The unbelievable way a Dutch newspaper covered Ta-Nehisi Coates’s book about race

The Dutch celebrate Christmas with images of Zwarte Piet—a highly criticized form of blackface.
The Dutch celebrate Christmas with images of Zwarte Piet—a highly criticized form of blackface.
Image: Reuters/Francois Lenoir
We may earn a commission from links on this page.

On July 31, Dutch newspaper NRC Handelsbad published a book-review package on race and racism in America, written by Washington correspondent Guus Valk, leading with an examination of Ta-Nehisi Coates’s Between the World and Me. Mystifyingly, the paper’s editors thought it might be appropriate, perhaps clever or ironic, to incorporate the n-word into the headline:

The accompanying art is salt in the wound—a clownish characterization of blackness, uncomfortably reminiscent of Zwarte Piet, a notoriously racist Dutch holiday figure.

Critical response was worldwide and furious. NRC has since removed the offending artwork from its website, with book-reviews editor Michel Krielaars offering a petulant explanation for the retraction: to avoid “offending non-Dutch speakers who only read Twitter.” A version of the illustration still appears on NRC’s online reader-app, however.

(Guus Valk, for what it’s worth, has taken to his Twitter account to deny any foreknowledge of the headline or layout.)

In an email with The Washington Post’s Karen Attiah—formerly an AP correspondent in Curaçao, a constituent country of the Netherlands—Krielaars doubled down on justification:

“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 … Of course, they were not intended to offend. Actually, it is rather stupid to think so.”

Rather stupid to think so. Is there anything more delightful than oblivious bigotry coupled with condescension? This explanation, which you can read in full at the Post, is part of a broader rhetorical tradition unfortunately prevalent among progressive Europeans (NRC Handelsbad is a liberal publication, by most accounts). It breaks down along familiar lines:

  1. If you don’t speak Dutch (or German, or French, or Italian), you are unable to grasp the subtleties and/or nuances of the argument, and are therefore precluded from comment.
  2. European traditions of criticism are more ironic, less obvious than their American counterparts. Any offense taken is born out of an inability to comprehend European discursiveness.
  3. Americans should take a good look at themselves before criticizing prejudice abroad.

This disregards the reality of the situation in a number of ways. First, languages are translatable. And yes, occasionally crucial meaning can sometimes get lost in the process, but in this instance, the headline was written in English; and offensive imagery need no translation. Second, it denies the fact that, actually, there are many intelligent, well-traveled Americans (such as Karen Attiah), who (gasp) speak Dutch, and maintain a decent understanding of European rhetorical traditions. It is entirely possible to both acknowledge something’s existence, understand how it works, and still disagree with it. Third, existence of greater degrees of racial discrimination anywhere in the world does not justify the existence of comparably more subtle racism in a given locale. Actually, it’s rather stupid to think so.

Because racism in the Netherlands (as evidenced by the annual offense cycle generated by Zwarte Piet) is hardly subtle. Particularly in its media. “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,” Attiah reports. On Aug. 14, she tweeted another revolting example:

Perhaps it is Michel Krielaars who fails to understand the subtleties of his own editorial decisions. Blackface, the n-word—these are innately dehumanizing devices, for which there is no equivalent to be assigned to white people. Employing them to represent a present tension in the United States, regardless of their intent, is an unwitting perpetuation of their original purpose: to divorce a person of color from his or her humanity, to objectify so that it becomes easier, more justifiable to demand compliance in a system consciously engineered against his or her interests.

And denying the significance of word-choice—because “‘n—’ is an English word,” and “the offensive value in Dutch is not as direct as it is in English”—is, at its base, nothing more than cowardice.

“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,” Attiah wrote in her report for the Post. “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.”