My news feed has been filled with the thoughts and opinions of my friends, family and colleagues on the Serena Williams cartoon in the Herald Sun this week.
People have asked me my opinion on the matter, and I’ve felt like I’ve had to tread the line very carefully so as not to offend people. For some reason, everyone I know seems to be taking this debate to heart, even when some of them don’t have any reason to do so.
So I’ve kept my mouth shut and have played dumb.
My main reason for this has been the fact that I am a white woman, and I feel I have no right commenting on how people of colour feel after seeing the cartoon depiction of Williams.
But I actually do have a right. In fact, I have an obligation to speak up. Because the white voice is important in the war on racism. It is so important for people of colour to have the support of white people against people who are racist.
I do not believe by any means that Mark Knight was being intentionally racist in the publishing of that cartoon. However I think it was unintentionally racist. Why? I have seen Mark Knight’s cartoons before. And I can quickly pick up on who the person is. If you had have shown me the depiction of Williams in isolation (no court, no tennis racquet), I would not have been able to guess it was her. I don’t base whether or not the picture was racist over the exaggerated features because that is Knight’s style — exaggerated features. However, all I got from the picture was angry black woman, no real depiction of Williams as a person. In my opinion, that is lazy.
But my real issue is not with the cartoon. One can argue that it’s art, and art can be interpreted differently.
My issue is with the response.
People of colour were offended by the cartoon. Whether or not the artist meant for people to be offended and whether or not the artist agreed with people being offended is besides the point. The fact is people were offended.
Instead of saying, “That wasn’t my intention. As a white man, I don’t see the world the same way, and I’m sorry that I produced something which could be interpreted as offensive. I have taken all opinions on board and will use this knowledge in future cartoons to further understand the world from other people’s perspectives…” Knight basically said, “You are all wrong.” And then the newspaper executives jumped on board to defend him.
On top of that, there are the responses of other white men and women calling anyone who raised concerns about the cartoon the ‘PC police’.
This is the real issue.
Whether or not a white person feels the same way a person of colour feels about the cartoon shouldn’t matter. The fact is that white people do not have a say in how people of colour should feel about being treated or portrayed. As a white male, Knight simply could not understand racism or sexism from the point of view of a person of colour or a woman. And we should not expect him to have that level of understanding because he has never been subjected to it.
What is expected of him, however, is that he understands that he cannot know how someone who is a different race or gender to him might feel after seeing his cartoon. And he does not have a right to call the shots about how they feel. Thinking he does is just reinforcing white privilege and adding insult to injury.
And that’s why I felt I didn’t have a voice in this debate — because I am white, and I could not understand what it is like to be a person of colour, no matter how much racism I witness towards my friends, family and colleagues.
However, I do have a voice. In fact, I have an important role in this debate.
While I cannot tell a person of colour how to think or feel, I can tell a white person how to respond to someone who says they feel like they have been racially attacked.
As humans, we need to understand that our interpretation of the world is different to everyone else’s — and we need to understand that our personal interpretation is not necessarily right or wrong; it’s just our interpretation. If we cause hurt, upset or offence to someone, even if it was unintentional, we need to show compassion and understanding and take the opportunity to learn something about others’ perspectives to find a way we can ensure our future actions are not hurtful, upsetting or offensive.
In the same way we need men in the gender equality debate to voice their support for women’s rights, we need white people in the racism debate to voice their support for the rights of people of colour.
Sitting on the sidelines is just not good enough.