The Dutch newspaper NRC Handelsblad decided, on July 31, to publish a book review of Ta-Nehisi Coates's Between the World and Me, as well as two other books about race in America. A symposium on race in America is a good idea, in theory. But in execution, this review was shockingly racist in and of itself. It contained deeply offensive cartoons and language:
This is how the highbrow Dutch newspaper @NRC designed and headlined its review last week of @tanehisicoates's book. pic.twitter.com/HLFpo70b9X— siddhartha mitter (@siddhmi) August 6, 2015
Your immediate questions might be "why?" followed swiftly by "how?" and maybe "really?" The Washington Post's Karen Attiah had the same questions, and emailed the paper's editors to ask how they possibly thought this was a good idea. Michel Krielaars, the editor of the paper's Book supplement, defended it in a series of emails to Attiah. His basic argument makes very little sense:
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...
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.
So the headline and the cartoon were deliberately chosen to be offensive, but weren't intended to offend anyone. Apparently it would be "stupid" to think so. And if the paper didn't mean to be offensive, then that makes it all okay — all offense should just magically disappear.
And while Krielaars has suggested that criticism of the review is simply overreaction on the part of "non-Dutch speakers who only read Twitter," the piece provoked offense in the Netherlands as well. Dutch writer and organizer Simone Zeefuik, for instance, wrote a lengthy critique of the review on her blog, calling the title "racist" and arguing that the illustrations "captured Blackness as Dutch, mainstream whiteness likes to see it: colonial, submissive, sad and with a dash of blackface."
One might be tempted to write this off as just especially terrible judgment on the part of one newspaper editor. But as Zeefuik pointed out, it actually speaks to a larger Dutch blind spot surrounding race and blackness.
The curious case of Black Pete
What you see above is not a recreation of a 19th-century minstrel show. It is an annual Dutch Christmas tradition, in which Dutch people celebrate the holiday by dressing up as a character named "Black Pete" (Zwarte Piet in Dutch).
My colleague Dylan Matthews did an excellent explainer on the bizarre tradition. But in short, there's a Dutch Christmas legend that holds that Santa is accompanied by a series of elf-like helpers called Black Petes. During Christmas celebrations, Dutch people traditionally dress up in blackface to represent Black Pete, complete with exaggerated red lips and big Afro wigs. The portrayal looks disturbingly like minstrel show depictions of black people in the United States.
The blackface would be a problem on its own. But the troubling racial overtones of Black Pete go far beyond the obvious. Black Petes are often portrayed with Surinamese accents, and illustrations of the legend have depicted Black Pete as a slave. Suriname is a South American country with a large black population that was a Dutch colony until 1975. In other words, white Dutch people aren't just dressing up as exaggerated caricatures of black people, they're also caricaturing the country's history of slavery and colonialism.
But the Zwarte Piet tradition remains beloved in the Netherlands, and Dutch people are very resistant to the idea that it's offensive. As Matthews points out, the opinion polling is really staggering, and the Dutch prime minister has vociferously defended it:
An October 2013 poll found that 91 percent of Dutch people believe "the tradition should not be changed to suit the tastes of a minority" and 81 percent oppose changing the color of Black Pete. Center-right Dutch prime minister Mark Rutte has publicly defended the character, saying, "Black Pete is black and I cannot change that, because his name is Black Pete." He also played the "my black friends say it's okay" card, saying, "My friends from the Dutch Antilles are actually happy they don't have to paint their faces. When I play Zwarte Piet, it takes me days to wash that stuff off my face."
That's shocking, but it is really just a more broadly held version of the argument that Krielaars made about the racial imagery in the NRC review: that if the people participating in this tradition aren't doing it for offensive or racist reasons, that makes it okay. (Just ask their black friends.)
Those issues go beyond imagery. Attiah's piece at the Post makes this point particularly well: she notes, for example, that "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."
So while NRC Handelsblad's review may have been designed to discuss racism in America, it really ended up highlighting the same in the Netherlands.