News Corp in Australia has doubled down on a cartoon published by its Melbourne paper that has been widely derided as a racist caricature of Serena Williams.
The cartoon by Mark Knight made international headlines as people – particularly in the US – argued that Knight had used the style of racist “Sambo” cartoons used to dehumanise black Americans in the early 20th century.
Critics included the US civil rights activists the Rev Jesse Jackson and Bernice King, the daughter of Martin Luther King Jnr, as well as the National Association of Black Journalists.
On Wednesday Knight’s Twitter account was no longer active, with News Corp reporting that the backlash had gone beyond criticism and that Knight and his family had received ***** threats.
The Herald Sun used its front page to rail against “PC world”, with a composite of nine cartoon figures it believed people would want banned.
“If the self-appointed censors of Mark Knight get their way on his Serena Williams cartoon, our new politically correct life will be very dull indeed,” it said.
As well as republishing the Williams illustration, the front page included caricatures of Donald Trump, Tony Abbott, Daniel Andrews and Pauline Hanson. One drawing depicted Australia’s new prime minister, Scott Morrison, as Fozzie Bear.
Each carried a caption, such as “outlawed”, “banned”, “suppressed” and “vetoed”, but it wasn’t clear which, if any, anyone would actually want outlawed, banned, suppressed or vetoed.
Next to a caricature of Kim Jong-un it read: “belly fat, Asian stereotype”.
Knight’s original cartoon depicted the tennis star having a tantrum on the court of the US Open, with the umpire in the background asking her competitor, Naomi Osaka “Can you just let her win?”
Defending his cartoon on Tuesday, Knight said he had “no knowledge of those cartoons or that [Jim Crow] period”, and that his illustration was about Williams’ behaviour on the court – not her race or gender.
Knight’s editor at the Herald Sun, Damon Johnston, defended the cartoon, as did the chief executive of News Corp Australia and the company’s Victorian managing director.
His fellow News Corp cartoonist Paul Zanetti called for people to “get some perspective”.
“The cartoonist’s job is not to excuse or paint a glowing portrayal of bad behaviour, whether by Presidents, Prime Ministers — or sports heroes or heroines, but to cut oversized egos to size,” he wrote.
“Knight’s now globally infamous Williams cartoon did just that.”
Luke Pearson, the founder of Aboriginal media company IndigenousX, said the controversy was the latest example of an Australian media organisation being “aggressively racist and then pretend[ing] they don’t understand why people are calling them racist”.
Pearson said racism in Australia gave people the power to “rewrite the narrative”.
“The power to ignore the real victims of racism and pretend the racists are the victims. The power to ignore and demonise the voices of those with lived experience and frame them as not existing or being irrelevant.”
Rohan Connolly, a well-known Australian sports journalist, said he didn’t believe Knight was intentionally making a racist point with his cartoon “but he was (however unintentionally) using some typical historical hallmarks of racist parody”.
“Yes cartoonists ritually exaggerate the physical features of their subjects. But generally speaking, they’re not exaggerations tied up with hurtful racial or gender-based baggage,” Connolly said on social media.
Connolly said he had been accused of racism in the past, after using abbreviations for particular ethnic groups that he wasn’t aware were offensive.
“When I was made aware, I apologised, and I stopped,” he said.
“So I think it is quite possible to be racially offensive through naivety. The point is once you do see the other view, from those who have actually been subjected to that sort of offense or oppression, that should be enough for it to cease.”