looked. It was stereotyping ppl of colour while erasing their individuality and identity."

The Herald Sun editor Damon Johnston backed the cartoon in response to the criticism on social media.

“A champion tennis player had a mega tantrum on the world stage, and Mark’s cartoon depicted that," he was quoted on The Herald Sun.

“It had nothing to do with gender or race.”

American civil rights leaders urge higher standard

Bernice King, the youngest child of civil rights leaders Martin Luther King Jr. and Coretta Scott King, called on Mark Knight to do "more good" with his art.

"Art can be a vehicle to enlighten and eradicate racism, misogyny, etc. This does the opposite," she tweeted to the Herald Sun.

"And we can’t afford that in this current social climate. Please do better."

The National Association of Black Journalists called the cartoon “repugnant on many levels" and "sambo-like".

Sambo was a character in a 1899 English children’s book, The Story of Little Black Sambo.  American civil rights activists in the 1930s and 1940s criticised the illustration for what they called a racially derogatory depiction of a sub-human black youth. The name also gained currency in the US as conveying the archetype of the “loyal and contented” black servant.

In a statement, the association said the role of cartooning in this instance was abused.

"The art of editorial cartooning is a visual dialogue on the issues of the day, yet this cartoon grossly inaccurately depicts two women of colour at the US Open, one of the grandest stages of professional sports."

Rolling Stone writer Jamil Smith described the portrayal as a racial slur.

"This is Jim Crow-racist. He Sambo’d Serena Williams. I’m a bit surprised that @Knightcartoons didn’t include a watermelon. For those unfamiliar with the history invoked here, read about the coon caricature," he wrote on Twitter.

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