Only Decent White People

A Dutch comedy about an interracial relationship may shape Dutch views of black people there in very negative ways from which they may not recover for a while.

Rowanda and David, the two main characters, in a still from "Alleen nette mensen."

The most talked about film in the Netherlands right now is the comedy “Alleen Maar Nette Mensen” (translation: “Only Decent People”), which, to be blunt, may shape Dutch views of its black citizens, and Afro-Surinamese in particular, in very negative ways; perceptions from which black Dutch people may not recover for a while. The film is already a smash hit. It is based on a controversial bestseller by Dutch author Robert Vuijsje that in 2009 also caused a heated debate about the portrayal of Surinamese as oversexed and simplistic–in fact, Vuijsje has received death threats because of the film. But now, with real life people acting out the stereotypes, it becomes just more appalling. Much can be said about the film and the portrayal of stereotypes. What has struck me most has been the debate about whether the film is racist or not.  As this film probably won’t be shown outside of the Dutch speaking world, the trailer may be the only way to get an introduction to what the film is about and moreover, why it’s so controversial.

The protagonist David Samuels is a “nice Jewish guy” who is bored with his vanilla life. He hates his girlfriend and his “overbearing” mother. He develops “a thing” for black women. He tells two black friends: “The darker she is, the closer she is to nature.” He falls for Rowanda (“Is that a Dutch name?”, asks his father). She is 23 and has 2 kids. When parents and girlfriend finally meet, David informs his parents: “We eat on the couch.” Black men tease him: “You are going to tell me that Rowanda is your only chick.” Soon David turns into “a gingerbread”: a white man who “hangs around with black people too much” and takes on “all the bad habits” presumably associated with black men. The trailer ends with an angry Rowena screaming at David: “Fuck you with your posh neighborhood. Only decent people!”

If you find the trailer insulting and tasteless, the film is much worse.

Because David has no “swag,” nor any black friends, he phones the only black person he knows from back in high school, hoping he can hook him up with “a black negro woman,” and more precisely a “ghetto queen.” It soon becomes clear what is meant by that descriptor: a black woman who wears hot pants three sizes too small, spends large sums of money on her hair (extensions) and nails and, most prominently, has a big butt. Of course his friend takes him to “the field” where he will collect his “ghetto queen.” Rowanda lives in the Bijlmer, a real-life, largely immigrant and Dutch Surinamese neighborhood in Amsterdam of concrete high-rise buildings developed in the late 1960s. The Bijlmer is situated south-east of the city centre and is sometimes called “Little Paramaribo,” an endearing reference to the capital of Suriname.

Every conceivable cliché and racist prejudice about Surinamese people and the Bijlmer is put into action.

For those not familiar with Dutch colonial history, Suriname is a small country in South America between Guyana and French Guyana to the east and west respectively, and Brazil to the south. Suriname gained its independence in 1975. Surinamese have always migrated to the Netherlands, but there was a large influx, especially to Amsterdam, following a 1980 coup by Desi Bouterse (the current democratically elected president).

Suriname, like other countries in the Caribbean, has a mixed population with no real racial or ethnic majority. It’s divided between Creoles or Afro-Surinamese (black people, descendants of slaves) and South Asians (brought to Suriname as contract workers after the abolishment of slavery). But for many Dutch people, Suriname might as well be an island of just black people.

Because of a number of socio-economic problems, which are not endemic to the Netherlands but were seen in many urban areas with a large concentration of third world migrants, the Bijlmer soon became the Netherlands’ “ghetto.” Although ghetto is a very strong word with devastating consequences in recent European history and despite the neighborhood being subject to gentrification  more recently, it is still seen as a “no-go area” by those living outside it.

Rowanda is depicted as the “average” Bijlmer resident. She doesn’t seem to have a job. Her children are from two different men who in turn cheated on her with dozens of other women. Because of her seemingly “traumatic” experience with men, Rowanda is already a “mad black woman.” Don’t mess with her, or she’ll set you on fire or cut off your penis. Apart from Rowanda’s mother, all her friends — in fact all black women — in the film are portrayed as “ghetto fabulous” women with big booties and appear not to have any problem sleeping with whoever “talks the talk.” None of them seem to have any agency over their own body. The sex seems coercive as the men, in exchange for sex, buy the women clothes, mobile phones or hair extensions.

The men on the other hand only live for sex and with the exception of their own mother are portrayed to have no respect for women as they cheat and lie all the time while glorifying their behavior.

Nearly all black people in the film talk with an accent, all are loud and no one appears to have any intellect.

The film has come in for some fierce criticism, mainly from black critics in the Netherlands, whether a few in the mainstream, on blogs or other social media (on Facebook and Twitter); mostly in Dutch. Here, for example, you can read the criticisms of the artist Quincy Gario who questions why people who have some knowledge of the Bijlmer did not make the film. He also questions why public money (which partly subsidized the film) was used to propel century-old racist images into the world.

The film’s producers and its director responded to critics by saying it is all entertainment; that the film should be read as satire. And what with the portrayal of black women? The film is an ode to them, according to the actor Géza Weis, who plays David. So, in 2012, portraying black women simply as brainless whores seems to constitute homage.

Author Vuijsje’s wife, who is black, approves of the book and film. Supporters of the film cite this as further evidence that the criticism is “over the top.”

The most striking development since the film premiered, is ‘left-wing’ Dutch media going out of their way to defend the film and argue it is not racist. Nausicaa Marbe, a writer and prominent columnist for De Volkskrant, argued that the film is not a freak show. In the same article, however, Marbe argued that the Bijlmer is “a dangerous neighborhood.” The Dutch public broadcaster’s breakfast news called the controversy around the film “a fuss.” And Dutch academics have also weighed in. Sociologist Jan Dirk de Jong argues that critics don’t understand the narrative since, according to him, it is not about ethnicity, but about social and cultural class. De Jong failed to acknowledge that these classes have been historically constructed in the Netherlands along racial lines and that they continue to exist today.

On top of that, it turns out that the only way for actress Imanuelle Grives got to play Rowanda, was by gaining 15 kilograms, or she wouldn’t have looked “authentic” enough.

Defenders of the film also the deny charge that the narrative could in any way be racist, by putting forward an argument about High Literature: the novel won the esteemed Golden Owl literature prize (for Dutch language Literature) in 2009 and the Inktaap Literature Prize, a prize awarded by high school pupils.

The Dutch, obviously, are very sensitive to accusations of racism and discrimination. The country prides itself on being one of the most liberal and multicultural societies in the West. Reality suggests otherwise. The use of the word neger (“negro”) in the Dutch language serves as a perfect example. For instance, in the film, David is said to be craving for a “black negro women.” The word “neger” is commonplace in everyday usage to refer to a black person. In 2006 — following years of complaints — the Dutch version of the chocolate-coated marshmallow called negerzoen (“negro kiss”) was changed to just “Kiss.” Not because it was deemed racist or racially sensitive. No, only because it was regarded as “politically incorrect”. Today, however, in every day use people still refer to the chocolate as “Negerzoen”.

In December 2011, Dutch fashion magazine Jackie took it a step further. The editor decided to give its readers fashion advice: they could dress like a “Nigga Bitch.” The magazine associated the “style” with pop singer Rihanna. When Rihanna, in colourful language, objected on Twitter, the editor was forced to resign. Many black Dutch people believe the editor would have kept her job, if the controversy hadn’t been picked up outside the Netherlands. In fact, as is the case now, critics were labelled as too sensitive and taking the matter too seriously — when the editor was first confronted about the racist slur, she responded that it was just a “bad joke.”

It is not so surprising then that Alleen Maar Nette Mensen could be produced and turn into a hit in a country where it’s regarded as an offense to label something or someone’s remarks racist. It’s also a country where people who are of ‘non-western’ decent are labeled allochtoon (“allochthonous”), and this not only by the white (autochthon) society, but also by law.

And of course the most problematic example of the Dutch’s engagement with black people remains the annual controversy around ‘Zwarte Piet’ (or ‘Black Pete’) which we blogged about before.

It seems to be part of the Dutch discourse to deny any form of critique of “race relations” or cultural politics in the Netherlands, and there seems to be a lack of understanding that cultural expressions and words such as “neger” which are perceived as “normal” and are used in everyday life can still be hurtful to people.

One does not have to be a racist to say or do something racist.

Attempts in Dutch media to discuss how some members of the Afro-Surinamese community feel misrepresented by Alleen Maar Nette Mensen, led to Afro-Surinamese opinions being muted by irrelevant arguments that not only black people are mocked in the film, but also Jews, Moroccans and Dutch people.

It might me true that jokes are indeed made about other communities in the film, but these are merely comments made by the characters. Jewish people are the one other group subjected to stereotypes; but they — David’s parents, his ex-girlfriend and his relatives — are represented, at worst, as quirky. It is stereotypes of black people that are constantly confirmed — not only in the interaction with other black people, but also when juxtaposed to white people. (David’s ex-girlfriend is appalled by the “dirty things” he has been doing in the Bijlmer. Instead of challenging her views, the idea of dirty sex of black bodies is reinforced by sex scenes of gang bangs in a random apartment and the camera lingering over black women’s bodies).

The final straw is the use of a remixed version of the Surinamese anthem as the movie score that makes the reproduction of historical stereotypes of Afro-Surinamese people and people living the Bijlmer complete.

The fact that the film is controversial has made it a huge commercial success, and ironically not just in the Netherlands, but also in Suriname, where in the first week after it premiered, it was completely sold out.

This, no doubt, will serve as more fodder and evidence for the supporters of the film that critics are too sensitive about the narrative. Unlike to what one might expect, a large part of the Afro-Surinamese community doesn’t feel the film misrepresents them. Other members, on the Surinamese forum, have called for a boycott. But one commenter, calling herself Rowanda, has written: “If white people want to believe all Surinamese are like that, then that is their problem.”

Further Reading

An unfinished project

Christian theology was appropriated to play an integral role in the justifying apartheid’s racist ideology. Black theologians resisted through a theology of the oppressed.

Writing while black

The film adaptation of Percival Everett’s novel ‘Erasure’ leaves little room to explore Black middle-class complicity in commodifying the traumas of Black working-class lives.

The Mogadishu analogy

In Gaza and Haiti, the specter of another Mogadishu is being raised to alert on-lookers and policymakers of unfolding tragedies. But we have to be careful when making comparisons.

Kwame Nkrumah today

New documents looking at British and American involvement in overthrowing Kwame Nkrumah give us pause to reflect on his legacy, and its resonances today.