[This post is jointly authored by Kristi Oshiro & Anthony Weems]
The recent US Open women’s tennis singles championship has garnered significant attention from fans and non-fans alike. However, the attention hasn’t been on Serena Williams’ return to championship form just one year removed from giving birth or the triumph of 20-year-old Naomi Osaka over her tennis idol on one of the sport’s biggest stages. Instead, both Williams and Osaka have had to deal with the steady onslaught of racialized and gendered backlash from various media outlets. In a seemingly unconscious attack on Serena Williams and her frustration with the referee of the finals match, Mark Knight of the Herald Sun portrayed a caricatured version of Williams and Osaka that only a white male could have put together. Given the long history of anti-black, caricatured images produced by white men, the photo immediately drew criticism on social media. Following the Herald Sun’s publication, a battle over the framing and racial/gender implications of such a photo erupted.
Although many news outlets are claiming the photo was really about Williams’ “bad behavior,” this form of gendered racism has a long history rooted in white racial framing. Therefore, the purpose of our piece is to further explore the nuanced nature of gendered racism in the aftermath of the US Open. More specifically, we interrogate how the white-male framing of both Serena Williams and Naomi Osaka reproduces the white racist and male sexist frames. The framing and ongoing defense of Knight’s depiction not only dehumanizes Serena Williams and presents her as a hyper-visible subject in what is traditionally a white-oriented spectator sport, but it also invisibilizes Naomi Osaka presenting her as a whitened and docile figure passively looking on in background. To make matters worse, Knight and his colleagues at the Herald Sun have since vehemently defended his depiction and have explicitly positioned themselves as victims of political correctness. Thus, we problematize these narratives here and seek to further explore the implications for sport, media, racial framing, and the intersection of white racism and sexism on a global scale.
White Racial Framing
In his book, The White Racial Frame: Centuries of Racial Framing and Counter-Framing, sociologist Joe Feagin outlined the extensive white racial frame that both informs and rationalizes systemic racism. In addition to the anti-other and pro-white subframes that are central to the overarching frame, Feagin noted that an “important dimension of the dominant racial frame is its gendered-racist character” (p. 105). On top of a long history of racist framing of both men and women of color by whites, Feagin pointed to the role of the white-run media in perpetuating the gendered-racist character of the dominant frame: “The mostly white [male] media executives generally decide what blatantly racist elements from the dominant frame can be openly used by commentators and entertainers on their programs” (p. 106). Feagin later added to this by discussing how the dominant gendered-racist framing had been resisted over time:
These gendered-racist framings of black women, some of which are also applied to other women of color, persist because they are fostered by white-dominated media and undergird recurring discrimination. In research on black women, researchers like [Angela] Davis, [Philomena] Essed, [Patricia Hill] Collins, Elizabeth Higginbotham, Yanick St. Jean, and Adia Harvey Wingfield have regularly emphasized the importance of liberating women of color from racial, gender, and gendered-racist stereotypes and discrimination. (p. 181)
Since the publishing of the original Knight photo, many prominent voices, such as the journalist Jemele Hill, have taken to Twitter and other media outlets in defense of both Williams and Osaka. One Twitter user even posted her own reframed drawing of Williams who was depicted as saying “It’s almost like it’s pretty easy to draw a black woman without being racist!” However, in the midst of the backlash to the gendered-racist framing of both women, Knight and the Herald Sun have adamantly defended their original publication. In a follow-up issue of the Herald Sun titled, ‘Welcome to PC World’, the news outlet – run by mostly white men – dismissed the backlash tweeting that the cartoon “had nothing to do with gender or race.” Falling in line, Knight’s white-male colleagues weakly emphasized that the cartoon was “about bad behavior, certainly not race.”
But as Lonnae O’Neal stated in her article for The Undefeated, racism is always part of the story. And this is certainly the case given the long history of white obsession with the “behavior” of women of color. Still, as the battle over media framing continues to take place in the public sphere, one aspect is being consistently overlooked: the actual white-run media conglomerates and their male-sexist framing of both Williams and Osaka. In the media’s weak attempts to refocus on Osaka’s victory, an attack on Williams’ behavior as “wrong” has taken over the headlines. Moreover, as Williams’ behavior has now become the central media narrative in the U.S., Knight’s racist cartoon takes on a symbolic role along with its blatantly racist framing. The drawing has become symbolic in the sense that mainstream media outlets in the U.S. and around the world have ultimately echoed the sentiments represented in the photo. These media outlets and their mostly white and male producers have effectively created a lose-lose situation for Williams and Osaka; a reality that has long plagued women of color in white racist societies.
Intersection of Race and Gender
As the mainstream media remains central to the perpetuation of this gendered-racist framing (Feagin, p. 105) intersectionality is a powerful analytic tool that can be used to better understand and deconstruct said power relations and interlocking systems of oppression imposed upon women of color. Moreover, it allows us to shed light on the similar, yet, distinct ways in which both, Williams and Osaka, were victimized by the framing of this emotion-laden caricature. Here we see a dichotomy of hyper-visibility and invisibility reflective of society at large. In regards to the former, one cannot ignore the “re”presentation of Williams front and center. In the words of O’Neal, the photo
…[depicted] Williams as an enraged behemoth. She is drawn with big lips as well as an outsize chest and arms that make her tutu and ponytail (i.e., indicators of femininity) part of his editorial judgement. She is jumping up and down on the wreckage of a tennis racket destroyed by her thunderous legs.
Interestingly, in stark contrast to a hyper-visible Williams, in the background is Osaka, portrayed as a much smaller, thinner, docile, observably white female with blonde hair taking direction from the official. The black-white conceptualization of race illustrated in this caricature gives way to a host of topics worthy of discussion. However, in this particular case we argue there is a bigger issue at hand and many are overlooking a prominent piece of this puzzle: Naomi Osaka is not even a white female. In fact, she has been explicit and proud in embracing her biracial identity as a woman of Japanese and Haitian descent.
While many have criticized the ignorance and racist/sexist undertones of Knight’s illustration primarily focusing on Williams, fewer have problematized the invisibility and misrepresentation of US Open tournament champion, Naomi Osaka – the first Japanese player ever to win a Grand Slam singles title. In direct juxtaposition to Williams, the attack on Osaka may not seem quite as severe, although in reality she is being subjected to many of the same white-male racist gendered frames herself. In being reduced to a white female in Knight’s caricature, a new identity was imposed upon her. As the Huffington Post’s Zeba Blay suggests “Osaka was robbed of something else: her agency, her identity, her story, and her blackness.” Furthermore, her soft spoken demeanor represented here as a submissive, innocent bystander plays directly into white anti-other framing and asian (American) stereotypes such as the model minority myth, the perpetual foreigner, and the exotization of Asian women imagined as hypersexual, submissive sex objects. In turn, despite Osaka being secure in her identity as a biracial female, we witness the media struggle with this notion and impose their own narratives as if her identity is theirs to name.
Nevertheless, following in a rich tradition of strong resilient women, particularly women of color in sport and beyond, both Williams and Osaka have stayed true to themselves and persisted but also resisted these intersecting forms of oppression. However, this is not to undermine the very real burden of the emotional and cognitive labor internalized when one falls victim to forces of systemic oppression. In an event that could have easily divided two competitors, amongst boos from the crowd Williams and Osaka literally came together in solidarity in an emotionally charged trophy ceremony following the match. Perhaps this would have been a more accurate illustration to capture the essence of what had transpired that night.
While this particular incident took place on U.S. soil, the omnipresent white racial frame and its ability to legitimate, produce, and reproduce multiple forms of systemic oppression transcends national boundaries. In this piece, we call attention to the predominantly white-run media conglomerates and their male-sexist framing as a primary outlet to mobilize such ideologies, although others may be equally applicable. The events that transpired at the US Open and subsequent press released in the Australian based newspaper, the Herald Sun, is just one of many incidents in a series of controversies that have been associated with the sport in recent months. For example, the ban against Williams’ Black Panther “Wakanda” inspired catsuit at the French Open – for no reason other than suggesting it was disrespectful to the game and space – shows that these microaggressions on the premise of race and gender are not isolated occurrences, but rather, an ongoing structural problem present on a global scale. In contemporary times, it is undeniable that sport and society are inherently intertwined as these social issues are reflective of the broader politics operating both in and through sport. Thus, it is imperative that we view the institution of sport as a legitimate platform to continue to deconstruct and better understand the implications for sport, media, framing, and the intersection of white racism and sexism worldwide. As social justice scholars it is important that we listen to, support, and stand alongside these athletes and strive to produce emancipatory research that challenge these unjust interlocking systems of oppression.