A Dutch newspaper used the N-word in the headline for a review about three recent books on race relations

The Dutch newspaper, “NRC Handelsblad” recently posted a review of three recent books about race relations in the US with a controversial headline that is now getting well-deserved backlash.

The headline of the review read, “Nigger, are you crazy?”

The review, as noted by The Washington Post, was published July 31.

It’s an assessment of books written by several outspoken authors — including noted educator and journalist, Ta-Nehisi Coates, who writes for The Atlantic, and novelist Paul Beatty.

Here’s what the spread looked like:

Nearly as bad, the paper’s editorial team chose to use “blackface” cartoons to illustrate piece.

Guus Valk, the NRC Handelsblad Washington correspondent who wrote the review, says he wasn’t involved with choosing the headline, nor the layout or illustrations. Valk was cited by The Post, saying he’s “sorry to learn that people had been offended.”

The review triggered a dizzying response from many corners of social media, which prompted the newspaper to take the images offline, according to The Post. NRC editor, Michel Krielaars is quoted here, saying the paper did not want to “offend non-Dutch speakers who only read Twitter.”

In an email to The Post, Krielaars explained why NRC Handelsblad framed the review the way it did. Krielaars says:

“The tone of the article is pessimistic, and the illustrations, as well as the headline, were meant to reflect that. There’s is no racist remark to be read in the review, because that is not our cup of tea.”

Krielaars explains that the headline was a fictional quote attributed to Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas, and pulled from one of the books being reviewed, titled “The Sellout.”

You can read Krielaar’s full explanation for the piece that appeared in The Post below:

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 realised 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.

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.

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