Rendering of Serena Williams plays to the delinquency of our thinking

What can be taken from a week of conversation about the judgment and rendering of Serena Williams? For one thing, it is exhausting for white Australians to talk about racism. Invoking the word is enough to roll eyes. Racism is an abstraction in modern Australia, an accusation to be denied. It is a failure of imagination that manifests as personal anger at political correctness, and obscures history.

Because we have no bodily experience of racism, it exists to us as a theory. And so long as we do not harbour secret thoughts against darker people, we feel free to resist the theory, and rely upon our good intentions to judge what is and what is not the result of a matrix born before us.

Tension: Serena Williams after losing the US Open final.

Tension: Serena Williams after losing the US Open final.

That we struggle to separate a conversation about the history of racism from the breakdown of a losing tennis player is proof of the delinquency of ideas in Australian discourse. It might have been possible to sympathise with Mark Knight’s depiction of Williams as a bad loser if, at some point, his publication only tried to acknowledge history. Perhaps the intention of his cartoon was not to deny history, but the intention of defending it was.

Nobody should be free to deny the testimony of the past and expect to also be free from ridicule. It would be a denial of history to say that it was incredible for a publication to defend that cartoon, so instead I should say that it was embarrassing. It was embarrassing to realise that we are still being represented in this fashion; embarrassing that we should be perceived in this light by other countries – even one with Donald Trump as its president – and it is embarrassing that a disregard for centuries of slavery should be feed to us as a defence of free speech.

I am not immune to feeling as a white man fatigued of the white appropriation of some ideas, of being “woke”, and of feeling pressured to filter my thoughts against missteps. “Woke” is a term that took flight during the Black Lives Matter movement, but it has been employed by some white student bodies to deny a platform to conservative ideas, or ideas perceived to inhibit equality in general.

Because these movements have coincided with the rise of social media, where everyone has a voice, some words have become landmines. Incorrect first thoughts are presented as evidence of a poisoned soul, a problem people were born into that needs correcting; itself a type of modern inversion of theoretical prejudice that can be frustrating to navigate.

But “woke” in its original political context was used to inspire awareness of systematic racial indifferences, and of racial history. The word indirectly implies that if you are not awake to these ideas you are asleep inside a dream – a white dream depicted and critiqued by, among other African American writers, Ta Nehesi Coates. Some claim Coates overreaches, even fetishises whiteness, but in some places he is irresistible and Australia in one of them.

“Forget about intentions,” Coates writes. “What any institution or its agents intend for you is secondary to the body. Our world is physical. The point of this language, of intention, is broad exoneration … Good intention is a hall pass through history, a sleeping pill that ensures the dream.”

Political correctness is separate from such ideas. And it is not without things to mock. There is, for instance, a measure of condescension at work in some online dialogue and in the suggestion that somebody knows what you really think because they have broken the code of your language. But nobody had to break the code of that cartoon. We wrote the code, about 150 years ago, when black people were caricatured in the same fashion to demean and separate them from civilisation.

The embarrassment is that a committee of people, with their collective experience and with time to review its American perception, chose not to acknowledge that the code exists, but rather to weaponise the image against political correctness. The smallness of that decision is really something to behold.

Obviously it’s OK to say what you think about Serena Williams’ behaviour. As Greg Baum wrote, she has form, and she is one of the most pampered athletes in the world. She is not hard done by on the world tour, or misrepresented generally. In fact, if she is misrepresented, it is usually by a kind light. It was even opportunistic for some to suggest that racism, even sexism, had certainly affected an umpires’ decision to enforce the rules of tennis. There is not enough evidence to support that conclusion.

However, there is a sickening, undeniable body of evidence linking caricatures of Africans with, if not deliberate mockery and alienation, then an accidental kind that elicits the same reaction.

Most people, it seems, feel free to contribute to debates arising from sport in a way they are not free contributing directly to political debates. I think it has to do with the sense of justice one tunes into in order to interpret a game. The justice of a game seems independent, free of history, and so free of the responsibility of knowledge.

But, even in the US, where the African American sports stars temporarily transcend history, they continue to protest the real world, the one they were born into and will someday return – the one where their power is rescinded, and where their brothers and sisters still live in fear of the police.

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