A little like the story of the boy who cried wolf, many of us are so inured to hearing accusations of racism in response to virtually any criticism of a person of colour, that we now simply tune out. So it was with the recent storm over the Serena Williams cartoon – the more its detractors have shouted about how racist it was, the more its defenders have simply shrugged off the accusations as the desperate claims of a small group of whiny social justice warriors uncomfortable with the idea of a black woman being held up to ridicule. The fact that this particular black woman is one of the most successful tennis players of all time, rich beyond the wildest dreams of most ordinary citizens, surely renders ridiculous any accusations of “oppression”. If Serena wants to be treated with the same respect as her white male contemporaries, surely she has to be willing to be held up to the same level of ridicule and criticism when her behaviour merits it? If it’s okay for John McEnroe to be depicted as a screaming toddler spitting his dummy out on court, why should Serena Williams be given a free pass?
I have to admit to having been flabbergasted when I first heard that the cartoon had been deemed racist. To my untrained eye, the drawing was instantly recognisable as Serena Williams – from the frizzy ponytail to the tutu dress to the physique, it was clearly aimed solely at Serena and not any kind of commentary on “angry black women”. As to the accusations that her opponent was drawn as white – well those were pure fabrications, as even a cursory glance at the picture would confirm. Blonde hair notwithstanding (as anybody who watched the match would know, Naomi Osaka did sport a blonde ponytail during the match) her skin tone far more closely matches that of Serena, than that of the umpire. If we really are to get picky over skin tone, it is the umpire’s that is less true to life – Carlos Ramos is by no means the pale-skinned, pink-cheeked character depicted in the cartoon.
And yet. Occasionally Twitter can be a source of enlightenment – and so it was last night that one user was finally able to provide some insight into what all the fuss is all about.
I’ve read various arguments that the overall depiction – the great hulking figure, the frizzy hair, the massive mouth – is “Sambo-like”. And I was genuinely mystified as to what was meant by this. I recall a children’s story called “The Story of Little Black Sambo” (bear with me here), about a young black boy of Indian heritage, who gets into an altercation with a number of tigers. Sambo is very finely turned out in bright trousers and shirt, carrying a bright umbrella, and ends up having to give up his fine clothes and umbrella to the tigers, who threaten to eat him otherwise. But he has the last laugh in the end as the tigers end up chasing each other by the tails, fighting over which of them looks the finest, until eventually they dissolve into a pool of “ghee” which Sambo’s mother then uses to make pancakes. Sambo, being particularly hungry after his adventurous day, eats 169 pancakes! Aged 4, being read the story in nursery school, I remember our class being delighted at Sambo’s adventures – enjoying the tale so much that we demanded it be read to us every day at “nap-time” – until eventually our teachers told us that there had been a break-in at the school over the weekend and that the book had been stolen, so we would have to have a different story in future. Whether they did that because they were just sick of reading the same story over and over again, or because of dawning realisation that many people found the name “Little Black Sambo” deeply offensive, I do not know. But either way, that was the end of the Story of Little Black Sambo.
Still – how, I wondered, could people possibly argue that the depiction of Serena Williams was “Sambo-like”? Setting aside the story, the broader term “Sambo” tends to simply refer to a person of African or African-American heritage, and even looking at pictures of “Sambo dolls” with their stripy trousers, big bow-ties and massive grins, I could see no resemblance whatsoever to the depiction of Serena Williams.
It was the below image, sent to me by another Twitter user, that finally pointed me to what people meant by “Sambo-like” and why they found it so offensive.
Now, I’ll admit I had to Google “Jim Crow”. Which probably goes a long way to explaining why I didn’t immediately understand why the cartoon is seen as racist. In fact I would go so far as to say that the distinction between those who see the cartoon as racist, and those who don’t, can probably be very closely linked to those who understand Jim Crow and those who don’t.
According to the website of the Jim Crow Museum at Ferris State University,
“Jim Crow was the name of the racial caste system which operated primarily, but not exclusively in southern and border states, between 1877 and the mid-1960s. Jim Crow was more than a series of rigid anti-black laws. It was a way of life. Under Jim Crow, African Americans were relegated to the status of second class citizens. Jim Crow represented the legitimization of anti-black racism. Many Christian ministers and theologians taught that whites were the Chosen people, blacks were cursed to be servants, and God supported racial segregation. Craniologists, eugenicists, phrenologists, and Social Darwinists, at every educational level, buttressed the belief that blacks were innately intellectually and culturally inferior to whites. Pro-segregation politicians gave eloquent speeches on the great danger of integration: the mongrelization of the white race. Newspaper and magazine writers routinely referred to blacks as niggers, coons, and darkies; and worse, their articles reinforced anti-black stereotypes. Even children’s games portrayed blacks as inferior beings … All major societal institutions reflected and supported the oppression of blacks.”
The original “Jim Crow” was a fictional clumsy, dimwitted slave, the subject of minstrel routines performed by a white actor named Thomas Dartmouth “Daddy” Rice.
As my Twitter interlocutor explained to me, it’s all in the lips and the mouth. Serena Williams does not have particularly big lips – yet the cartoon depicts her lips and mouth as taking up more than half of her face. And the bright pink texture of her lips is particularly reminiscent of the Jim Crow-era depictions of black people.
Still I couldn’t quite see it. As I pointed out, the Jim Crow-era lips tend to be big, fat, smiling mouths – whereas in my view, the most prominent thing about Serena’s mouth is its wide-openness and the visibility of her tongue, both indicators simply of the tantrum she is throwing. A clear caricature of her mouth in the photo below.
Even now, when I look at that cartoon, I do not see Jim Crow lips. But I can understand why many people, who have lived their entire lives in the shadow of historical depictions of black people as “Jim Crows”, would.
I do not know whether the cartoonist is familiar with the Jim Crow era – and if he is, whether he deliberately tried to court controversy by drawing Serena’s mouth in a way that could so easily be interpreted as reminiscent of that era, or whether no such thought entered his head. But just a brief glance at caricatures of John McEnroe confirms that nobody ever drew his mouth or lips in any way similar to how Serena’s were drawn. It would have been very easy for the Serena cartoon to be drawn in such a way as to be equally effective, while steering well clear of any similarities to Jim Crow. It may well be that those who see Jim Crow lips when they look at that cartoon, are being oversensitive – seeing offence where none is intended. But it could equally be argued that those of us who refuse to even acknowledge any similarity, are being insensitive.
Neither Serena Williams, nor any other person, should be immune to criticism or ridicule. But while ignorance of the historical significance of drawing her mouth in the way it was drawn, may be an excuse, indifference is another matter. There may be no need for the Herald Sun to apologise for the image – but it really wouldn’t kill them to try to learn something from the furore and endeavour to avoid such imagery in future. If they want everyone to focus on the real point of the cartoon – Serena Williams’ brattish behaviour – then the best way to do that is to avoid using iconography that so unnecessarily causes offence, and distracts from the overall message.