The Serena Williams cartoon exposes Australia’s ignorance on race – Alana Lentin

The whole world has woken up to be faced with what we in Australia have apparently become immune to: yet another vile, racist cartoon, so base in its age-old reproduction of bestial caricature to nonetheless make us look again in horror before turning away in disgust.

Mark Knight’s cartoon for News Corp paper the Herald Sun made global headlines because it depicts Serena Williams, whose mistreatment by US Open tennis umpire Carlos Ramos on the weekend has given racists the opportunity to air their views. A chorus of white commentators has defended the cartoon; “It had nothing to do with gender or race,” said the Herald Sun’s editor, while Knight himself denied knowing of the existence of the Jim Crow-era cartoons of African-Americans.

If there is one thing that people the world over know about Australia it is that this is a deeply racist country. Not only are the original owners of the land treated as less than fully human, but we indefinitely lock asylum seekers in camps on all-but-colonised islands.

To be sure, it is wrong to single Australians out for racism, especially coming from the British who set the ball rolling, or the Americans who too live on stolen land and became wealthy on the backs of enslaved people. It is also eyebrow-raising when Europeans, who largely deny the ongoing material benefits of past colonialism and elect far-right governments, sneer at Australia.

Racism is always made debatable, a matter of opinion not of history.

Nevertheless, white Australia does not discuss race well. As Tracey Holmes remarked on Serena Williams, there was a “stark difference between commentary from the US and Australia”. Her report was a rare outlier. More typically, ABC 7.30’s Leigh Sales interviewed former professional tennis umpire Richard Ings who denied Williams had been the victim of racism or sexism. It was Sales too who called on the New Yorker not to “buckle” in the face of pressures to retract its invitation to white supremacist ideologue Steve Bannon in the interests of “free speech”. She was joined by fellow white journalist Sarah Ferguson, who tweeted a photo of herself with Bannon after her Four Corners interview with him, writing, “What’s wrong with this photo? NOTHING.”

The belief that airing white supremacist views is akin to holding those who express them to account is dominant across the Australian media and much of the public. But the problem is that our white-dominated press lacks the racial literacy needed either to challenge racists or to discern racism, in cartoons or elsewhere. Consequently, there is no serious discussion of what the origins and functions of race are, and why racism continues to proliferate and constantly adapt itself. Racism is always made debatable, a matter of opinion not of history. But if we cannot agree that Knight’s cartoon is the epitome of racism and that giving white supremacists a national media platform is dangerous, it will be much more difficult to expose the myriad, less overt ways in which race works in Australian life, if there were indeed much appetite for doing so.

The supposed debatability of racism is why it is possible for Knight to deny his cartoon is racist despite countless people, black women in particular, around the world saying that it is. Knight accuses Williams of having a “hissy fit” and “spitting the dummy” in total white innocence of how race-thinking constructs black women as uniquely angry, and people of colour in general as irrational and hysterical.

Around the internet today are countless white arbitrations of what really is and is not racism. While race has been described by the late theorist of racial capitalism Cedric Robinson as “mercurial”, its constant purpose has been the maintenance and expansion of white supremacy.

It is thus understandable that whites seek not only to ensure their continued economic, political and cultural dominance but also to hold the reins on the definition of racism itself. Releasing the grip would unmask both the ignorance of the white media and its simple lack of concern for the knowledge and experience of the majority of the world’s people, including those right here trying to have their voices heard.

As Cheryl Harris wrote in her famous article Whiteness as Property, racial regimes based on the theft of native lands and the enslavement of black people produce an association between the fact of being white and the right of possession. Not only are white people given the legal right to take ownership of stolen land, but whiteness itself becomes property, having intrinsic value as a quality that only white people can possess. At the same time, under slavery, black people become property. The privileges that accrue as a result of being white come to be expected by white people so that any threat to their status or their reputation is perceived as illegitimate, particularly when it comes from the racially subjugated.

  • Alana Lentin is an associate professor in cultural and social analysis at Western Sydney University


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