That Very Racist Serena Williams Cartoon Wasn’t Racist, Rules Press Council

The Australian Press Council has dismissed complaints about last year’s racist depiction of US Open runner-up Serena Williams by cartoonist Mark Knight, ruling The Herald Sun did not “depict Ms Williams as an ape”. 

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The image, which was published in the aftermath of Williams’ on-court outbursts during her loss to Naomi Osaka at last year’s event, drew local and international condemnation for its depiction of the 23-time Grand Slam champion.

Critics noted the image featured heavily exaggerated lips in a style similar of racist American cartoons from the early 20th century. Detractors also noted that Osaka, who is of Haitian-Japanese heritage, was heavily contrasted to Williams in the cartoon with a vibrant blonde hairstyle.

In addition to The Washington Post labelling it explicitly racist and unmistakably reminiscent of those racist depictions, the National Association of Black Journalists called the image a “repugnant” misrepresentation.

Mark Knight and The Herald Sun both argued the exaggerated features were par for the course in editorial cartooning.

The outlet even dedicated a front page to the issue.

Their counterarguments have now been accepted by the Australian Press Council. It leant on the publication’s free speech standpoint, ruling that it “does not consider that the publication failed to take reasonable steps to avoid causing substantial offence, distress or prejudice, without sufficient justification in the public interest.”

For what it’s worth, the Australian Press Council also found some of Bill Leak‘s worst work on Indigenous Australians to be in keeping with media guidelines, so there you go.

Despite finding Knight and The Herald Sun in compliance with media guidelines, the Australian Press Council noted the image did cause considerable offence among readers. Fat lot of good that admission does, though.

After the controversy of the US Open final, the careers of both women featured in the cartoon have flourished. Williams powered through to the quarter-finals of the 2019 Australian Open, a Grand Slam which was eventually won by Osaka.