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Further notes on an offensive cartoon

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(Screenshot from Twitter)

There is something stupefying, depressing and yet familiar about Mark Knight’s Serena Williams cartoon in the Melbourne edition of the Murdoch gutter press a few days ago.

There is the cartoon, of course. And then there is the familiar set of events the reaction to the cartoon set off. A survey of reader reaction, the cartoonist’s own bush lawyer defence and the decision of the paper not to apologise but to turn the whole thing into a stunt.

But first the cartoon. Assuming Knight knows something about the history of cartoons and the history of images, he would know something about different styles, and he would know that the way he depicts Williams directly references the explicit racist stereotypes of a century ago. That is what he has done, whether he is prepared to acknowledge that historical context of offensiveness or not.

Of course, Knight would be the last person to say this is about race. Yet it is demonstrably so. While the depiction of Naomi Osaka, Williams’ opponent, has not drawn as much attention, it is in some ways more offensive and telling than the Williams image. Even though Osaka’s skin colour is almost as dark as Williams, Knight has turned her into a white woman with blond hair. With a pony tail. Yes, your eyes are not deceiving you. Osaka has been denied her identity altogether. She has been literally whitewashed by the gormless Knight.

I suppose Knight has done his critics a favour. The black versus white subtext in the Williams caricature is not blatant enough for him. So he’s got to turn the other player into a white to fully articulate his binary thinking! Stupefying, but there for all to see, in Melbourne, in 2018.

When questioned about it, Knight did the usual Australian thing. He denied being racist and used the classic Australian defence: I didn’t mean to. As if this phrase frees him of all personal responsibility.

“Didn’t mean to”. A thesis could be written about how Australians use these few words to describe (and exonerate) everything from casual racism to domestic violence. As if intention is the only thing, or the most important thing, that determines if offence has been caused.

Predictably, 68% of respondents to the newspaper’s own survey did not think the cartoon was racist. The inane populism of such a survey defies credibility. How many of those readers were Indigenous Australians, or African Americans, or Melbourne’s own Sudanese community? It’s like asking a room full of thieves whether they approve of theft.

Predictably, neither the cartoonist nor the Herald Sun saw any reason to apologise, or concede that a line had been crossed. (Knight’s employer, of course, is the son of Keith Murdoch, once a leading member of the eugenics movement in Melbourne. The roots of racism in this cartoon run much deeper than just this unreflective cartoonist.)

I think it is time to accept the following proposition: all White Australians – left, right and centre – are racist, no exceptions. Not in the sense of believing they are racist, but in the sense of having benefitted from, are still benefitting from and will benefit from, for the foreseeable future, the dispossession of another race. Intentionality has nothing to do with it. A baby in a secure happy environment does not have to be aware of that fact to benefit from it. As the Herald’s own survey shows, 85% of its readers cannot recognise racism when they see it, which makes whether they think they are racist or not a moot point.

The French philosopher Jacques Derrida once wrote that justice is an impossibility, because justice demands immediate restitution and unconditionality, and neither is possible in human affairs. Time cannot be turned back. Dispossession and colonisation are surely the clearest examplars of this impossibility.

If this is true – and its truth does not exempt humans from seeking the lesser injustice anyway – then white people tend to react in a variety of ways.

There are those who rationalise the injustice by taking comfort in white supremacy thinking, manifesting in everything from proposed courses in Western Civilisation, to Trump’s White House, to the KKK. There are those who simply deny the injustice: Me a racist? Unthinkable. And there are those whose reaction is rage: what happens when one’s own complicity with racism (which all White people share) intersects with awareness of its horrors.

'White men,' the Australian politician and writer Charles Henry Pearson wrote in his 1893 book, National Life and Character: A Forecast, would be 'elbowed and hustled, and perhaps even thrust aside' by 'black and yellow races'. He was speaking particularly of Australia. This line of thinking runs straight as an arrow from 1893 to Keith Murdoch and the 20th Century Melbourne establishment to Mark Knight and his newspaper offices on Southbank during the 2018 footy finals season.

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