I couldn’t think of a catchier title for today’s post – if I could’ve, I would’ve, I promise you – so this entry sits under a banal masthead. Ho-hum. But this is not a banal topic, far from it, as the discussion that follows shows. It is the transcript of an exchange on social media following my previous post, So, how DO you draw a caricature of someone with African heritage? It is a vigorous debate between respectful friends who happen, on this particular occasion, to hold diametrically opposite views. I have made them anonymous for the simple reason that the points raised are the important element here, though obviously I’m easily identifiable as “A.”
[B] Vehemently disagree [with the original post] here. The McEnroe comparison, in particular, is off-base, because a white male of any national origin is still a part of the dominant power structure in any Anglo-European culture, including former colonies like the US (Williams’s home) or Australia (the source of the offensive cartoon). So there can be no racially offensive stereotype in a caricature of him. The cartoon of Williams, on the other hand, draws on powerfully offensive tools of racist oppression and it deserves condemnation. The answer to the titular question is, you don’t.
[A] Wait… you don’t ever draw a caricature of someone with African heritage? You only draw cartoons of white people? That’s what you seem to be saying.
Well, for once we’ll just have to disagree. No one should get a free pass when it comes to satire, and in the case of visual images you either depict someone according to their stand-out features or you just put a blank where their faces should be.
I think you are putting far too much of a political gloss on this, without standing back and looking at the facts of how these drawings are constructed. I don’t actually like the Australian cartoon, and I think it does sail very close to the wind [for obvious reasons I didn’t say that in my post – it would have weakened the cultural point I was trying to make]. My choice of John McEnroe was deliberate – if you’re talking about “dominant power structure” then I beg you to look at the history of Ireland, where John’s heritage is. I think you would have to modify your argument.
[B] If that cartoon of McEnroe was drawn by an English person and/or had been framed in a context contrasting him with someone not of Irish descent, I would absolutely change my argument, because you’re right about the political history there. Not the same thing as racism, but I would take your point. But a caricature is not the same thing as a racial stereotype, and to conflate the two — especially in the context of American racism — is to play with fire.
[C] I agree with B. There is no way for a white person to draw a caricature of someone of African, Jewish, or Muslim descent without being offensive. The line is too thin, and the historical function too painful. Left to interpretation, exaggerated features that were historically used to dehumanize any person of color will always appear racist. I place it squarely in the category of minstrelsy disguised as a privileged artistic medium.
[B] That’s a strong, concise explanation. Thank you for that, C.
[A] Thank you C and B for your comments. I agree with you both that this is a dangerous subject for very good and cogent reasons, and to a large extent I don’t disagree. Don’t assume that I am blind to these problems. However I think your answers illustrate a further problem, not a solution, and that is a challenge to the discrimination of the eye of the viewer. One should be able, let’s face it, to differentiate easily between, say, a political caricature of Benjamin Netanyahu and the Nazi depiction of the “Ewige Jude,” and do so with facility. One should be able to discriminate between a Tea Party placard and Steve Bell’s depiction of Barack Obama in a political cartoon. C, I believe you are saying that a cartoon of Osama bin Laden would have been, ipso facto his religion, unacceptable – but we should be able to discriminate between an islamophobic diatribe and a cartoon of a particular mass-murderer. B, you accept that “a caricature is not the same thing as a racial stereotype” – good, my point exactly! You will both notice that I did not directly defend the Australian cartoon. That’s not up to me, it’s up to the artist himself.
Let me show where your arguments lead. Below are two juxtaposed caricatures. Both are of prominent political figures. One is of Zimbabwean quasi-dictator Robert Mugabe, and one is of former British PM John Major. Each individual has she same stand-out facial feature – the philtrum – and in each case the individual cartoonist has emphasised this feature. What you seem to be telling me is that the cartoon of Mugabe is racist, or cannot be differentiated from racism, simply because it is a depiction of an African, and therefore it should not even have been drawn; the depiction of John Major is, by contrast, perfectly okay. You’re telling me that context doesn’t matter a damn. You’re telling me that a man whose followers were responsible for rapes, murders, abductions, assaults, and displacements gets a free pass because he’s African. And I’m telling you that that conclusion is itself problematical.
[B] The caricature of Robert Mugabe is not racist because the philtrum is not a characteristic exploited by racists to dehumanize black people.
The depiction of Williams is racist because the exaggerated lips and nose have historically been used by racists to dehumanize black people, the exaggerated size and markers of perceived “masculinity” have been used by racists to attack black women, and the portrayal of rage has historically been used by racists to criticize the “angry black woman.”
Those are not caricatures; those are racist stereotypes. The portrait of Mugabe does not meet that definition.
[A] Which neatly supports my point about being able to discriminate and differentiate between the two. Hence you weaken your original argument that a person of African heritage should never be portrayed in a cartoon. Thank you.
[B] That wasn’t the argument you were making. There is a distinction (albeit a fine one) between a cartoon and a caricature, the latter of which is dependent on exaggeration and depending on what is being exaggerated, risks running smack into stereotype. Also, as C pointed out, who is drawing the portrayal and the context of that portrayal matter. My point, which I didn’t elucidate properly at the outset, was twofold: first, as C so nicely put it, is that white people need to be very careful in how they choose to portray people of color; second, that if one is questioning whether or not one should portray a person of color in caricature, the answer is almost certainly no. Unless one is very certain of why one is exaggerating certain features and one is wholly prepared to face charges of racism (which anyone asking the question wouldn’t be), then it’s best not to go there.
[A] Yes it precisely was the argument I was making, but let’s let that pass, as we don’t want to get into a was-wasn’t-was-wasn’t exchange.
But I come back to my original question. Let’s make this specific, let’s take it back to Serena Williams. You spoke about the stereotype of the ‘angry black woman’. Here we have a public display of anger by a black woman that made her look ridiculous. If we want to take the mickey bliss out of that public figure (don’t forget she is a public figure) for that childish display, then how do we do it? Or should we just let her get away with it?
[B] I noted a hint of this in the end of your blog post, but I’m glad you’ve said it aloud now, because it opens the door to the issue that spawned this whole cultural conversation: whether or not her behavior on the court was justified. I view her anger in that situation as both wholly justified in the context of the match and the discriminatory calls by the chair ump and an example of the sexism prevalent in a tennis where male players routinely get away with exactly the same sorts of outbursts. That some people have chosen to chastise Williams for behavior that, in men, is not only allowed but often celebrated exacerbates the sexism of the situation, and that some people — like that Australian cartoonist — then add to it the layer of race and the stereotype of the “angry black woman” (which is not a charge that black women are not angry but a charge that black women are both irrationally angry and also not allowed to be angry) only adds grave insult to grievous injury. While I understand the larger artistic point you sought to make in your blog post, given the context of this specific situation, this might not be the best example to use to make that point.
[A] B, in answer to your point about “behavior that, in men, is not only allowed but often celebrated” I can only shake my head and say “You cannot be serious!” With which notorious quote I rest my case.
[B] You make my point.
[A] No, precisely the opposite. I am a great fan of both John McEnroe and Serena Williams as tennis players. I regard both their outbursts as equally unacceptable, hence my use of the word ‘notorious’. And that, I’m afraid, is that. Note, ‘notorious’ not ‘celebrated’.
[B] You might; the tennis world – and that chair ump in particular – have a different view. Notoriety is cousin to celebrity.
[A] Why on earth would they? The very most I would concede is that views would be split about these matters. many people still regard McEnroe as a bad-tempered brat because of that outburst, and think that it taints his tennis career (I might be among that number). Williams’s outburst will have similar longevity for the same reasons. Not convinced, B.
[B] I would encourage you to search for video of said chair ump, Carlos Ramos, as he ignores or allows outbursts and tantrums from players like Djokovic, Nadal, and your own Murray. I would encourage you to search for television ads in which McEnroe trades on his celebrity as a “brat,” or in which Agassi trades on his image as a “rebel.”
[A] B, this was not about the ump, nor should it be. You are getting further and further from the issue at hand and, I’m afraid, flogging a dead horse.
By the way, that “your own” was below the belt.
[B] In what way [am I flogging a dead horse]? I only meant to offer a personal connection to the larger issue.
And I agree, this has gone far afield, but it rather has to, if I am to demonstrate the larger context in which we must view that cartoon and the discussion surrounding Williams and that match.
[A] Well maybe, but I think we’ve now strayed so far off course that I’m going to have to close this particular debate. We’ll have to shake hands and agree to differ.
[B] Context is key. I think you meant to discuss the issue of caricature in abstracts and absolutes, but in using the specific example of the racist Williams cartoon, you relied on an example that undermines the larger argument.
[A] But B, that cartoon raised the abstracts and absolutes. Without it we would not even be discussing this matter.
[B] Ah! This, then, is where we differ. That cartoon is anything but abstract or absolute, and the choice to discuss it in those terms was yours. All I’m suggesting is that you should probably find a less fraught example. Or, by all means, stick to your guns, but I will remain adamantly opposed to any discussion of that cartoon’s sort of racism that would excuse, even accidentally, how offensive it is.
[A] But if it had not appeared we would not have had this opportunity to discuss an important issue. A “less fraught example” was not currently available, and, being “less fraught,” might not have helped us identify and pursue the telling arguments either way.
I do see the points you are trying to make. I am simply trying to push past them to more fundamental considerations.
[B] I understand your perspective. I would suggest that we are both pushing in the direction of something more fundamental, but my fundamentals are informed more readily by America’s disastrous history – and present – of racism and the fact that, as a white male, I have a responsibility to account for that, so I view the racial issues here as the foundation I want to get to and chip away at. Lengthy and ranging as this discussion has been, I value it and thank you for keeping it going.
[A] You’re welcome. I’m glad that people like us can have this kind of deep disagreement without flame wars!
In reply, however to your point about being informed “more readily” –presumably by your living in America and being closer to the issue – I would urge you not to belittle someone who is able to stand back to get her view.