You almost can’t fault them for trying. Ever ready, willing, and able to “lampoon” the “bad behaviour” of people of colour — and especially black people — cartoonist Mark Knight and the rest of the gang at News Corp must have thought a golden egg had dropped into their lap when the Serena Williams moment exploded last weekend. And why wouldn’t they? It’s always worked out for them before, whether targeting Indigenous youth, Muslim women, or African teenagers. Draw racist cartoon invoking derogatory stereotypes. Feign innocence. Gloat at the “outraged left.” Bank the cheque.

You may have heard people of colour describe living in a white-dominated society as akin to being in an abusive relationship. We don’t say this lightly. And Australia is particularly adept at the abuser’s tactic known as gaslighting, or subverting our reality by insisting it’s not real. Think about the blackface incidents that still occur with monotonous regularity almost a decade after an appalled Harry Connick Jr asked, WTF Australia?

Every time it happens, white people trot out their cherished proverb, “how is that racist?” and Indigenous people patiently give the answer. Think of the golliwogs many Australians refuse to relinquish because of their attachment to derogatory representations of black bodies. And think of the cartoons. The never-ending stream of cartoons they still claim have nothing to do with race but that cause furore after furore that are usually at least mercifully contained to this penal colony outpost we call home.

Not this time however. This time, in aiming beyond our shores, News Corp overplayed its hand and the resounding consensus from the world was, WTF is going on in Australia?

[How the world is reacting to Mark Knight’s Serena Williams comic]

What is going on in Australia is what has always been going on; a stubborn refusal to listen, let alone act on the legitimate concerns and demands of the people of colour targeted by systemic racial discrimination.

Australia’s key media figures and politicians have always had the prerogative of deciding whether or not a particular thing is racist, as though like those all-white juries of the past they alone possess the “objectivity” required to pass down the only fair judgement: of course it’s not racist, silly! Full acquittal.

This embarrassing international incident again highlights not only Australia’s stubborn refusal to act on the urgency of race, but its bizarre pride in being so disconcertingly out of step with the rest of the Western world — a Western world that is itself far from its own reckoning on the destruction wrought by colonialism and its enduring legacy. And yet, in the same way that Australians can tolerate Aboriginal deaths in custody but march in support of Black Lives Matter, it seems it takes an international audience for many of us to see what it really happening.

So strong was the international backlash that within hours Mark Knight deleted his Twitter account, which I imagine adds to his sense of victimisation at being a withering but underappreciated political satirist. It’s truly remarkable how those who dish out the most can take the least when the tables threaten to turn.

Knight’s effort came on the back of a breathtaking fortnight in Australian media, beginning with 4 Corners’ interview with Steve Bannon — itself another demonstration of our lag in racial awareness. When The New Yorker dropped Bannon from its ideas festival — not because “Twitter now runs The New Yorker” as some outraged anti-social-justice-warriors warriors would have it but because several high-profile guests refused to appear alongside him — our ABC’s response was to tweet the magazine boasting about their great “interrogation”, and label people of colour “hysterical” for being alarmed at this clear normalisation of white ethno-nationalism. I am not necessarily opposed to featuring figures like Bannon in the media, only that that I believe journalists have a responsibility to… well report responsibly.

[Four Corners’ Bannon interview wasn’t ‘masterful’ — it was weak and negligent]

The Bannon fiasco ran concurrently with the now-defunct Tonightly’s bizarre decision to succumb to the right’s insistence that the people to blame for racism are the ones affected by it. The skit got around the dilemma of the unsavouriness of appearing to be racist, by erasing people of colour and pretending to direct their parody at white liberals — even though the topics they broached were exclusively ones to do with race.

Then came a lecture from sports journalist Caroline Wilson; laying into Serena Williams for her “bad behaviour”, Wilson dug up incidents from as far back as 2009 before castigating the tennis player who this time last year was close to death following birthing complications, for setting back women’s rights and gender equality, doing a disservice to Me Too, and embarrassing mothers. I’m surprised she stopped before placing Williams on the grassy knoll.

The bad takes kept coming. Fairfax published a former tennis umpire who very impartially outlined why Williams owed the umpire an apology, while assorted journalists and editors took to Twitter to calmly announce that while they didn’t personally find the cartoon racist — and as white men and women, they would of course know — they could understand why some might feel it is.

And then, as if this nation is determined to outdo its own narcissistic absurdity at all costs, along comes Pauline Hanson and usual suspects Mark Latham and Alan Jones to publicly denigrate and threaten a nine-year-old schoolgirl because she decided to stage a mini-protest by not standing for the national anthem. And what was much of our news media’s response to this bullying of a child by a bevy of middle-aged politicians and media personalities? It was to ask — sincerely — if she should be suspended as punishment. Apparently, our media is so committed to “balanced coverage” that even the public shaming of a child by elected representatives has to be reported on as if there were two legitimate perspectives.  

Our public discourse is pitiful. And like it or not, the blame for this lies partly and quite significantly with the media. We need a media that knows when to eat humble pie and take criticism from the public. But mostly we need a media that is not so obliviously and frustratingly white it still asks, “Well maybe Mark Knight just didn’t know?”

The only possible way that Knight or anyone could not know the stereotypes he invoked to humiliate and denigrate black women — not only Serena Williams, but all black women including Naomi Osaka, who he literally whitewashed in the background — were not steeped in violently racist imagery is if he and they have not been listening to a word of what people of colour have been saying and writing for so many years.

This is the real story. People of colour know the likes of Knight and his stablemates don’t listen to us and we don’t speak with any delusions that we can reach them. But the question has to be put to the serious media: have you been listening to the public you serve? And if not, why not?

Peter Fray

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