Shuffering and Shimiling: Race, Degradation and Apathy in the Netherlands

Only Decent People

Still from the film Alleen Maar Nette Mensen (Only Decent People).

On December 19, 2011, Jackie, a popular Dutch lifestyle magazine ran a piece entitled “NiggaBitch.” It was then translated anonymously and sent to Parlour magazine, who uploaded the English-translated article in its entirety. In reaction, mass international outrage ensued. The article suggested that Dutch parents could opt to dress their daughters in the ghetto fabulous style of the so-called “ultimate niggabitch,” Rihanna, who reigned supreme with her “ghetto ass.”   However, parents were warned that once dressed this in this manner, their little princesses turned niggabitches, would probably get into fights at daycare. [Yes, it’s ok. You have my permission to insert the appropriate WTF? here.]

Many people internationally, particularly in the U.S. wondered exactly how a magazine, especially one run by women, would have the audacity to publish such an offensive piece.

Was the Jackie office political correctness alarm broken that day? Most of us (decent people) were bewildered and straight flabbergasted. Verbal sentiment can’t accurately describe what many people experienced around the world upon reading the use of what writer Ayana Byrd referred to as “the vilest combination of words that you can call a black woman.” Then after Eva Hoeke, Jackie’s then Editor-In-Chief, was forced to resign, she went on to say that the whole situation was blown out of proportion, intended as a joke and also that it was a blessing in disguise.

This incident, which ended in Rhianna not so politely telling the editor how she felt about being called out her name, was appalling to many. It was also a wake up call of sorts or rather an introduction to the world of race and existence of racism in the Netherlands. Ironically, this incident occurred only a few weeks after the world was shocked by the footage of activist/artist Quinsy Gario, being dragged in the street and pepper-sprayed by police for wearing a shirt that said “Zwarte Piet is Racisme.”

Yes, good ole’ Zwarte Piet. Zwarte Piet “Black Pete” who is the ignorant, docile yet jolly servant of Sinterklaas, the Dutch-ified version of St. Nick, who goes around town on a horse accompanied by his “black” slave, I mean helper. The cherry on the top of this wonderful Dutch Christmas tradition, is that annually, during the last couple of months of the year, white people get to play dress up, as Black people. They blacken their faces in good-ole minstrel show fashion, with face paint called “negro.” They accessorize their newfound color with afro-wigs atop their heads, ruby red lipstick and gold hoop earrings.  They then shuck and jive their way out of their homes to spread joy to all of the little good girls and boys who wait anxiously for their arrival and the treats that they bear. This is not some antiquated tradition that went out of style with minstrel shows and apartheid. This racist celebration still exists, today…as in 2012, as people gear up for this year’s Sinterklaas holiday celebrations.

For years, the Netherlands has been painted as a multi-cultural society where “tolerance” rules supreme.  Let the Dutch tell it, there is no racism. Race and racism, according to the Dutch, are pre-occupations and problems of the U.S. and Americans, not Holland. Until recently, I barely knew that there existed a sizeable Black population in the Netherlands, thanks to the recent mass migration of Dutch Caribbean people, let alone a problem with race and racism.

Prior to me attending a screening of Alleen Maar Nette Mensen, which translates as Only Decent People, I had already been introduced to both the blatant and subtle white supremacist arrogance of the Dutch. However, nothing I had experienced via cinema or popular culture in my adult life, not even the worst of ignorant Black movies or 2Chainz videos could have adequately prepared me for the hour and half of pain I had to endure during the press screening of Only Decent People, a film based off of Robert Vuijsje’s best-selling book that actually went into dozens of editions of print prior to being made into a commercial film.

There are so many problematic issues with the production of Only Decent People, that it’s hard to condense them into a few statements. However, for the sake of clarity and contextualization, I will do my best to accurately describe the movie. To start, every single negative characterization of the Black woman as a hyper-sexualized being, loathed by all, even herself, was perpetuated. Scene after scene, all of the Black female characters were, for lack of a better word, beasts. They were all dehumanized creatures with the same exaggerated obese body type (with the exception of one who looked anorexic and was about to have a train run on her). They also performed, behaved and had sex while on their knees, sniffing people, growling and making animalistic noises. In other words, the Black women characters in Only Decent People were a present-day example of Saartjie Baartman redux.

Most Racist Offensive Scene Example#1: After the white Jewish lead character has found Rowana, his ghetto girl with her ghetto ass, he goes to her house the next day, where he is introduced to her brothers, two children and mother and then goes to the next room. They then start having sex wildly and loudly, meanwhile the family continues business as usual despite the amount of yelling that’s happening. I should probably add that before they engage in intercourse, Rowana sniffs him and growls like an animal while she’s crawling around on her knees. Oh, I should also mention that in this scene her breasts are flying everywhere including to the moon and back (because she’s mostly nude on camera) and she is “riding” him so hard that the bed starts to create holes in the floor.

Most Racist Offensive Scene Example #2: Perhaps the most dehumanizing scene of them all, entails the white Jewish character following his Black girlfriend’s cousin to an apartment complex in the Biljmer (which in real life, is an apartment complex named Heesterveld that is the home of a community of young and emerging artists, many of whom are of African and Dutch Caribbean descent).  For the sake of brevity I’ll skip the circumstances that led them there. What happened once they reached the apartment left my mouth agape. The woman, who never speaks, not a single line during the three to four scenes in which she is on screen, leads the two men into the basement of her apartment complex, with her small child still in his stroller. Once inside the storage room, she bends over, the Black man strips down her pants and penetrates her from the back. He then asks the white Jewish character, what he’s waiting for and hands him a condom. In the following scene, the woman is bent over as the Black man enters her from behind and she performs oral sex on the white guy, all while in the presence of her 3-year old son. Did I mention that this film is rated 12+ which means that children age 12 and older are allowed to watch the movie in its entirety in theaters?

To avoid writing a mini-dissertation, I’ll refrain from describing more offenses in detail. I will add however, that many non-Dutch speaking people outside of the Netherlands have responded negatively to the trailer and to the article that was posted on Shadow and Act’s popular film blog. Let me say this, the trailer doesn’t even scratch the surface of how bizarre and absolutely absurd this film is. The trailer actually looks like Sesame Street in comparison to what takes place during Only Decent People.

A few other scenes entail: another Black woman spits on the Jewish guy’s penis before they have sex, (more animalistic behavior); the original Black girlfriend character beats up the Jewish guy once he cheats on her and then attempts to perform a Lorena Bobbit on him. Then there is also the scene where the ghetto booty loving Jewish main character is told by his friends “we don’t know why you are dating a Black girl. Everybody knows that Black girls are at the bottom of the totem pole. The only reason why guys date Black girls is because they can’t find a white girl to date.” So as if we didn’t already know that “de nigger woman is the mule of the earth” as described by Zora Neale Hurston in Their Eyes Were Watching God, Lodewik Crijns lets us know exactly how we as Black women are viewed by mainstream society.

Part of the larger dilemma of white supremacy in the Netherlands is that many of these offenses take place within a very insular environment, which means that the rest of the western and non-western world are clueless as to what’s happening within society here. Print, radio and video media are mostly transmitted in the Dutch language, which makes it inaccessible to many. So half of the time, we aren’t even aware of what’s transpiring while we get high in the coffeeshops that heavily populate the town of tulips, hookers and canals. That’s probably one of the reasons why Zwarte Piet has continued as a tradition, for over the past century, without an international outcry from outer communities and societies to shut that foolishness down.

Many have asked me why Black people aren’t protesting. Here again it’s necessary that I respond from objective of a view as my Black American, African-centered, feminism will allow me.

The short answer without going into the complicated Dutch Caribbean narrative in the Europe is that unlike the U.S., there have been no major resistance movements in the Netherlands. Simply put, it is not a society of rebellion. The one organization that was comparable to the N.A.A.C.P., has been dismantled due to lack of funding. What I keep asking everyone is, “why aren’t any organizations being established?” The response: “there won’t be any funding.” So  it appears as if people in the Netherlands suffer subsidy syndrome – something that we also don’t know about in the U.S. When you are dependent on the hand that oppresses you to also feed you, how do you then turn around and bite it?

It’s hard for me to wrap my brain around this concept because I worked pro-bono for an entire year (if not more) to get a museum up and running off the ground in Post-Katrina New Orleans. The last time I checked also, no true Civil Rights, Black Power, independence, grassroots movement, anywhere was created with funding from the power structure it was trying to dismantle. That’s not how movements start. Movements begin when collectives of individuals with shared interests, decide to act upon a plan of action towards a higher goal for the betterment of all. That’s how any movement in recent and past history was founded, those successful and unsuccessful.  So I ask, where are the resistance movements (plural) in the Netherlands? Where are the feminists of color? The anti-racism activists?  Where are the angry people? Where are the offended? The tired? Where are the fed up? The “sick and tired of being sick and tired?

The point of this critique is not to place blame. Let me take that back – yes it is. While I understand that we as Black Americans are more equipped to deal with racism and also to analyze race and racism with sophisticated tools, to a degree, so are the Dutch Caribbeans here in the Netherlands. While there may not have been any Black Panthers in Amsterdam, it’s not like people here are totally unfamiliar with rebellions in the form of the Surinamese maroon societies, which still exist today.

My refusal to feign a false sense of objectivity for the sake of not coming off as a stereotypical “American” is predicated upon the absolute disappointment I felt about the response (or the lack thereof) to what was a viscous and violent assault on Black women specifically and the Black Dutch community at-large throughout the  entire Allen Maar Nette Mensen project – from script to cinematic release.

I wasn’t only offended by the idea that some Dutch person, Jewish or otherwise, would think that it’s ok to depict Black women in such a despicable manner. Racist people will be racist. That’s a given. I was more shocked by the manner in which the Black Dutch community was seemingly complicit in their own degradation. The actors in the film have proudly upheld their involvement. I was dismayed that I walked out of that movie theater with nothing but the traumatic images of gorgeous, Black women in the most inhumane positions, implanted in my brain and spirit. I had to fight back tears and felt sick to my stomach. Apparently, with the exception of a few people with whom I’m acquainted, I was alone in that feeling. (One Surinamese friend who no longer lives here said that the actors looked like they were having [animal] sex. Needless to say, she was utterly appalled and ashamed by the film but more so by the support it has received from the Black community).

From my conversations, what I’ve gathered is that many Surinamese and Dutch Antilleans loved the film. The Dutch Caribbean community turned out in droves to support the movie, in some cases more than once. There are those who hate it, of course and whose who refused to see it, but there are also so many others who actually think that the film is entertaining. Additionally, they are excited about the fact that for the first time, many of them are able to watch a group of Black Dutch actors in mainstream cinema as opposed to not at all or Black actors from places like the States.

Something else that I recognized that may play a factor in what I deem as apathy towards Only Decent People, is that for many Black Dutch people, of a certain class, there is a level of distance that takes place between themselves and “those people in the Biljmer.” So many of the intellectuals and socio-economically mobile individuals of Dutch Caribbean heritage, feel very detached from those stereotypes because they know that they live a different type of reality and that some of those stereotypes, i.e. the trading sexual favors for money for phone credit or weaves, supposedly occurs on occasion in real life.

That’s the biggest problem with this movie, it was an extremist and one-dimensional exaggeration of age-old stereotypes. Perhaps I would not have felt so compelled to write this review had the author or the director/producers decided to balance their portrayal of Dutch Surinamese/Antilleans in the Netherlands instead of presenting them as a homogenous group of “ghetto” people. Maybe if in addition to the soft porn scenes that took place in dark basements in the hood, there was a juxtaposition of a Cosby-like Dutch Caribbean family (which exists in reality more often than not), than maybe I wouldn’t have been as offended.  Of even if the filmmakers tackled the issue of interracial dating in a manner  similar to Spike Lee’s Jungle Fever or the more recent 2006  film Something New. But they didn’t. Alleen Maar Nette Mensen makes Tyler Perry films look like Do the Right Thing. If our beloved bell hooks had a fit after watching Beasts of the Southern Wild, a film that I actually adored, wait until she gets a load of this.

After watching this visual travesty, if I had not lived in the Biljmer for a brief period last year, if I had never met any of the brilliant, talented, compassionate, respectful, warm and loving Surinamese and Antillean people that I’ve grown to know, admire, respect and love, I would assume that these cultural groups were some of the lowest in society. The women, I would assume are all gold-digging, overweight, riddled with body-piercings and gold teeth. I would deduce that these women have no self-esteem, self-worth and would do anything to turn a trick or get money for their weaves and credit for their pre-paid phones – even if it meant dragging their 3-year old son in the basement of an apartment building and allowing a man to penetrate them from the back while performing oral sex on the other, as their boy child watched.

One of largest arguments in support of this film and book, is that it’s a comedy. It’s meant to be a light-hearted portrayal of life in a southeast Amsterdam. Oh and I forgot to mention that the director was qualified to make this film because his real life girlfriend looks like the lead character. Yes, the Dutch have jokes, but at whose expense?

Grant it, this is purely a critique based on what I viewed and what was explained to me afterwards by friends and colleagues who also saw the film. My review is purely a reading of the visual text, which left very little room for alternative interpretation. Alleen Maar Nette Mensen is not abstract. It is not art based on the fictional. It is an example of scathing biased and stereotypical social critique passing itself off as a fictional comical narrative. Some would like us to believe that this is an example of creative expression. Others could argue that it’s a harmless tongue-in-cheek film that actually critiques all cultural groups in Dutch society.

To those critics, I will point you to Exhibit A, B and C – Birth of A Nation. Released in 1915 (four short years before America’s notorious Red Summer) and widely accepted as the prototype of modern cinematography, Birth of A Nation  (originally called The Klansman), was a silent film whose hate-laden visuals invoked fear in the hearts of white men and women throughout America, and inspired a spree of violence, murder and terrorism against Black communities throughout the U.S. Within two years of the advent of Birth of A Nation, 86 Black people lynched (on record). In 1921, Tulsa, Oklahoma better known as the Black Wall Street, was burned to ashes and an estimated 300 people were killed. Two years later, Rosewood was burned down to ashes and suffered a similar fate, when multiple lynchings of its Black citizens occurred. To my point, popular culture and media are indeed powerful tools and when used irresponsibly, fatalistic.

I will not pretend like we don’t have a plethora of our own issues within the Black community in the States. For instance, I’ll acknowledge the problematic misogyny present in hip-hop culture today. However, one can not nearly compare a music video to 90 minutes of not subliminal, but overt and direct racist and sexist statements being made about Black women and the Black community, most specifically those hailing from the Biljmer, Amsterdam’s southeast neighborhood which has been home to the vast majority of its Dutch Caribbean and west African immigrants for the past few decades.

The week that immediately followed my experience with the film, I became slightly annoyed by what I perceived as apathy and a reactionary rather than a revolutionary response to racism in general in the Netherlands as well. What’s the difference between reactionary and revolutionary? In a revolutionary moment, the scholars, activists, feminists and concerned parties and allies would have organized their disdain for this film and attempted to use their collective voices and power to prevent it from being made in the first place.  Another viable option would have been to strongly discourage people from supporting the film financially, thus using collective economic power to exercise resistance and employing a method that hurts the “oppressor” most – in his pockets.

But alas, there were only a few murmurs. The most vociferous response came in the form of a very detailed and outraged review written by Quinsy Gario.  And before that, Professor Gloria Wekker publicly debated the author of the book (but most of the media covering this is in Dutch). Unless my google searches failed to detect other negative responses to the film, no one else really had anything to say, at least not publicly. Actually, I take that back. Plenty of people had something to say, most of them, however are not Dutch and do not live in the Netherlands.

The aforementioned issues are much bigger than a movie. They’re even bigger than Sinterklaas’ little “niglet” helper. It’s about the lack of value attributed to people of color and a system that is rooted in Eurocentrism,  patriarchy, privilege and white supremacy that is both externally perpetuated and internalized by all parties involved.

I am somewhat still at a loss of words to describe everything that’s wrong about Alleen Maar Nette Mensen. The title itself – Only Decent People – is troubling. I also can’t articulate at this moment, what kind of outcome I expected. What I do know, however is this: until Black people in the Netherlands begin to articulate their frustrations about race, in public spaces, films like Alleen Maar Nette Mensen will continue to be made, racial jokes will continue to be shared, magazines will continue to call Black women niggabitches and Zwarte Piet will continue to be celebrated every Christmas season.

In the words of Zora Neale Hurston, “If you are silent about your pain, they’ll kill you and say you enjoyed it.” Afro-Dutch sisters and brothers do me a favor please. Better yet, do yourselves a favor – WAKE UP.

Saartjie Baartman on display.

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I applied for an absentee ballot.

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I registered to vote. Actually I’ve been registered to vote. I did, however requested an absentee ballot. It was only last week that I found out from  one of my besties since childhood, Jewel Bush, whose family is originally from St. Landry Parish Louisiana, that in September 1868 alone, hundreds of African Americans were murdered in Opelousas, Louisiana,  for attempting to vote. Throughout the 19th and 20th centuries, thousands of African Americas were savagely publicly murdered, many by lynchings, for not only exercising democracy but also for independently living on their own terms, and asserting self-determination. So yeah, regardless of how problematic the current political system is in the U.S., I’m going to vote.

1868 lynchings in Opelousas, Louisiana

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Postcard of the savage murders of Issac McGhie, Elmer Jackson and Nate Green in Duluth, Minnesota on June 15, 1920.

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