The Serena Williams cartoon, the Dallas shooting and the weapon of white femininity
The connective tissue of race is all about the threat to white women
In two of the top news stories of the past week, the caricature of Serena Williams by an Australian cartoonist and the shooting of an unarmed black man by a Dallas police officer, the connective tissue of race is obvious.
What may be less apparent is the way that white womanhood is the go-to standard for ethical behavior, the yardstick for who needs protection and the weapon of choice in both stories.
In a cartoon published in the Melbourne Herald Sun, Mark Knight attempts to satirize the angry back-and-forth at the US Open between Serena Williams and chair umpire Carlos Ramos by depicting Williams as an enraged behemoth. She is drawn with big lips as well as an outsize chest and arms that make her tutu and ponytail, i.e., indicators of femininity, part of his editorial judgment. She is jumping up and down on the wreckage of a tennis racket destroyed by her thunderous legs. Her opponent, US Open champion Naomi Osaka, a 20-year-old Haitian and Japanese brown-at-a-glance woman, is depicted by Knight as slight, white-ish, and blonde.
It’s basically “just about a sportswoman having a hissy fit on center court at the US Open,” Knight says of the cartoon in an interview running on ESPN UK’s YouTube channel.
“Knight’s critics have focused on what they wrongly claim is some sort of inherent racism and sexism,” the Herald Sun said in an editorial defending the drawing.
What the critics see — and the Herald Sun appears to have glossed over — is that the cartoon features the kind of mocking imagery often seen in minstrelsy, an entertainment staple of the middle and late 19th century. It resonated far into the 20th century and the beginnings of television through the Aunt Jemimas and Amos ’n’ Andys of popular culture.
“It makes black faces something to poke fun at, something detached from personhood. It is as much about creating three-fifths of a person as the law is,” says Treva Lindsey, a professor of women’s gender and sexuality studies at The Ohio State University.
Whatever you think of the merits of Williams’ on-court exchange with the umpire, the cartoon is part of a long line of caricatures reducing black bodies to grotesquerie to make a point about their unworthiness and threat. Especially their threat to white women, a sentiment that has long acted as the emotional fuel and structuring fiction of white supremacy and violence. In this cartoon, it’s used even when the white woman in question isn’t, as in Osaka’s case, white. But she is drawn whitelike as a proxy for upright, shimmery goodness.
“This about sums it up. Serena is hulking with the exaggerated features of black caricature that we’ve been seeing for 100 years. Her “victims,” light, slender, human. Got it,” tweeted New York Times magazine writer and founder of the Ida B. Wells Society for Investigative Reporting, Nikole Hannah-Jones.
The second news item is about the shooting of 26-year-old Botham Jean by Dallas police officer Amber Guyger. In an affidavit, Guyger, who has been charged with manslaughter, contends that she mistakenly entered Jean’s apartment thinking it was hers, saw a shadowy figure, gave “verbal commands that were ignored,” and shot him, believing him to be an intruder.
Ignored a stranger’s command. In his own house. Guyger violated norms of sovereignty and dominion across the threshold of your own door, a notion nearly sacrosanct throughout American history, and in shooting Jean disregards basic facts of human nervous system wiring and reaction time. Because if you imagine yourself as Jean — confused or startled by an intruder, and then ordered to submit or comply before you are even able to process what’s happening, only to lose your life in the lag time — then the accusation of ignoring this police officer’s commands is another just another American grotesquerie.
Lindsey points out the ideas about threat to white women that run through the Williams incident. “To make Serena more of a monstrosity, to make her more assailable, the thing you need to have is a white body” to play against, she says. With Osaka, it’s done by lightening her complexion, and portraying her as significantly smaller than Williams, which in real life, she’s not.
Minstrelsy is about erasure and spectacle, Lindsey says. Erasing Osaka’s size and ethnicity makes Williams’ anger appear more egregious. It makes Williams appear more irrational, animalistic and savage when compared with whiteness.
“What that dude does in that cartoon is he adjudicates two decades of Williams sisters dominance, largely against white women,” says Brittney Cooper, a Rutgers professor of women’s and gender studies and author of Eloquent Rage: A Black Feminist Discovers Her Superpower. The fact that Osaka is not actually white is incidental.
The cartoon amplifies Williams’ actions through the prism of race, “and if one doesn’t buy it based on the caricature of [Williams’] body, then you buy it because of the misrepresentation of Naomi Osaka,” Cooper says. The quiet reserve of Osaka can’t be understood as being along the spectrum of black womanhood, so Knight draws her white to make the argument that Williams is excessive. He uses “hatred of big black women as being a threat to the narrative of sports as being devoid of politics. So the moment she tries to bring politics in, he is literally saying the frame of the tennis court, the frame of the racquet, the frame of American life cannot hold the truth of that,” Cooper says. Williams is so dangerous because she threatens to explode the frame. “And that is a racialized argument,” Cooper contends. “You can’t just get there with gender.”
The Dallas shooting engages another racial trope. The punishment of race in society doesn’t just rely on images of blackness, it also leans on white vulnerability and white fear. In video footage taken after Thursday night’s shooting, Guyger is crying and we subsequently learned that she’d just gotten off a 15-hour shift and that Jean’s apartment was searched. That he’d supposedly left his door ajar. That depiction is important to understand and empathize with her. It downplays the fact that Guyger walked into a man’s apartment and killed him, while centering herself as a white woman in danger. She is now a working woman who is entitled to be tired, while Jean was black and noncompliant, in his own apartment.
Let it play in your head. “It’s a subtle juxtaposition, as though he didn’t have a right to be in his own space,” Lindsey says. He’s erased and now he’s dead and “you can rely on this nation’s history of race and gender to produce such an outcome.”
“The rule that is most sacrosanct is that white women’s safety is the primary thing that must always be protected,” Cooper says. “For the purpose of white women’s safety, a whole host of otherwise completely irrational conclusions become reasonable to law enforcement in this country. When a white woman’s safety or perceived threat to her safety is on the line, then nothing else matters.”
Cooper gives the example of Betty Shelby, the Oklahoma officer who was found not guilty by a jury after killing Terence Crutcher last year. She then returned to policing, and is now giving seminars about how officers can survive the trauma of police shootings.
Both the cartoon and the Dallas incident are “literally making the same argument about white womanhood,” Cooper says. They are never a threat, and any treatment of black people is justified at the point where white womanhood or things we ascribe to white womanhood appear to be in danger.
Since the birth of the nation, those dangerous ideas about the magic of white femininity have been used to visit all manner of physical, spiritual and emotional lethality on black people.
So the question that remains unanswered is who is going to protect us from that?