Comment Of The Day: “Ethics Quiz: The ‘Racist, Sexist’ Cartoon”

Occasionally I request a comment from a regular reader who has special expertise; for example, I have asked “Curmie,” a drama teacher, director and superb blogger when he has the time, to weigh in on theater and casting ethics controversies. (And I just remembered that the last time he commented, he submitted a Comment of the Day that I neglected to post! Arghhh! I’m sorry, Curmie…it will be up today.) This time, the surprisingly lively debate over the allegedly racist Serena Williams cartoon prompted me to send out a Bat Signal for the reactions of King Kool, aka Jeff H., who is a long-time reader and a cartoonist himself. (His submission for “Everybody Draw Muhammad Day” periodically appears in the Ethics Alarms header.) He answered the call, and did so superbly.

There have been some new developments. The cartoonist, Mark Knight, has suspended his Twitter account because of all the hate coming his way.  Knight said he was amazed at the reaction to his drawing. “I drew this cartoon Sunday night after seeing the US Open final, and seeing the world’s best tennis player have a tantrum and thought that was interesting,” he said. “The cartoon about Serena is about her poor behavior on the day, not about race.”

Popular Australian Broadcaster Neil Mitchell, among others, defended Knight, saying, “This shows an awful misunderstanding of Mark Knight and this country. I looked at that cartoon and it didn’t even cross my mind it was about race. It was a sports bully, a petulant child throwing a tantrum about losing…I drew her as an African-American woman. She’s powerfully built. She wears these outrageous costumes when she plays tennis. She’s interesting to draw. I drew her as she is, as an African-American woman.”

As I have explained elsewhere on the Ethics Quiz thread, the reason I made the issue a quiz rather than an ethics  position post is that Knight’s  cartoon struck me as racially provocative.

I believe it is racially insensitive, but I am not certain that in the field of opinion cartooning racial sensitivities should be ignored. If a white, male player who behaved like Williams—it is astounding that so many pundits are defending her—a mocking, tough cartoon, showing ugly conduct  by portraying its perpetrator as symbolically ugly would be appropriate. I do  not think it is fair or healthy for special immunity to be granted to a similarly misbehaving player, especially a repeat offender like Williams, because of her race and gender. This why my vote in the poll accompanying the quiz was the somewhat tongue-in-cheek, “Whatever it was, she deserved it.” 

That response has gleaned 13% of the votes, with over 72% voting for the position that it’s just a cartoon. Against the 85% that are inclined to support Knight (all old white men who are constitutionally unable to recognize sexism and racism, according to one unbiased, unbigoted commenter), 14% agree that the cartoons is “racist.”

To its credit, Knight’s paper, the Herald Sun, took the remarkable step of devoting its entire front page to Knight’s defense, which you see above.

Here is Jeff H.’s Comment of the Day on the post, Ethics Quiz: The “Racist, Sexist” Cartoon:

One of the reasons I didn’t pursue doing political cartoons is because… no matter how much I practiced at it, I am absolutely awful at caricature. I tried drawing John Kerry dozens of times, and could never get it down. (Not that it ended up mattering.)

The image of Serena Williams has been called ‘something out of 1910,’ which I think it an exaggeration. However, the large lips, even the ponytail pointed straight up… to me, it does invoke some insensitive imagery of old caricatures and similar things. Maybe even the pose itself, her being completely in the air, maybe that is bothering some people for possibly comparing her motion to that of primitive man, or even that particular animal that racist jerks compare persons of color to. But that might be a stretch.

Again, that’s just my interpretation. I am not ascribing blame or intention. All I’m saying is… if the cartoon looked indubitably like Serena Williams, people would have a lot less to complain about, even if you could focus on part of it and say it parallels older racist art.

If it were me drawing this cartoon, I would have had Serena facing away from the ‘camera’ if I couldn’t make it look like her. The whiny facial expression isn’t important visually. We see her stomping the racket to pieces and the pacifier. The intention is clear. And thus, now that face is all we’re talking about.

Obama was drawn in caricature a lot during his term. Most chose to exaggerate his smile, as that was his most prominent facial feature. It’s not entirely different from how Carter was drawn. If a caricaturist chose to instead exaggerate Obama’s lips… well, that would be silly AND it would at least be evidence that the artist might not be trying very hard, and may well be dipping into artistic stereotypes.

Unsophisticated artists (like me!) have to do silly things to make it clear who they’re drawing. Remember how far out Ted Rall’s ‘caricature’ of Bush became, just to make him stand out from all the other interchangeable sideways heads he drew? I don’t think this artist TRIED to draw something racist, but I think the drawing can be fairly interpreted that way.

Just like looking at Serena Williams’ record of how often she blows her stack at officials would give us a better picture whether or not she’s a diva or just occasionally gets mad, or looking at this official’s record at officiating will tell us if there’s some bias in his history… unless the cartoon is galling and unambiguous, it doesn’t mean the creator is racist in a vacuum. If there’s a history of drawing persons of color in insensitive or questionable ways… then maybe it’s worth calling him out.

But to respond to your point that political cartoons are supposed to be mean and ‘make people gasp…’ that parallels what I’ve heard from other cartoonists who worked under political cartoonists. They mentioned an example where they showed the Grim Reaper dunking a basketball over Magic Johnson’s head. This followed his AIDS diagnosis, of course.

If someone can tell me what the message of THAT cartoon was, other than “fuck you, Magic Johnson, for getting a disease in the midst of your enviable career,” I would love to know it.

When I was a child, I remember reading in a cartooning book by Bruce Blitz that caricature is not meant to hurt anyone. I took that to heart earlier than I learned not to make fun of people for stuff they can’t control, like being bald or a diastema. You could represent those things in drawing, but you shouldn’t make it grotesque or in some way to hurt someone.

Now, as I said, the drawing doesn’t REALLY look like Selena, so maybe it won’t bother her personally. But the notion that political cartoons are just meant to rile people up and get under people’s skin… I don’t think that’s an ethical pursuit. Or if it is… I don’t have the nerve for it anymore.

That’s the other reason I put down the pen. I wanted to make jokes, or use jokes or observations to get people to let their guard down and see something differently. The career apparently called for the closest thing there was at the time to attention-getting clickbait.

(By the way, I voted “racist, not sexist,” even though I’m not entirely convinced it was racist. It’s definitely easier to make that claim than the sexism.)

33 thoughts on “Comment Of The Day: “Ethics Quiz: The ‘Racist, Sexist’ Cartoon”

  1. Great comment.

    On your ethics quizzes, you should have a before debate and after debate poll.

    I know my initial gut reaction led me to vote for 3 of the categories, but, in retrospect, I would have only voted for 2.

    • And then you realized your first thought was a visceral rather than a more typical analytical reaction, because in 1910 it would have had a completely different context, motive, and presumed audience. Right? A mocking caricature of a multimillionaire, role-model, celebrity opinion maker is different in kind from a a mocking caricature of an oppressed, abused, denigrated individual based solely on her race. No?

      • A mocking caricature of a multimillionaire, role-model, celebrity opinion maker is different in kind from a a mocking caricature of an oppressed, abused, denigrated individual based solely on her race.

        Of course not. Obama and his ilk are all about dividing this country by tribe, with specified privilege for every variant, and a ‘pecking order’ of who gets to be the victim. Every conflict has a victim and an oppressor.

        An asian can never be the victim in any progressive narrative where a black is the opponent. A hispanic man MUST be the enemy if an asian female contests him. And a white man is ALWAYS the oppressor, even if he was killed by a minority.

        Change my mind.

  2. “I don’t think this artist TRIED to draw something racist, but I think the drawing can be fairly interpreted that way.”

    You kind of glossed over this point. I would be interested in hearing more about why it is interpreted that way.

    • …because SJWs need fodder to keep the faux outrage going? A white man drew a picture correctly calling out bad behavior in a minority? The narrative must involve racism or sexism to make headlines? Because Trump?

      You pick.

    • I see this as the key point. The drawing only resembles older, racist drawings but has none of the vitriol behind those old cartoons. Especially when comparing the cartoonist’s other drawings, it just seems to be his style to exaggerate certain features? Why is that inherently racist if there is no racial thinking behind it?

      I equate it to what’s intended. Like, a professor reading Huck Finn and saying the n word vs someone driving through a black neighborhood and using the n word. In both cases, the word was used, but in only one case can the person be labeled a racist.

        • Haha no I have, but don’t buy the hype. In college my English professor was reading Huck Finn and didn’t skip over the N word. This black girl in front of me got mad, got up and left. No one cared at her fake outrage at the time, it was too early in the morning and she just looked ridiculous. Everyone essentially ignored her.

  3. A political cartoonist is a satirist and as such is often going to be disliked. The best satirists in history played both sides of the fence picking on right and left. This is their job to make us look at. Both our views and the other guys. Problem today with our polarized society is many are missing the jokes and even our satirists are leaning to far to one side or the other. There is a lot in this administration to make fun of. Their is a lot in the last to make fun of. If you put yourself into public view you are a target if your political views are public, then have a sense of humor when the satirist calls. If you get upset by the satirist then he has started the discussion, if you laugh the same. The jester was was immune in medieval Europe as he played the fool to get people to think. The dramatist who wrote the Trojan women was banned, but in the satire Lysastada the same concepts had the satirist celebrated. Comedy allows ideas that we might not want to talk about to be talked about. There is nothing unethical about that, unless you only look one way, in politics as in crossing the street that will Get you hit by a truck.

  4. I’d have a smidgen of sympathy of those critical of Knight if they had been heard from when Condoleezza Rice was attacked in political cartoons. Many of those played directly on anti-black stereotypes. Not a peep from the left to condemn the naked racism that was displayed against her.

    • So, this brings up the ‘selective outrage’ shown by so many progressives, when the minority in question is conservative. Just fine to make horrible comments about Sarah Palin, or Condoleezza Rice, or Clarence Thomas, but an entitled tennis player?

      Bring out the pitchforks! Of course, if the Left did not have double standards, they would not have any at all…

      • The tunnel vision that most of you employ here is depressing. Let’s come back to reality for a moment. Jack — you know, the writer of this blog — created a poll asking if a particular cartoon was racist or sexist. I voted, and I explained why I voted the way I did. That does not mean that there aren’t OTHER racist and/or sexist cartoons out there of successful black women — Oprah, Beyonce, Michelle Obama, and Condoleeza Rice immediately leap to mind as likely suspects. Now, if Jack — again, the writer of this blog — wants to create a poll about one of those cartoons, I’d be happy to give my two cents. I’m sure the other depressingly few people who voted along with me would as well.

        • Since when did I say you personally acted this way? I made a valid observation about progressives- you know, those who are feigning outrage- and you act like I indicted you.

          Let’s see, what would Jack – you know, the ethicist who writes this blog – call that?

          Maybe a strawman? Certainly a diversion from what I actually posted (Alinsky tactic). Possibly even projection…

          Sparty, I understand and empathize with how hard it is to remain sane when your party is insane. I will keep praying for you.

        • You’re missing, or intentionally sidestepping, the point.

          The first three of your four examples have built in Get Out Of Jail Free cards.

          The fourth was dubbed a race-traitor, sell-out, and far, far worse. But her detractors had a similar, if lower echelon, out: they were pissing off/offending the rightpeople.

          Heck, one of our local boys Jon “Sly” Sylvester (AKA Sly [Slime] in The Morning) received national attention in 2004 when he referred to Rice as an “Aunt Jemima.”

          No charge of sexism because he was an equal opportunity racist bigot; in the spirit of fairness, he called Colin Powell an “Uncle Tom.” What a mensch, am I right?

          America’s Dairyland offered up some token admonition, but Sly remained gainfully employed. Why? Sly was/is a card-carryin’ Union Proud/Union Strong, Bush bashing, virulently anti-Righty Lefty, ergo, perfectly ideologically certified for the 77 Square Miles Surrounded By A Sea Of Reality. And FTR, he did apologize…to Aunt Jemima!

          Other than that, I just can’t seem to put my finger on it, though thoroughly owning the coveted morning drive-time slot may have factored in a skosh.

          ” ‘Mr. Sylvester, who is white, apparently believes that his left-wing political views exempt him from charges of racism. Sylvester’s boss, Tom Walker, general manager for Mid-West Family Broadcast Group, agrees, saying, AS LONG AS HE ISN’T HATEFUL AND AS LONG AS HE SIN’T RACIST, I’M FINE WITH IT.” (bolds/caps mine)

          Roseanne Barr tweets something eminently stupid, Lefty goes apeshit, and she loses an 8 figure gig.

          Sly continues to draw a paycheck and the NYT hires Sarah Jeong.

          Así es la vida, ¿no?

  5. Mr. Marshall,
    Compare the following results of a search for “Angry Serena Williams” at “Google Images”:


    These images certainly make cartoonist Mark Knight’s drawing seem more “realistic” than “racist.” Keep up the good work on Ethics Alarms. Your efforts make me “Keep Thinking!”


  6. Jeff’s comment crystallised an idea in my head that’s been bouncing around for a while; The idea that things can be racist without actually being racist. It’s the kind of thing that I think progressives take for granted that conservatives understand…. Meanwhile, even as someone who understands, I think, what the progressive viewpoint is, I don’t know if I accept it.

    Conservatives generally understand racism to be an overt, purposeful thing, a shitty behaviour that is per se always a bad thing. Progressives have taken a more nuanced approach, they will match the conservative definition and then expand from there to things that have racial connotations, disparate impact, or not even those, but someone felt that it might be racist, and their feelings deserve validation because reasons.

    It almost seems like something that deserves its own label…. It’s strange how progressives decide things like this. The same group that says there’s an unlimited number of gender identifies, and want to treat the use of pronouns other than those that any individual might ascribe to themselves as a hate crime, cannot possibly consider using any word other than “racist” to describe phenomenon that they consider racially insensitive, but without malice.

    • Actually, I agree with you. When I discussed this cartoon in my own liberal bubble on FB, I actually assumed that the cartoon creator was not trying to be racist, but in fact, it was a racist cartoon. But here’s what interesting (to me at least) — does intent matter? Here’s a classic thing that happens to black women a lot — white women come up to them and touch their hair. These white women don’t think they are being racist, probably in their eyes, they are doing it from a source of admiration. Black women have more interesting hairdos than we do. But it is a huge insult to black women (understandably) to be touched without consent. So, does intent matter there? In my book, it is still racism.

  7. Just now posted the following in an earlier thread on the Williams tantrum:
    _ _ _
    I beg Jack and all commenters: Forgive me, just in case, for speaking up late, and for possibly missing the fact that the point I am about to bring up has already been talked to death here.

    Has there been the slightest suggestion, anywhere, that PERHAPS Williams’ tantrum and self-righteous bratty-ness POSSIBLY had SOMEthing to do with HER racism against the Asian opponent who defeated her?
    _ _ _
    “HER?! Defeat ME?! GOTTA be [name blame targets, anyone but self]!”
    The world has enough Hlary Cnton imitators. They all need to go extinct.

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