The Dutch broadsheet Handelsblad ran a review of three recent books on the state of race relations in America. Here are the graphics and the headline accompanying the review. You will notice the headline needs no translation:
The Washington Post was not amused:
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.
To summarize the backlash so far: the author of the review says he had nothing to do with the illustrations or headline choice, which is plausible. The editor who did make these choices has pointed out that the content of the review was sympathetic to the plight of black Americans. The quotation used as the headline comes from one of the books. The illustrations were not meant to be offensive: in fact they show black Americans cowering before well-armed white figures (90% of American black homicide victims were killed by blacks, and the white-on-black homicide rate is extremely small). He admits that there are no black editors in the book review section of the paper (although there are in other sections), and that he didn't get any input from any black people on the graphic.
I read enough Dutch to know that the review is, of course, sympathetic and praises the books. But you'd hardly need to read Dutch to know that. It's Charlie Hebdo redux, fortunately without the mass murder. Europeans create a caricature graphic design incorporating centuries-old tropes about how to portray black people. They are either unaware that these tropes are considered offensive in the Anglosphere, or they think the Anglosphere are a bunch of PC hypocrites who should lighten up already. The Europeans point out, correctly, that the content of the caricature or text is anti-racist. The Anglosphere, usually unable to evaluate this claim, insists that's not the point; these stereotyped depictions are inherently evil and must never be used.
A few more points about this amusing kerfluffle:
- You may be wondering why a Dutch newspaper should be so concerned about the state of race relations in America. After all, that country is across a vast ocean. America's race relations have negligible effect on Dutch society, and Dutch people can do nothing to affect them. Yet you will find wall-to-wall coverage of American race relations in the Western European news media. To understand this, you should understand that...
- ...a bourgeois urbanite's opinions on race relations in America are a shibboleth, just as opinions on immigration are. The idea that America is an irredeemably racist society in which helpless blacks are excluded, oppressed, and harassed at every turn is part of the standard European urban-liberal catechism. This attitude has complex roots. Partly anti-Americanism, of course. Partly a response to mindless American crowing about being the Land of Opportunity. Partly a matter of compensation: 'Sure I supported austerity for Greece, but that doesn't prove I'm a reactionary -- look at my righteous outrage about America's blacks!' Soviet bloc countries denounced American racism as a defensive counterpoint to critiques of their own human-rights failings, as does China today. Europeans who denounce US racism may also harbor genuine concern for the plight of black Americans, but I've found most of them have never taken any concrete action. In any case, one of the reasons modern European left-liberal issues loud denunciations of American race relations for the same reason frogs issue mating calls: signaling.
- This is what makes being called out by actual black people for using offensive caricatures and language so disturbing to people like Handelsblad editors. They consider themselves to be on the right-on progressive side of the issue of race in America (as to the issue of race in the Netherlands, it's complicated. Other People's Indians, you see). It strikes at a fundamental component of their identity. It's like accusing a devout Catholic of having recited an incorrect version of the Our Father her entire life.
In any case, I predict that Anglosphere norms about how to depict people of other races will soon spread throughout Europe. The pressure of international outrage in the era of Twitter is likely to prove irresistible. Whether that's a good thing or a bad thing I leave for you to hash out in comments, if you care to.