By now, you have probably seen the Australian newspaper cartoon about the U.S. Open final, in which the cartoonist depicted tennis icon Serena Williams as a hulking, hissy-fitting child. You might have seen that the paper, the Herald Sun, doubled down on the depiction and defended the cartoonist, equating the uproar to censorship and suppression.
Americans call the cartoon racist. The paper has responded as Australians often respond to charges and evidence of racism: with denial and disdain for people who take offense “too easily.”
I was born and raised in Sydney; I’m the product of a public elementary school that touted multiculturalism and a private high school where my graduating class was mostly white. For the last 13 years, I’ve lived in the U.S., and I’ve been a citizen of both countries my whole life.
In the early 1990s, when I was a child, it was common for Aussie kids to reach into their lunchboxes at recess and pull out a cookie snack called a “Golliwog,” named for and shaped like dolls of the same name. The dolls have black skin and big red lips and bulging eyes and bushy hair. If this sounds like a minstrel getup, it’s because that’s what the Golliwog is based on.
In the mid-1990s, not long after David Duke finished second in a primary contest for a Louisiana Senate seat, Australians were introduced to a politician named Pauline Hanson. Hanson was a proprietor of a fish and chip shop in Queensland, the Florida of Australia. She campaigned on reducing immigration, especially from Asia, and railed about “reverse racism” against white Australians.
In the early 2000s, when I was in middle school, I was in the first wave of students to be assigned textbooks that told the truth about white colonial efforts to exterminate Australia’s indigenous population. Until then, it was rare for schoolchildren to learn the real story about the dispossession of land, the massacres, the decades-long policy of taking Aboriginal children from their parents and placing them in institutions and in white families in an attempt to crush the blackness out of them and wipe out their culture. If that sounds familiar, it’s because it was very similar to U.S. government attempts to ”kill the Indian, save the man.”
If there’s one thing Australians can’t bear, it’s people who take themselves too seriously.
In the mid-2000s, just a few months after I left home for university, white Australians clashed with Lebanese Australians in a beachside suburb in a full-fledged race riot in which two dozen people were wounded. A talk radio host who referred to Lebanese Muslims as “vermin” who “hate our country and our heritage” and “simply rape and pillage a nation that’s taken them in” was found to have incited hatred. He still hosts a 3.5-hour show every weekday. Last month, he used the N-word on air.
In the last few years, Australia, under the leadership of both major political parties, has implemented a devastating policy of warehousing asylum seekers in offshore island prisons; the U.N. has denounced it, and President Donald Trump has admired it. The uppermost echelons of leadership in government and business remain almost entirely white. Recently, conservative politicians have stoked fear about African refugees forming violent crime gangs. Conservative media hounded Yassmin Abdel-Magied, a Muslim Sudanese Australian commentator who critiqued the nation’s racism, until she moved out of the country. Pauline Hanson has staged a comeback.
Enter the Herald Sun cartoon, with its depiction of Williams as out of control and childish, and of the white tennis establishment as cowed into submission, bending the rules of the game and granting special treatment just to mollify the demands of her almost-animal tantrum. These are subtexts and stereotypes that white Australians have long applied to indigenous Australians, just as white America has long applied them to black America (and its own indigenous population).
The Herald Sun is a News Corp. property that publishes the commentary of Andrew Bolt, the closest thing Australia has to a Sean Hannity. It belongs to an increasingly loud right-wing media ecosystem that reflects and amplifies white nativist ideas and screams about political correctness, free speech and “satire” when called to account. These dynamics, too, will be familiar to American readers.
What is perhaps less familiar is the quintessentially Australian disdain, on full display here, for people who take themselves too seriously. If there’s one thing Australians can’t bear, it’s people who take themselves too seriously. It smacks of pomposity, superiority and, above all, an inability to relax and take a joke. And there’s perhaps nothing more self-serious than calling out racism and sexism.
To accuse someone of racism is to take oneself, and the situation at hand, seriously. Calling out sexism spoils the fun, ruins the joke, rips away the veneer that we’re all mates giving each other playful shit and having a good time.
To point out that this cartoon ― intentionally or not ― replicates racist and sexist tropes about black women is to remind Australians that even jokes have consequences, and that political and historical context can’t just be suspended in the name of having a laugh. It demands that marginalized people, and their experiences of the world, be taken just as seriously as those of conservative cartoonists and their defenders. It is an affront to the laid-back jocular veneer that glosses over so much Australian ugliness.
The Herald Sun’s response, to cry censorship and cast itself as the victim of oppression at the hands of coddled PC-types and oversensitive Americans, is predictable and transparent (it is also, by the way, terribly self-serious).
To expect national publications to refrain from publishing racist and sexist jokes is not censorship or political correctness run amok. Nor is it imposing American standards on Australian humor. It’s a request for consideration, fairness and common sense. It’s a request to take serious matters seriously. It is a simple, quintessentially Australian ask: Don’t be a dickhead.
Chloe Angyal is the deputy editor of HuffPost Opinion. Before joining the Opinion team, she was a senior front page editor. She writes about politics, pop culture and gender.