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Serena Williams, Mark Knight & Empathy

Serena Williams’ upset at the U.S. Open women’s final on the weekend has gained much attention in the news, as has the Herald Sun’s Mark Knight’s cartoon of the event.  Knight has felt the force of outrage against him, many seeing his cartoon as racist.  He has even received death threats which are unacceptable and has disabled his Twitter account.


Consider Empathy

I don’t believe Mark Knight intended his cartoon to be racist, but I do think this situation highlights a vital matter we all need to be aware of, that is, empathy: “The ability to understand and share the feelings of another;”[1] to put oneself in another person’s shoes.  Much of the commentary I’ve heard and read is from people who say that those who are accusing Mark Knight of being racist are being ridiculous.  It’s no surprise that the majority of these people are white men who have probably never experienced what it’s like to be on the receiving end of racism.

Now I realise that cartoons are expected to be edgy, satirical and pointed, but making fun of oppressed people is not satire, it’s bullying.  Satire is designed to take concepts to the extreme to show how silly they are.  If Mark Knight didn’t mean to be racist or offensive towards Serena Williams, then a simple apology would be appropriate.

Certain people are already jumping up and down about threats to freedom of speech, but there is no threat here. Mark Knight was utterly free to publish his cartoon and others are just as free to protest.  It seems we only want freedom of speech when people say what we agree with, but I’ll save that topic for another blog.

The point here is that we all need to be aware of what others face, or have suffered, in life.  We need greater empathy (understanding, compassion, identification) for one another.  What we saw from Serena Williams on the weekend was not a “hissy fit” or “dummy spit”, it was the boiling over of years of frustration from being subjected to bigoted abuse throughout her career – things that white male tennis players don’t experience.[2]

Empathy Questions

Empathy causes us to ask the questions, what is it like to be you?  What is it like to see the world through your eyes?  The only way we can know the answer to this is to ask, to talk with people of different races, genders and sexual orientations, rather than to make ill-informed judgments through the lens of our own experience.

I heard a classic example of this last week on Melbourne’s 3AW.  The Royal Adelaide Show removed three award-winning golliwog dolls from a display of handicrafts following a racism outcry on social media.  Tom Elliott interviewed Michelle Hocking, the director of the Royal Adelaide Show, and then took some calls from listeners.  It was interesting to hear the number of people who could see nothing wrong with golliwogs and thought the whole thing was a ridiculous display of outrage.  Tom Elliott naturally agreed – he’s a 50-year-old white man.  However, what if we look at this through empathetic eyes?

Golliwogs are historically associated with blackface — a performance tradition in which white performers would wear dark makeup and crudely stereotype black people.  The golliwog also inspired the racial slur “wog,” which in Britain is a derogatory term for dark-skinned people. [3] African-British writer Hannah Pool said, “unless you have been spat at, kicked or had eggs thrown at you, all while being called that hateful term, it is unlikely you will ever understand why a small doll causes such a big fuss.”[4]  Empathy.

I was talking about this with a dear friend recently.  He is of Indian descent and was adopted by a white Australian family when he was a baby.  He’s more Aussie than I am but his skin is dark brown whereas mine is white.  He told me of the horrendous bullying and racist slurs he’s been subjected to all of his life. He’s been called a golliwog and sworn at many times.  Even when he married his wife, a white woman, he was at the brunt of awful statements even by Christians.  A man in their Baptist Church asked why he was marrying a white woman: “Aren’t there enough of your type over there that you wouldn’t have to come here and marry one of ours?”

When he was 12, he was doing some voluntary work at the World Vision stall at the Easter show, signing people up for the 40-Hour Famine.  A middle-aged white woman told him, “All black people should be dead.  If they can’t look after themselves, we should just bomb them all.”  Fancy saying that to a young boy!  As a white guy, I’ve never been at the brunt of this sort of comment.  Sure, I’ve had pommy jokes told in my presence, but I have never been scorned or ostracised for being British.  I don’t have a history of racial abuse that has left me scarred and vulnerable.  The same goes for my Irish wife who tells lots of hilarious Irish jokes.

Empathy Considers Context

Another factor to consider is location.  For example, telling a joke about a Protestant and a Catholic may fly under the radar in Australia because we haven’t gone to war over this, but in Northern Ireland, it’s a different matter.  Empathy will consider location, as well as cultural and social factors, and be sensitive and caring towards those who are in other places and from different backgrounds.  Wisdom cultures (like Bible cultures and our own indigenous Australians) believe that every part of the land has its memory and history, which is why it is hurtful when we tell jokes or make light of what unfortunate events have taken place on their land.

Empathy will ask what it’s like to be in the shoes of another.  What’s it like to be a woman commuting home on her own after dark?  What’s it like to be a Muslim woman identified by wearing a hijab or burqa?  What’s it like to be same-sex attracted in a straight-dominated world?  What’s it like to have a skin colour other than white?

Let’s be slower to condemn people like Serena Williams and spend some time trying to see life through their eyes.







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