On July 31, the Dutch newspaper NRC Handelsblad published a review of several books on race and racism in the United States. The series, written by the paper’s Washington correspondent Guus Valk, leads with a review of Atlantic writer Ta-Nehisi Coates’s latest book, “Between the World And Me.” Somewhere along the editorial process, the editors thought it would be a good idea to headline the article, “Nigger, Are You Crazy?”
If the headline weren’t appalling enough, the article compounded the offensiveness factor with its accompanying blackface figures:
How a group of Dutch editors decided to publish an attempt to examine race and racism in the United States, using the English n-word and blackface in a major newspaper is beyond comprehension at the least, and rage-inducing at worst. Indeed, the Twitter reactions were swift and angry. Michel Krielaars, editor of the Book supplement for NRC, said that the paper had taken down the illustrations online, in order not to “offend non-Dutch speakers who only read Twitter.” The illustration still appears on their online reader, however.
In response to questions about the editorial decisions made with the piece, Krielaars said in e-mails that the headline was a quote from Paul Beatty’s satirical book “Sellout,” which was reviewed.
The article by our Washington correspondent Guus Valk in the weekly Book Supplement of NRC Handelsblad was a review of three books about race relations in the United States: Ta-Nehisi Coates’ Between the World and Me, Paul Beatty’s The Sellout, and Mat Johnson’s Loving Day. It dealt with the persistence of racism and the continuing inequality in the US. The tone of the article is pessimistic, and the illustrations, as well as the headline, were meant to reflect that. There is no racist remark to be read in the review, because that is not our cup of tea.
The headline is a [fictional] quote made by Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas [in The Sellout]. Mr. Valk describes this sequence in his review because it says a lot about the race discussion in the US.
The drawings are a literal illustrations of ‘stereotype’ and ‘white’ aggression, the above mentioned books are dealing with. They are ugly, unkind, and offensive – and they are meant to be, because they cover the content of the reviewed books. Of course, they were not intended to offend. Actually, it is rather stupid to think so.
When choosing the headline, we aimed at the intended audience of the piece: Dutch readers of the book section (black, white, but: Dutch readers). Because ‘N—’ is an English word, the offensive value in Dutch is not as direct as it is in English, comparable with the effect of less racially sensitive swear words. We realized the word is offensive, but in the headline it was meant to focus on the pessimistic message of Paul Beatty’s book when he gave the line to his fictional Clarence Thomas. Considering the fuss in your country it would have been better if we had put the headline between quotation marks.
No, we didn’t assume it would offend Dutch readers (black or white), otherwise we wouldn’t have chosen it. Also we didn’t think about possible reactions by non-Dutch readers, because the article is in Dutch and it does not aim at non-Dutch readers. The fact that, through the web, this article travels across the world we consider a good thing. But we don’t think it’s fair if the title travels by itself, without the context of the language in which the article was written. Having said that, we may have underestimated the possible impact on the image of a newspaper spread with these illustrations and this headline. We do regret this.
On whether the editors intended for the illustrations to be stereotypical blackface, Krielaars added:
Yes, it was a conscious decision to depict the situation with the use of stereotypical blackface portraits. Like I said: the illustrations are offensive, because the racial situation in the US, as described in the reviewed books, is offensive. Note that ‘whiteness’ in these illustrations is depicted as someone with a gun. I wouldn’t call it irony: it’s cynicism. And it was meant to be cynical.
(Valk, the writer of the original review, said he had no input on the headline, illustrations, or layout, and said he was “sorry to learn that people had been offended.” The paper’s editor in chief did not respond to requests for comment.)
Krielaars’s argument doesn’t pass the laugh test. How does one consciously intend to use racially offensive imagery and language, but yet say it’s “stupid” to think that they were intended to offend? The editors knew full well the emotionally violent, dehumanizing power of the n-word for blacks in America and were perfectly fine with offending them needlessly, even though the article was about racism faced by American blacks. To note that ‘whiteness’ is represented by a figure with a gun strikes a false balance — there is no globally dehumanizing caricature of whiteness on the same level as blackface. The only regret was on the impact of the image around the world, not the offense itself.
Perhaps NRC’s editors would benefit from knowing that there are black Dutch speakers, who live in Holland, who took offense. Amsterdam-based writer and activist Simone Zeefuik, who is of Surinamese descent, had this to say in response on her blog: “Aside from the racist title, the piece…is adorned with this illustration (pic) by Aron Vellekoop León who captured Blackness as Dutch mainstream whiteness likes to see it: colonial, submissive, sad and with a dash of blackface.”
While this whole episode is mind-boggling to many outside of the Netherlands, it’s important to keep the country’s history and demographics in perspective. The Netherlands, a former slave-trading power, is a small country of 16 million, with an 80 percent white population. Immigration, whether from Turkey and Morocco or from former Dutch colonies in the Caribbean, is a relatively recent phenomenon. The country has its fair share of offensive struggles over race and discrimination. After all, this is the country where a good portion of the population is actively fighting to keep the right to dress up as blackface character Zwarte Piet (Black Pete) every year for the holidays, despite increasing pressure from anti-racism activists and even the United Nations.
A 2013 report by Amnesty International Netherlands and the Open Society Justice Initiative found that visible ethnic minorities were more likely than white Dutch to be stopped and searched by Dutch police. The publication of NRC’s piece came shortly after massive protests in the Hague over the death of Aruban tourist Mitch Henriquez after he was put in a choke-hold by Dutch police officers.
Even the use of the English n-word in headlines is not new in Holland. In 2011 Dutch fashion magazine Jackie came under international fire for an editorial spread saying Rihanna was the “ultimate n–b–” in terms of her fashion sense. Even Rihanna herself responded to the slur, tweeting a fiery tirade against the editor, Eva Hoeke. At first Hoeke claimed that the use of the term was a joke, but after more anger, she issued a statement saying that the “errors” were “without malicious intentions” and that the term came from America. She eventually resigned from the magazine.
Chad Bilyeu, an African American photographer who has been living in Amsterdam for six years, says he wasn’t surprised by the NRC article, and in general, is no longer shocked by blatant racism in mainstream Dutch media because of the lack of diversity among the Dutch professional class.
“I’ve worked in a high skilled position in the Netherlands and the level of integration is pitifully low. You’re working at [places like] NRC and you don’t have black colleagues. There aren’t any Turkish people. There aren’t any Moroccans. You have a very small community that’s usually overlooked by the status quo. There’s no Dutch Ta-Nehisi Coates. There’s no Dutch Neil Degrasse Tyson, There’s no Dutch Cornel West. If they do exist, they are marginalized and their voices are not taken seriously. There’s no editor who’s gonna say, hey, maybe we shouldn’t use n—– in the title.”
(Krielaars admitted there were no black editors in the book section but said that there are in other sections of the paper.)
What the NRC episode reveals is that as the Black Lives Matter movement increases in visibility both in the United States and abroad, American discourse about race, privilege and media representations will inevitably bump up against and illuminate the state of race relations, identity and privilege in other countries. Naturally, in the case of the U.S. and the Netherlands, with different histories of slavery, immigration and definitions of identity, neither country’s experience can be used to fully explain the other.
With all that being said, it’s unfortunate, but perhaps no surprise that the themes of Coates’s book about the desecration of black bodies and whites’ simultaneous denial about racism were lost in translation with the Dutch editors at NRC. On the theme of committing racist acts while “escaping all sanction,” Coates quotes Aleksandr Solzenitsyn; “To do evil, a human being must first of all believe that what he is doing is good, or else that it’s a well-considered act …” By using the fully violent n-word in English, instead of Dutch, the editors felt they were escaping sanction, protecting Dutch readers from the realities of racism and discrimination in their own country while shaking their heads at the plight of blacks in the United States. Perhaps they thought they were doing good, or that using blackface was well thought out. But by reinforcing the dehumanization of blacks, they did all of us, Dutch or non-Dutch, a disservice.
Update: NRC published an English translation of Valk’s article, with a new headline: “No, things aren’t getting better for African-Americans”. They also spoke out on the controversy over the headline and illustrations:
We regret the original choice of headline and illustration, because they do no justice to the balanced point of view laid out in the story. Picking this cynical headline, the headline editor in Amsterdam intended to summarize the pessimism expressed in the three books discussed. The same reasoning led to the choice of illustration. It was certainly not our intention to offend anyone. The story’s author, U.S. correspondent Guus Valk, was not involved in picking the headline and the illustration. — The editor