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Aesthetics of Racism in the Editorial Cartoon


The cartoon is a type of visual shorthand that says a lot about how we view ourselves and others. From one-off newspaper images to serialised comics, cartoons supply a pictorial genealogy of racist tropes that began in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries and persist to the present day.

Cartoons create meaning through the manipulation of signs that build upon a wide range of satirical gags, visual puns, stylistic conventions, intertextual references and narrative tropes. The cartoon is a multimodal form of communication, though the joke usually tweaks a shared sensibility among an intended readership. In this sense, cartoons often play upon common stereotypes and discourses of inclusion and exclusion regarding class, race, religion, sexuality and gender.

Australian editorial cartooning—particularly in the Murdoch press—reveals an inability to confront race, keeping in mind that race is a social construct widely encompassing notions of ethnicity, culture, religion, language and dress. This is certainly true in its depiction of First Nations people and Muslim Australians. Indeed, it is precisely because racism is mundane, revealing the location of power and the way in which it operates in an everyday sense, that it is so easily reproduced.

If more cartoonists brought a critical, historical sensibility to the issue of representation, the profession might stand a chance of progressing. In many ways, First Nations’ resistance and campaigns against racist imagery have paved the way for Australian Muslims and other marginalised communities to combat racism today.


No discussion of racist cartooning can overlook depictions of First Nations people, when the dispossession and attempted genocide of Aboriginal communities was so critical to White Australia’s cultural, political and economic formation. As historian Jonathan King shows in The Other Side of the Coin: A Cartoon History of Australia, early illustrators and cartoonists observed the depredations wrought on Aboriginal society by European settlers.1

As the nineteenth century progressed, pejorative tropes towards Aboriginal people would come to echo moralistic, pseudo-scientific and social Darwinist theories of their inferiority. Such theories motivated the Aboriginal Protection Act (1869), which legislated the removal of children from their families and imposed other paternalistic government controls. Racist jokes, which filled the pages of Melbourne’s Punch Magazine and Sydney’s The Bulletin, featured such tropes as the backward lazy native, the Gollywog, as derived from the American black minstrel and piccaninny caricatures, and the lubra and gin, which show Aboriginal women as culturally alien and often highly sexualised.2

Such tropes are instantly recognisable by their visual signifiers – the stooped gait or hunched squat convey languor and indolence. Moreover, the thick, drooping brow over deep set eyes, flat nose and jutting lower lip were associated by nineteenth century phrenologists and social Darwinists with the features of a Stone Age society. Absorbed into the cartooning lexicon, these aesthetic signs connoted racial backwardness and cultural incompatibility to a wide audience, through the reach of print capitalism. First Nations people were rarely depicted with the complexity of their lived reality, and were often sat down in the bush around a campfire, among the flies, to underline that Aboriginal culture formed the ossified remnants of a distant, savage past.

The first formal complaint against a cartoonist in Australia was made in 1980 by the Redfern Aboriginal Legal Service, in objection to Eric Jolliffe’s serialised comic Witchetty’s Tribe. The complaint cited an image published in the newspaper Corroboree, in which an Aboriginal woman is depicted with a bra strapped to her buttocks. Two other Aboriginal woman converse: ‘She got it from the missionary’s wife—it’s for figure control.’ A letter sent by the Anti-Discrimination Board argued that the cartoon ‘perpetuates racist stereotypes that Aborigines are of inferior intellectual ability.’3

The cartoon is notable for Jolliffe’s sexualisation of Aboriginal women, who adopt the poses and shapes of 1950s pin-up girls. Yet, as his admirers claimed, this fit within the idealisation — or essentialisation — of life in outback Australia. As his colleague at Smith’s Weekly, writer and journalist George Blaikie, put it: ‘Jolliffe took the comic concept of the Aboriginal back to the native state. Off with the ragged clothes and away with the flies. Black girls became as beautiful as White models.’4

The cartoon thus commits a double movement. At the outset, it relegates Aboriginal society to a distant past on the linear gradient of civilisational progress, which is to confine that society to a lesser state of human development. Simultaneously, a new standard of beauty is imposed in which Aboriginal women are brought into conformity with fickle, White social norms. The White-settler gaze eroticises and objectifies Aboriginal woman, at the same time universalising Eurocentric notions of beauty.

Through the tireless work of the Aboriginal civil rights movement, the foundation was laid for legislation to address the problem of racial vilification over many decades. Section 18C of the Racial Discrimination Act (1995) asserts the right of people not to be racially abused, insulted or vilified. Such abuse is treated not as a criminal offence but a civil wrong, to be acknowledged by the guilty party. The legislation is tempered by Section 18D, which offers broad ranging exemptions if offence was caused ‘in the performance ... of an artistic work.’^5

This latter section has allowed cartoonists to escape scrutiny, so long as they can argue their work was produced in good faith. Crucially, the Racial Discrimination Act has no provision to ban or censor offensive material and nor should it, since doing so would miss the broader issue of why Australian cartoonists produce so much offensive material in the first place. Anti-racist work must examine the underlying issues that give rise to cartooning as a problem space in which xenophobia and racism are regularly expressed, rather than stamp down reactively against every offence.


After a Royal Commission into the terrible treatment of Aboriginal children in the Northern Territory juvenile justice system in 2016, Bill Leak published a cartoon that put the blame squarely on Aboriginal parents, depicting a drunk father who, in the presence of a police officer, doesn’t remember the name of his son.

Leak puts a contemporary spin on the old stereotype of the lazy, indolent, perpetually drunk Aboriginal man whose family is rife with crime and dysfunction. The father appears unkempt and stupid, sporting scruffy hair, an unshaven jaw, and a large, slack, overhanging bottom lip. A thick black marker renders the characters in deep shadow, obscuring their eyes, making them seem more culturally distant and less deserving of empathy.

Leak was found to have breached the Racial Discrimination Act and his cartoon image was brought before the Human Rights Commission, before being dropped by the complainant. Leak, The Australian newspaper and his supporters questioned the existence of 18C, arguing that his freedom of speech was at stake, even though the only outcome was some public criticism.

A common complaint among cartoonists today is that you can’t satirise any people of colour without being accused of racism. As Leak put it:

If I had set that cartoon in a suburban lounge room somewhere in Sydney and all three characters had been White, would I now be accused of racial stereotyping...? Obviously not.^6

Of course, Leak is wrong. Cartoons manipulate and build upon a long- running repertoire of historical tropes whose connotations have never been the same for Aboriginal and non Aboriginal communities, because the playing field has never been level. The stereotype of a drunk Aboriginal father would never compare to that of an inebriated White man because the historical representations of European communities have not been tarred with the derogatory signifiers of drunkenness and indolence that Aboriginal communities have.

To claim cartoonists merely exaggerate in the pursuit of satire— and that such distortions have no deep historical or political resonance —is a lazy and inadequate defense against charges of racial caricature.


Since the commencement of the War on Terror in 2001, Australian Muslims have been subjected to countless racial slurs. Yet, crucially, Australia’s anti-discrimination laws do not apply to Muslims if they are attacked on the basis of their religion. Unlike Australia’s Jewish community, who are considered an ethno-religious group for which any discrimination based on religious dress or appearance counts as racial discrimination, Muslims have no avenues for complaint if their religious beliefs, identity, culture or appearance are targeted.

In early 2017, Bill Leak drew an image that musters both anti-Asian and Islamophobic prejudice. Three schoolgirls make predictions of the future, each citing their daddy’s concerns. The White Australian mentions climate change, the Asian student relays her father’s anxieties about the property market, and the brown-skinned, Burqa-clad Muslim foreshadows a terrorist attack in which her family are somehow complicit.^7

Leak taps into Australia’s anti-immigration movement’s paranoia towards Asian and Muslim communities. The image employs the tired stereotype of the Asian migrant as an economic threat, with its origins in hostility towards Chinese prospectors during the gold rush era in Australian history. It should be noted that Chinese workers on the goldfields participated in significant protests for workers’ rights that cut across racial lines and Chinese migrants were deeply involved in subsequent working class struggles. The perception that they represented an economic threat in terms of cheap Chinese labour— as many historians of both the right and left have assumed—played into the anti-Chinese racism that was so effectively mobilised against them in the nineteenth century, and which continues to be replayed in politically-driven fears of a Chinese takeover.8

The veiled Muslim schoolgirl is both a symbol of religious repression and a terrorist insider, with the burqa triggering amorphous fears surrounding the supposed ability of Muslim women to attach bombs or other weapons to their bodies, using their veils to conceal this threat. By depicting terrorism as a family-based or community-wide phenomenon, the image contradicts sociological evidence showing radicalisation to be an individual process that occurs largely online and beyond the purview of near relatives or community leaders.

Leak’s cartoon echoes the sentiment of government-funded training programs for countering violent extremism given to teachers and youth workers, which proceed on the assumption that Muslim culture is a driver of radicalisation.9 This conforms to the binary worldview of the War on Terror, which connects extremist violence to essentialised notions of Muslim theology and culture. Leak frames the brown-skinned Muslim child as only an Islamophobe can: as a terrorist- in-waiting, to be surveilled and policed in an open-ended ideological war.

The White girl, with her pink skin, blonde hair and rose tinted cheeks, reflects Leak’s criticism of the left, who would sooner fulminate over climate change than perceive the threat that supposedly exists beneath their noses—from the other two communities.

A common defense of Jolliffe, Leak and a league of Australian political cartoonists is to decry the seriousness of calling someone a racist, and protest that such men are essentially good individuals whose satire contains no underlying malice or hatred. But this completely misses the fact that racism is structural to our social and political hierarchies, creating a shared language and sensibility in which lots of ostensibly good people are co-opted. Racism is not only a profound moral failing related to whether someone is essentially a ‘good’ or ‘bad’ person; a person does not need to be a neo-Nazi or member of the Ku Klux Klan to be racist. On the contrary, racism is a historical legacy of the colonial state, which continues to reap political dividends on the marginalisation of certain communities and which must be understood before it can be dismantled.

In this context, Australian cartooning has reached a very low point, becoming the uncritical mouthpiece of political fear-mongers and right- wing pundits intent on prosecuting a puerile culture war through the Murdoch press and other commercial platforms. This historical moment has exposed many a privileged, White, middle-aged male cartoonist for their ignorance about the racially inflected language in their profession, which is symptomatic of Australia’s historical amnesia on the whole.

Speaking as an Australian Muslim, we can learn from Aboriginal activists and artists who have done so much to advance our visual literacy on the issue of race, when White society couldn’t care less.

Safdar Ahmed is a Sydney-based artist, musician and community arts worker.

1. Jonathan King, The Other Side of the Coin: A cartoon history of Australia, Cassell, Sydney, 1976.
2. Liz Conor, ‘The ‘Lubra’ Type in Australian Imaginings of the Aboriginal Woman from 1836–1973’ in Gender & History, Volume 25, 2013.
3. Eric Jolliffe, The Best of Withcetty’s Tribe, Jollliffe publications, Dee Why, 1980.
4. George Blaikie, cited in ibid.

8. Liam Ward, ‘Radical Chinese labour in Australian history’, Marxist Left Review, no 10, 2015: https://marxistleftreview.org/articles/radical-chinese-labour-in-australian-history (accessed 12 March 2019).
9. Susie Latham, ’Stop treating my Muslim children as though they’re future extremists’, Centre for Ideas, 2018: https://www.centreforideas.com/article/stop-treating-my-muslim-children-though-theyre-future-extremists (accessed 12 March 2019).

Filed under Article Safdar Ahmed